Passionate and profound, Lee's long-awaited third collection charts the mid-life ontological crisis of a speaker who "can't tell what my father said about the sea... from the sea itself," and finds himself unmoored without that strong male voice. Lee's father was a personal physician to Mao Zedong, who took the family to Jakarta (where Lee was born) in the '50s. As Indonesia began persecuting Chinese citizens and his father was imprisoned, Lee's family left the country, spent five years moving from place to place in Asia, and arrived in the U.S. in 1964. (These events are described in The Winged Seed, Lee's American Book Award–winning memoir of 1995.) Lee has ever been concerned with questions of origins, but in the 11 years since the publication of his last collection, memories of childhood answers furnished by father, mother and siblings now fail to assuage the poet's 3 a.m. doubts. Yet he does not trust himself to formulate answers on his own in these 35 nocturnes, and the father seems to be missing or dead. The poet's tightly wrought, extraordinarily careful and finally heart-wrenching responses finally boil down to one ultimate cry: "Where is his father? Who is his mother?" The complex permutations of these fundamental inquiries and their unsatisfactory answers construct a space in which knowledge and redemption, if never quite attained, always seem possible. Lee is never faced with sheer emptiness; his "silence thunders," a vocal presence to which Lee's speaker responds, "declaring a new circumference/ even the stars enlarge by crowding down to hear." (Sept. 15)
Forecast:A favorite on course syllabi, Lee should sell strongly and steadily with this long-awaited new collection.
The Winged Seed, first published by S&S, is available in paperback from Ruminator Books, the Minnesota house (and review) formerly called Hungry Mind.