Funny how certain authors can dog you over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps a contemporary author's choices of subject matter repeatedly echo the chronicles of your own life; or else the works of an author long dead reveal themselves to you at strangely opportune periods of your life.
I seem to have achieved some kind of synchronicity with the Chinese-American poet Li-Young Lee. In college, for my Analysis and Performance of Poetry Class, I chose his poem "Eating Alone" from the vast anthology To Read Literature for studious desecration in a dreadful solo performance, completely ignorant that he was a contemporary poet, writing in English. But "Eating Alone" and "From Blossoms", the other piece anthologized, stuck with me over the years, so when I finally came across one of his books, The City In Which I Love You, in my hometown of Rochester NY, I was shocked to see that it was published out of a building in which I was working at the time.
Years later, back in Chicago, I recognized a poem set partly at a precise location in the neighborhood I had moved to. I learned that he lived in the neighborhood. More years later, and I work at the neighborhood branch library not 2 blocks away. Is he dogging my footsteps, or am I dogging his?
Anyway, here's that part of the poem.
Once, while I walked
with my father, a man
reached out, touched his arm, said Kuo Yuan?
The way he stared and spoke my father’s name,
I thought he meant to ask, Are you a dream?
Here was the sadness of ten thousand miles,
of an abandoned house in Nan Jing,
where my father helped a blind man
wash his wife’s newly dead body,
then bury it, while bombs
fell, and trees raised
charred arms and burned.
Here was a man who remembered
the sound of another’s footfalls
so well as to call to him
after twenty years
on a sidewalk in America.
America, where, in Chicago, Little Chinatown,
who should I see
on the corner of Argyle and Broadway
but Li Bai and Du Fu, those two
poets of the wanderer’s heart.
Folding paper boats,
they sent them swirling
down little rivers of gutter water.
Gold-toothed, cigarettes rolled in their sleeves,
they noted my dumb surprise:
What did you expect? Where else should we be?
- Li-Young Lee
from “Furious Versions,” The City In Which I Love You, (Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 1990).