Persimmons

By Li-Young Lee b. 1957 Li-Young Lee
In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner   
for not knowing the difference   
between persimmon and precision.   
How to choose

persimmons. This is precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.   
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
will be fragrant. How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down newspaper.   
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.   
Chew the skin, suck it,
and swallow. Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
so sweet,
all of it, to the heart.

Donna undresses, her stomach is white.   
In the yard, dewy and shivering
with crickets, we lie naked,
face-up, face-down.
I teach her Chinese.
Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I’ve forgotten.   
Naked:   I’ve forgotten.
Ni, wo:   you and me.
I part her legs,
remember to tell her
she is beautiful as the moon.

Other words
that got me into trouble were
fight and fright, wren and yarn.
Fight was what I did when I was frightened,   
Fright was what I felt when I was fighting.   
Wrens are small, plain birds,   
yarn is what one knits with.
Wrens are soft as yarn.
My mother made birds out of yarn.   
I loved to watch her tie the stuff;   
a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.

Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class   
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat
but watched the other faces.

My mother said every persimmon has a sun   
inside, something golden, glowing,   
warm as my face.

Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,   
forgotten and not yet ripe.
I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,   
where each morning a cardinal
sang, The sun, the sun.

Finally understanding   
he was going blind,
my father sat up all one night   
waiting for a song, a ghost.   
I gave him the persimmons,   
swelled, heavy as sadness,   
and sweet as love.

This year, in the muddy lighting
of my parents’ cellar, I rummage, looking   
for something I lost.
My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,   
black cane between his knees,
hand over hand, gripping the handle.
He’s so happy that I’ve come home.
I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.   
All gone, he answers.

Under some blankets, I find a box.
Inside the box I find three scrolls.
I sit beside him and untie
three paintings by my father:
Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.
Two cats preening.
Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.

He raises both hands to touch the cloth,   
asks, Which is this?

This is persimmons, Father.

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,   
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times   
eyes closed. These I painted blind.   
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,   
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.

Li-Young Lee, “Persimmons” from Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. Reprinted with the permission of BOA Editions Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.

Source: Rose (BOA Editions Ltd., 1986)

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Poet Li-Young Lee b. 1957

Subjects Family & Ancestors, School & Learning, Love, Youth, Marriage & Companionship, Home Life, Eating & Drinking, Living, Relationships, Activities, Desire, Heartache & Loss

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Li-Young  Lee

Biography

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 Tse-tsung. In Indonesia, Dr. Lee helped found Gamaliel University. Anti-Chinese sentiment began to foment in Indonesia, however, and Lee’s father was arrested . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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