Such is the case with poet Li-Young Lee, who has been hailed as one of the best American poets working today. Lee's poetry dwells in the semiconscious state between waking and sleeping, and, like dreams, his poems unfold on many levels at once.
"There's that half-awake sense to all of these poems," says Doug Sugano, professor of English at Whitworth College, where Lee will read Friday evening. "You're not sure if they're really memories or if they're dreams, but you know they're part memory, part reality and part somebody singing to you."
Lee has published three books of poetry -- Rose (1986), The City in Which I Love You (1990) and Book of My Nights (2001) -- along with a memoir, The Winged Seed (1995). The memoir and his earlier poetry dealt fairly directly with his own family story. Lee's father was a Christian in pre-Communist China; he served for a time as Mao's medical advisor, but fled to Indonesia soon after the 1949 revolution. Li-Young was born in Jakarta in 1957, but his father soon ran into more trouble due to rising anti-Chinese sentiment there. After many months as a political prisoner, Lee's father escaped with the family to Hong Kong in 1959. The next five years took them to Macau, Japan and Singapore, then finally to the United States. Lee was 7 years old when he arrived in Pittsburgh, where his father became a Presbyterian minister.
Biblical symbolism weaves throughout Lee's work, according to Sugano. "You see tiny biblical allusions all through his poems. There are sowers and seeds, birds picking up seeds, people at a well. But also, you see his whole biography working through, with the family moving from country to country, the political exile. There's a sense of the father being there and not being there, the mother is there and then not there. You wonder, 'Which house are we in now?'"
Lee now lives in Chicago with his wife and children. Unlike many poets, who teach in university writing programs to pay the bills, he prefers to work in a warehouse, leaving his writing for the wee hours of darkness. In his latest collection, Book of My Nights, the title is a reflection of Lee's insomnia. The poems emerge from this half-waking, half-sleeping dreamlike state, with images that merge and morph like the greatest hits of the unconscious mind.
"Everything is deliberate in this collection," Sugano says. "When you're reading one of these poems, you can't separate it from the previous poem. He will pick up a theme or an idea and reuse it, but it will be mutated somehow. He's taking the birds, the trees and the rocks and turning them all into symbols, and it will be slightly different every time you come to it. As you work through the book, it just gets richer and richer as the symbols mutate and the layers build."
In his memoir, Lee's prose flows in an almost stream-of-consciousness way, and yet it's a multi-layered consciousness. Rather than revealing his narrative in a linear way, his tale unfolds in images, as memory unlocks memory. It's like listening to a friend bare his soul while you're both drunk with sleeplessness.
To draw a parallel with visual art, Lee's writing is far more abstract than representational, but Sugano thinks he's clearly in the mainstream nonetheless.
"I think he's operating in a different stream of American poetry, more psychological like Delmore Schwartz or the Beat poets," he says. "They're interested in feeling and consciousness. They want you to let go when you're reading the poem. They think the image you're conjuring up is more important than the [representation]. It's more impressionistic, a tad more mythological. They want you to free-associate."
In an interview with Poets & amp; Writers magazine in 2001, Lee said, "The sentence in a poem might say one thing, but the lines themselves might say something else. So there's kind of a meaning within meaning. That manifold quality, the layeredness -- that's reality."
Lee's work may challenge students and readers to look beyond the obvious and seek out the deeper meanings within.
"He's never going to be a Billy Collins or a Robert Frost," says Sugano. "He's never going to be that accessible. But, as I tell my students, even if you don't get it, just enjoy the music."