cover image The Undressing

The Undressing

Li-Young Lee. Norton, $25.95 (80p) ISBN 978-0-393-33481-4

In his sixth collection, Lee (Behind My Eyes) ponders what separates a poem’s words from the word of God or birdsong or a lover’s familiar voice. Lee’s father, a Presbyterian minister, influences the poet’s work and view of God: “Two fathers in one, I was their son,/ we three alive together/ in one space two at a time.” The lines can mystify as they illuminate, occasionally offering a glimpse into Lee’s childhood as the son of Chinese exiles. In a more personal poem, Lee likens his childhood to an open book: “the left-hand page begins: They hated us without a cause./ And the right-hand page ends:/ The fire had not harmed our bodies,/ nor was a hair of our heads singed.” In the long title poem that opens the collection, the speaker undresses his partner—though the moment is flirtatious and erotic, he doesn’t bother to confirm consent—as she entreats him to listen to her curious, urgent disclosures. The woman warns that “hunger vacant of love is a confusion.” Perhaps she feels a helplessness similar to that Lee feels when he writes of God’s mercurial manipulations: “Sometimes it feels like love./ And makes me tremble./ Sometimes it hurts like death./ And makes me shake.” This is a fine collection, though the title poem may disturb readers. (Feb.)