Li-Young Lee has a more exciting childhood story than most poets you'll encounter. Of course, by "exciting" we mean exciting to tell, but terrifying to live through. He was born in Jakarta (that's in Indonesia) because his family was in political exile from China. Then, when Lee was still an infant, his father was imprisoned on false charges of sedition (there was growing anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia at the time). And when his father was later released, the whole family fled the country, moving from place to place in Southeast Asia. Finally, his family moved to America, settling in rural Pennsylvania, where Lee's father became a prominent Presbyterian minister. Phew. Talk about a whirlwind world tour.
Why are we telling you all this? Well, aside from Lee's background being interesting in itself, we think there are a lot of ways in which his personal history touches on the themes of "This Hour and What Is Dead" – exile, family, love, death, God. Of course, the history behind this 1990 poem is not clear. The piece is more concerned with the blurred lines between memory and imagination, with the specifics of the present and past nowhere to be seen. Still, our sense of the history and relationships that helped create this poem (even if we knew nothing of Lee's biography) are what give the poem its real emotional power.
Part of what makes "This Hour and What Is Dead" so interesting is that it's both very internal and very external. What we mean is that, on the one hand, the poem takes place entirely in our speaker's head. It deals with his imagination and memory and feelings. On the other hand, it deals almost entirely with characters who are not our speaker. Our speaker defines himself in terms of his relationships with his brother, his father, and God, and through how he experiences their love. The question he's left with is, how can he get any peace when the dead still occupy his thoughts?
Now, we imagine that somewhere out there is some soul who has never lost a loved one, who has never been kept up late at night thinking about some loss, or about the strange weight of love, or about God. But we're going to go out on a limb and guess you're not that person. We're going to guess that at some point you've had a breakup, or lost a beloved family member or even a pet gerbil named Shmoopy. And in the midst of all that, you probably had at least a few nights when it was just plain hard to sleep.
And it was strange, because they were gone, and yet they weren't. They were as present as ever in your thoughts, your memories, your imagination. You could summon them up in your mind. It probably made you take another hard look at your notions of God or the universe, or the great big beyond. If you believed in God, maybe there was some point during that grieving when you didn't want anything to do with Him, or anything to do with all the pain and baggage that comes with love. You wished you could forget all about it, at least for a little while, so you could just sleep.
That's the experience this Li-Young Lee poem moves through – that hour when those who have been lost fill our thoughts; when love and God and the whole cycle of birth and travel and death is just overwhelming; when we, respectfully but passionately, try to lay those thoughts to rest. As it turns out, that takes some doing.