13 July 2008

The Winged Seed, by Li-Young Lee

I did not make it all the way through this book. Which is strange, actually, because I quit pretty late in the game - a good 3/4 of the way through. Furthermore, I can't exactly say that I didn't like it, or that it's not a good book. But nonetheless, I just didn't wanna read it anymore.

The thing is, Li-Young Lee is a lovely poet. He crafts these beautiful images that I absolutely adore. This is marvelous when you're reading a poem that can fit on a page or two, but it's just not enough to sustain a book-length work of prose. Particularly when your images are so opaque. If a poem's meaning is elusive, couched in metaphors that I don't quite understand but think are very pretty, I don't mind. In a prose piece, however, I expect there to be some communication going on. I can only float in figurative la-la land for so long before I start getting a bit impatient.

I think the problem is exacerbated here because Lee is writing his life story. I get the sense that he's actually a rather private person who isn't particularly keen on penning a tell-all life narrative. So he doesn't want to write a straightforward I was born, then this happened, then this, then this kind of story. Rather, he weaves back and forth across time and place - and the man has moved around a LOT - picking up various threads and images as he goes. There's a kind of anguished engagement with the memory of his father running throughout the text as well. Now, this is all fine and good, but ultimately, one has the sense that Lee is writing the book in order to sort all this stuff out for himself, not because he particularly wants to tell the world about it. He talking to himself, not to any reader. And the book is thus highly inaccessible, and therefore, failed to sustain my interest. There are some beautiful moments, but the connecting tissue is too weak. Ultimately, you have the sense that there's raw material for a series of incredible poems in there, but it just doesn't hold up as a book. For me at least.


Veruka2 said...

Man. That breaks my heart. This is one of my most treasured reads. I absolutely love it.

Frances Z. Wang said...

Well, that might because you do not know the deep history behind his family and get no idea what the times that he desribes looks like. I agree that he is not writing to some audience, but that is what your writing teacher taught you at college how to write, isn't it? Do not put a criterion on writings. Everyone can write. For you, I suggest that more readings about this man's background, especially about his grandfather.

culture_vulture said...

Not everyone can write well. Li Young Lee most certainly can, and like I said, I love his poetry. I wrote this review, not to criticize his writing, but to sort out why I didn't enjoy this particular book.
As to your suggestion to learn more about his background so as to understand the text - it basically confirms my point. The book seems to require you to have some prior information about him; it's more poetic than it is informative. While I appreciate that kind of approach in his other works, it's frustrating in a book that is seemingly meant to be an autobiography, ie to provide the very information that you're telling me to seek out.
Again, I'm not saying that this makes it a bad book, or poorly written - I'm only trying to explain why I did not find it especially engaging.