Ed Herman: Welcome to the Chicago Poetry Tour Podcast, produced by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry Magazine. This is tour #14, New Chinatown. This tour looks at Chicago’s new Chinatown neighborhood and features poetry by Li-Young Lee. The Chicago Poetry Tour is a multi-media tour of poetry written in and about Chicago. It features a wide range of poets set in a variety of neighborhoods and landmarks. The tour explores 22 sites around the city, and showcases the dynamic and legendary history of poetry in Chicago, through archival and contemporary recordings of poets and scholars, local musicians and historic photos. You can take the whole tour for free at poetryfoundation.org.
Patti McKenny: In the 1970s, this stretch of Argyle street in the uptown neighborhood of Chicago was developed as New Chinatown. Immigrants from China and South East Asia moved to the area and opened restaurants and other businesses. One, the Hon Kee Grocery, is the setting for a poem by Li-Young Lee, but the ideas of the poem spring from a much deeper source. Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta after his family moved to Indonesia from China, arriving just in time for an anti-Chinese purge. His father was arrested and jailed as a political prisoner. The family fled and moved through several other countries before arriving in Chicago in 1982. Li grew up with an appreciate for Chinese poetry. His parents were educated in the Chinese Classics, which meant they learned —
Li-Young Lee: 300 poems from the Tung Dynasty, 300 from the Shang, 300 from the Ming, and so on and so forth. They had to memorize huge passages of the Tang Zhu and the Mung Zhu, and all the philosophers and stuff. They would recite that stuff all the time. I loved it.
Patti McKenny: Li-Young Lee’s poem “The Cleaving” is a long meditation on food, identity, life and death, and change.
He gossips like my grandmother, this man
with my face, and I could stand
amused all afternoon
in the Hon Kee Grocery,
amid hanging meats he
chops: roast pork cut
from a hog hung
by nose and shoulders,
her entire skin burnt
crisp, flesh I know
to be sweet,
up at ducks
dangling single file,
each pierced by black
hooks through breast, bill,
and steaming from a hole
stitched shut at the ass.
I step to the counter, recite,
and he, without even slightly
varying the rhythm of his current confession or harangue,
scribbles my order on a greasy receipt,
and chops it up quick.
My father was a Daoist, he studied Daoism pretty deeply, and he always talked about the integral path, a path that integrated body and soul and spirit and nature and the universe and everything. He educated me a little about the vision in Chinese poetry, particularly the Tang and the Song Dynasties, where they really felt that the poem was an object of meditation through which you can access something like the universal mind.
Patti McKenny: Again, Li-Young Lee reads from “The Cleaving”.
He lops the head off, chops
the neck of the duck
into six, slits
to breast, and drains
the scalding juices,
then quarters the carcass
with two fast hacks of the cleaver,
old blade that has worn
into the surface of the round
a scoop that cradles precisely the curved steel.
The head, flung from the body, opens
down the middle where the butcher
cleanly halved it between
the eyes, and I
inside the skull, the homunculus,
gray brain grainy
Did this animal, after all, at the moment
its neck broke,
image the way his executioner
shrinks from his own death?
Is this how
I, too, recoil from my day?
See how this shape
hordes itself, see how
little it is.
See its grease on the blade.
Is this how I’ll be found
when judgement is passed, when names
are called, when crimes are tallied?
The ultimate medium in a poem is silence, like the kind of pregnant silence, vast space. But there’s no way to experience that kind of silence unless we inflect it with words. It’s like architecture. The medium in architecture is space, but you’re using the materiality of wood or plaster or whatever to inflect space so we know how to inhabit it.
The noise the body makes
when the body meets
the soul over the soul’s ocean and penumbra
is the old sound of up-and-down, in-and-out,
a lump of muscle chug-chugging blood
into the ear; a lover’s
flesh rocking flesh until flesh comes;
the butcher working
at his block and blade to marry their shapes
by violence and time;
an engine crossing,
re-crossing salt water, hauling
immigrants and the junk
of the poor. These
are the faces I love, the bodies
and scents of bodies
for which I long
in various ways, at various times,
thirteen gathered around the redwood,
happy, talkative, voracious
at day’s end,
eager to eat
four kinds of meat
prepared four different ways,
numerous plates and bowls of rice and vegetables,
each made by distinct affections
and brought to table by many hands.
The assimilation I was experiencing as a Chinese person in America felt violent to me, like it was doing violence to my soul and violence to my being. I felt cleaved from a lot of the things that were natural to me. Growing up in America, I don’t know how I picked up on it. Maybe it was just through T.V. or movies or magazines or something. I understood that I was not only an outsider, but that we were viewed as the ugly people.
Bodies eating bodies, heads eating heads,
we are nothing eating nothing,
and though we feast,
are filled, overfilled,
we go famished.
We gang the doors of death.
That is, our deaths are fed
that we may continue our daily dying,
our bodies going
down, while the plates-soon-empty
are passed around, that true
direction of our true prayers,
while the butcher spells
his message, manifold,
in the mortal air.
He coaxes, cleaves, brings change
before our very eyes, and at every
moment of our being.
As we eat we’re eaten.
My own experience of change coming from one culture to another, that the transformation was so difficult and violent and sometimes soul killing. So the violence of racial assimilation, but then there’s also the violence of the modern world too. I feel like there must be ways that cultures can assimilate each other without violence.
No easy thing, violence.
One of its names? Change. Change
resides in the embrace
of the effaced and the effacer,
in the covenant of the opened and the opener;
the axe accomplishes it on the soul’s axis.
What then may I do
but cleave to what cleaves me.
I kiss the blade and eat my meat.
I thank the wielder and receive,
while terror spirits
my change, sorrow also.
The terror the butcher
scripts in the unhealed
air, the sorrow of his Shang
African face with slit eyes. He is
my sister, this
beautiful Bedouin, this Shulamite,
keeper of sabbaths, diviner
of holy texts, this dark
dancer, this Jew, this Asian, this one
with the Cambodian face, Vietnamese face, this Chinese
I daily face,
this man with my own face.
Ed Herman: This has been the Chicago Poetry Tour Podcast. This was Tour #14, New Chinatown. The narrator was Patti McKenny. The opening music is by the Deep Blue Organ Trio, used with permission of Dellmark Records. The full tour with 22 sites is available for free. You can take the multi-media tour online or download audio files at poetryfoundation.org. I’m Ed Herman. Thanks for listening.