This is a poem inspired by a poetry reading by Li-Young Lee in Chicago.  When I heard  Lee read, I immediately wrote this poem on my train ride back home.  During the reading, the audience was stunned silent.   We listened intently and even stopped fanning ourselves on a desperately hot summer afternoon.

Lee is not active on social media, and that’s okay–he is probably busy writing more poetry!

The poem’s title came from something Lee said toward the end of his reading, that “the night is our first language.”  That stuck with me.

My poem is published here: Willowdown Books, The Poetic Bond VIII.

And here is the poem:

The Night is Our First Language
(after Li-Young Lee’s poetry reading)

Chicago, hot afternoon
packed reading room.
We wait as sweat drips down
faces, onto blouses, shirts–
unpoetic bodily functions.

A slight man, black ponytail,
black boots, turtleneck, blazer,
dark round rim glasses,
shuffles papers at the podium,
asks quietly:  Is the microphone on?
Thank you for coming. I will
read from new poems,
these are not finished.
It takes me so long to write
in English, not my first language.

Can you hear me know?

We sat forward
nodding, yes, yes,
we can hear you, we are listening,

His voice soft but clear
a slow low bell
of three countries
as he read a love poem to his sister,
who at eight
held the family keys and
held the duty
to keep the family together
while Mother
waited at the prison daily,
hoping for a glimpse of Father,
and he remembered sister’s screams
when father was beaten while arrested.

Sister, I will not tell your secrets.

He looked up, startled
that we were there,
as he went on to
talk of his mouth, not
suited for certain sounds,
of a river of escape,
so swollen with dead bodies
their boat could not move.

Finished, quietly, the poet
started away from the podium
as we sat in stunned silence,
a room packed, doubly packed,
while he said in parting,

The night is our first language.

 

From: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/li-young-lee

Li-Young Lee was born in Djakarta, Indonesia in 1957 to Chinese political exiles. Both of Lee’s parents came from powerful Chinese families: Lee’s great grandfather was the first president of the Republic of China, and Lee’s father had been the personal physician to Mao Zedong. In Indonesia, Dr. Lee helped found Gamaliel University. Anti-Chinese sentiment began to foment in Indonesia, however, and Lee’s father was arrested and held as a political prisoner for a year.

 

Thank you for reading.

Laura

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