Persimmons by Li-Young Lee

A few weeks ago, I met some new friends in a coffeehouse in the South Bay. Cheryl and Beth were people whose acquaintance I’d made at a recent conference and we’d made a point to get together for a holiday catch-up. (Beth brought homemade rugelach; Cheryl treated to tea and tiny cupcakes.

Somehow we began talking about persimmons and it reminded me of one of my favorite Li-Young Lee poems.

I happened upon Lee during grad school. His name popped up on a required reading list. When I mentioned his first book “Rose” to other students as one of my 35 books to read for the semester, it elicited the same reaction:

“You’re going to love it.”

Lee’s grappling with the relationship between parent and child and religion and culture in “Rose” really pulled me in. Culture has oft been an area of study and examination during the course of my studies. I am humbled and energized by the overlaps and acute differences of one person from another in differing cultures. The tenets of relationship can be fluid as freshly made caramel or solid like granite.

This smacks of the human story.

Two humans seemingly with so much in common and so much that is dissimilar: I wonder about miscommunication. War. The things we hold onto when the going’s no longer good.

I based my thesis,  “Melting Pot Poetics: an Expansion of American Poetics through a Multicultural Lens” in part on my growing fascination with Lee. You can find it published in Web Del Sol.

The idea of the third culture kid is something I’ve been grappling with since childhood. These would be the kids growing up in a land that is different from the birthplace of their parents. While their parents may speak their native language fluently, sometimes a third culture kid only knows bits and pieces. Perhaps they are fluent too, but their fluency extends beyond their parents’ language. I have often thought these kids are going to be the bridge-builders for peace in our topsy-turvy world. They will be the ones to negotiate harmony and look for commonality when the outward surface would point only to hostility and difference. They have walked the tightrope between “not being fully X” and yet “not being fully whatever culture they are raised in”. They have an amazing knack at fitting into different worlds because they are not fully planted in one.

That need and that urge to blend in wherever they are might be more common than not. In some cultures, it’s easier to do this.  watch patiently, waiting for the moment to act. Perhaps this is a culture where yes is a head bob side-to-side: yes is malleable. But what if it involves harder things: a language the tongue doesn’t roll around easily- the listening becomes longer. Silence more pronounced.

Then there’s what is unsaid in the silences. What must be inferred.

So without overly explaining this poem’s brilliance, I read Lee’s “Persimmons” again, tonight aware of the silence and the voice that echoes off of the walls of said silence.

I listen. I wait patiently for a moment to act.

by 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.

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