Secret Life

By Li-Young Lee b. 1957 Li-Young Lee
Alone with time, he waits for his parents to wake,
a boy growing old at the dining room table,

pressing into the pages of one of his father's big books
the flowers he picked all morning

in his mother's garden, magnolia, hibiscus,
azalea, peony, pear, tulip, iris;

reading in another book their names he knows,
and then the names from their secret lives;

lives alchemical, nautical, genital;
names unpronounceable fascicles of italic script;

secrets botanical
description could never trace:

accessory to empire, party to delusions of an afterlife,
kin to the toothed, mouthed, furred,

horned, brained. Flowers
seem to a boy, who doesn't know better, like the winged,

the walking, the swimming and crawling things abstracted
from time, and stilled by inward gazing.

Copying their pictures, replete with diagrams, he finds
in the words for their parts,

the accounts of their histories,
and their scattered pollen,

something to do with his own fate
and the perfection of all dying things.

And when it's time, he discovers in the kitchen
the note left for him that says

his parents have gone and will return by noon.
And when it's time, the dove

calls from its hiding place
and leaves the morning greener

and the one who hears the dove more alone.

Source: Poetry (December 2007).


This poem originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2007
 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 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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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Coming of Age, Time & Brevity, Nature, Trees & Flowers

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