It is my impression, based more on gut feeling than evidence, that the majority of contemporary poets are more concerned with the way their poems sound read aloud than the way they look on the page. There are plenty of exceptions (Portland's own David Biespiel, for one), but, in the age-old debate over whether poetry is, in essence, a literary art or performative one, the performers seem to have the upper hand.
Chicago poet Li-Young Lee, whose first new collection in seven years, Behind My Eyes (Norton, 106 pages, $24.95), came out in January, falls squarely into the latter camp. His poems, composed of simple, unembellished lines, look like nothing special on the page. He rarely dabbles in form, and never indulges in irregular punctuation.
But to hear him read is a revelation. Lee steps carefully through his lines, weighing each phrase before letting it leave his lips, slowly building momentum but never rushing or droning on and letting himself get bored the way Robert Pinsky does. His baritone voice is soothing, but not soporific. His pronunciation is consciously precise (Lee, born to Chinese parents in Indonesia, learned English in elementary school), but never sharp-edged.
Lee's publisher has realized that his reading has a special something, and Behind My Eyes comes with a CD of the author reading 22 of the poems printed in the book. It's a genius idea, and one other publishers would do well to imitate. Keeping Lee's cadence and tone in mind makes for a much more pleasurable reading experience, in the same way that Yeats is infinitely better once you've heard him read "Lake Isle of Innisfree."
The predominant theme of Behind My Eyes is a sense of isolation—that of the immigrant as well as the more benign sort that can grow within close relationships. Along with a series of poems about coming to America as a refugee, Lee conjures up a child stuck in an apple tree, an empty house, an unmade bed. In "Virtues of the Boring Husband," he writes, "Whenever I talk, my wife falls asleep." But to hear Lee read is anything but isolating. He's right there, and he wants you to understand.
Li-Young Lee reads from
at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, literary-arts.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Feb. 20. $5-$18.