New Chinatown

June 29, 2010

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


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.


Li-Young Lee:

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,

her shining

face grinning

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”.


Li-Young Lee:

He lops the head off, chops

the neck of the duck

into six, slits

the body

open, groin

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

foot-thick chop-block

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

see, foetal-crouched

inside the skull, the homunculus,

gray brain grainy

to eat.

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

heart-shaped tongue;

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

dynasty face,

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 immigrant,

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 I’m Ed Herman. Thanks for listening.


Li-Young Lee grew up in this immigrant neighborhood, and his poem "The Cleaving" depicts his struggles with identity, violence, and universality.

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