This Hour and What Is Dead
by Li-Young Lee
Lines 12-22 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
My father keeps a light on by our bed
and readies for our journey.
- New image, new person. We've shifted scenes to one in which our speaker's father is getting ready for a journey.
- We're not sure, given how the brother was introduced, what to make of the presence of the father, too. The brother was introduced as though he was there in the house, then we found out he was dead. Is it the same with the father? Is this a memory?
- Plus, when we see "our bed," we wonder who the "our" refers to, adding to our confusion.
- It could be that the "our" refers to the speaker and his brother, since it's more likely that two brothers would share a bed than a father and son.
- What is this journey they made, or are making? Is this remembered or imagined, or both?
- Whatever the case, our speaker doesn't seem too concerned with the point. The fact that the father is in some way present seems to be what's important, not any other specifics.
- We'll just have to keep reading to see if we can find out more.
He mends ten holes in the knees
of five pairs of boy's pants.
- The speaker's father is mending his sons' pants, an image of family life.
- How did all the knees get worn out? It could just be a lot of playing around in the dirt, as boys are known to do.
- But it could also be that a lot of kneeling did it, which suggests prayer or something of that sort. In any case, it's clear that this father is a caring guy. He mends his sons' pants, and he keeps a light by their bed, probably to make the young boys feel safer.
His love for me is like his sewing:
various colors and too much thread,
the stitching uneven. But the needle pierces
clean through with each stroke of his hand.
- Using a handy-dandy simile, our speaker describes his father's love as being "like his sewing," which isn't exactly perfect. But hey, it gets the job done.
- It seems as though his father's love is a mixed bag, too: it's not perfect, but it sure has a powerful effect, shown by the word "pierces."
- Our speaker clearly is at least a little in awe of this power of his father's love, even if he's also aware of its less-than-ideal qualities.
- And it looks like we're following a pattern here, doesn't it? First we had the brother and his love. Then we have the father and his love. What's next?
At this hour, what is dead is worried
and what is living is fugitive.
- Here's our translation of these lines: I imagine my dead father is worried, and I myself feel like a fugitive.
- The refrain has been changed a little, but we definitely recognize it from earlier in the piece, too. All that's different are the adjectives that describe the dead and the living. It seems like those adjectives are always based on the stanza that precedes them.
- We feel more convinced that the father, too, is dead, when we have this refrain of "what is dead." More family tragedy for our poor speaker.
- And when we learn that our speaker is (or feels) like a fugitive, we have to ask: fugitive from what? His memories? His past? The long arm of the law? (Okay, probably not that last one.)
- "Fugitive" might also have something to do with that journey that the father is preparing for in line 13. Perhaps the memory is from a time when their family was on the run?
- And of course that brings us to Lee's own biography. Before he was born, his family had to flee China for political reasons. And then his family had to flee Indonesia when he was a young child, for other political reasons.
- There was a lot of fleeing in Lee's past, so we might think of these lines as a kind of personal allusion. We can't prove that they're autobiographical, but it does sound possible, doesn't it?
- Although we don't know much about the family history that is being remembered or imagined here, we do get a sense of the deep emotional undercurrent that flows in our speaker. He seems almost haunted by these images of his brother and father.
Someone tell him he should sleep now.
- Our speaker repeats his plea, but this time he asks someone to tell his father, not his brother, to sleep.
- Since this is the same request as for his dead brother, we're now about 99.9% positive that, yes, his father is dead as well. No wonder our speaker can't sleep.
- There's also that strong hint again, that what our speaker wants – though he won't come out and say it – is peace for himself. He asks for peace for his father, but it's also a way of asking for a break from these thoughts of his father.
- His brother and father sure are making a racket in this poor speaker's brain. Memories have a way of doing that, don't they?