Ah, yes. The power of stories in our lives. With last week’s poem being about the power of books, I couldn’t resist pulling this one out to extend that favorite theme a little longer — but with a rather different angle, as you’ll see.
Let’s consider. What happens when stories refuse to be given voice? When the weight of our present life is so oppressive that it mutes our narrative instinct? Or, when the fear of the future (impending or imagined disappointments and sadnesses) fills that space within us where, once, there was just the pleasure of connecting with each other through our stories? Today’s poem addresses some of these ideas.
A few words about the poet before we get to the poem appreciation. Li-Young Lee has an interesting and powerful Chinese heritage. His maternal great-grandfather was the first president of the Republic of China. Lee’s father, once the personal physician to Mao Tse-Tsung, helped found the Gamaliel University in Indonesia. A month after Lee was born, due to the anti-Chinese sentiment, his father was imprisoned and had to live in a leper colony for 19 months. Then, the family was exiled from the country. They managed to escape to Hong Kong and, after a journey of several years through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, they arrived in the US in 1964 as political refugees. Lee’s father then became a Presbyterian minister.
Like many poets, Lee started writing poetry from the time that he started to learn English (for him, this was at age nine, given his family’s exile/refugee history mentioned above.) But he really started to get serious about it when he was at university in Pittsburgh, studying under Gerald Stern. And, while his poetry is greatly shaped by Chinese classical poets like Li Bo and Tu Fu, whom he first heard being recited by his father, Lee is also said to have been influenced by Keats, Rilke, Roethke, Eliot, et al. His poems are often about personal experiences and memories but, always, showing them as part of a larger, universal pattern. His language is usually simple but vivid and often described as lyrical and introspective.
This is a sad poem. It even starts with that very word. Yet, as with all Lee’s poems, it is profound in its simplicity, economical imagery, and universality. And it explores several of his favorite themes: childhood, family (particularly, for Lee, the father-son relationship which, as in this poem, recurs in many of his works), memory, and silence.
The poem is narrated omnisciently by a third person but gives us also the alternating viewpoints of both father and son. While the adult’s viewpoint further alternates between the present and the future, the child’s is firmly in the present. This may well be a way for Lee to remind us of the importance of experiencing the present more fully with our loved ones. It is also realistic as children don’t have the same concept of time as adults do.
In the first few lines, the poem’s narrator paints a picture of a five-year-old son sitting in his father’s lap and asking for a new story. The father, for some reason, is lost and unable to recall or create any new stories. He is conscious that there are many stories around him but he is unable to present any to the boy. Here, books and stories may well symbolize life lessons that fathers tend to pass on to their sons. And, as is the case with many parents, this father is also anxious about being unable to share and teach everything that his child wants or needs. He is worried about falling short in his son’s eyes and, eventually, disappointing him. The father is also fearing the time when the grown son will, eventually, leave him as all children do — but also, in this case, because of the father’s perceived inadequacies. These concerns are destroying his attentiveness and mindfulness in the present, crowding out any new stories he might share with the patiently-waiting child and changing the shape of their personal relationship.
In the father’s thoughts, he tries desperately to hold on to that son — repeating the old stories that the younger child had loved, hoping that they will hold the same attraction and draw the son back to him. But those old stories do not have that power anymore. And, in this imagined, dreaded future where he has lost his hold on the son, the father’s disappointment and incomprehension turn to frustration and rage. The silent questions that the father of the future flings at the leaving son invoke a higher power. He questions whether the son is better than the father now — God-like — that the father must admire or revere him in silence. Or whether the son has put the father on an unnatural pedestal, burdening him with being God-like — one who cannot fail or disappoint.
Yet, in the last few lines, the narrator gently brings us and the father back to the present. We are reminded that this emotional connection between a father and a son is an earthly one that cannot be entirely explained or understood by means of logic or theology. And that, sometimes, such a deeply-felt love, with all its humanity and inadequacies and despite the insistent demands laid on it, is inexpressible. This particular kind of silence, with everything that it implies and the space that it creates, will allow for a stronger connection and weave its own new, ongoing story.
[By the way, don’t you love that he ended the poem on that word, “silence”? We finish reading the words — whether out loud or in our minds — and fall to a silence ourselves, which makes the contemplation of what we’ve just read that much more personal. And, if you take the first and last words of the poem together, the phrase pretty much sums up the entire mood of the poem as “sad silence.” Again, I believe this was intentional.]
Sad is the man who is asked for a story
and can’t come up with one.
His five-year-old son waits in his lap.
Not the same story, Baba. A new one.
The man rubs his chin, scratches his ear.
In a room full of books in a world
of stories, he can recall
not one, and soon, he thinks, the boy
will give up on his father.
Already the man lives far ahead, he sees
the day this boy will go. Don’t go!
Hear the alligator story! The angel story once more!
You love the spider story. You laugh at the spider.
Let me tell it!
But the boy is packing his shirts,
he is looking for his keys. Are you a god,
the man screams, that I sit mute before you?
Am I a god that I should never disappoint?
But the boy is here. Please, Baba, a story?
It is an emotional rather than logical equation,
an earthly rather than heavenly one,
which posits that a boy’s supplications
and a father’s love add up to silence.
~ Li-Young Lee, from ‘The City In Which I Love You‘