This Hour and What Is Dead
by Li-Young Lee
Lines 23-28 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
God, that old furnace, keeps talking
with his mouth of teeth,
a beard stained at feasts, and his breath
of gasoline, airplane, human ash.
- Our speaker now imagines God as a strange combination of images: a furnace, teeth, a stained beard, breath made up of gasoline, airplane, human ash. Yikes.
- This description is definitely weird, and more than a little confusing. But hey, that's cool. We can roll with the punches.
- More than anything, though, this image is pretty terrifying. It's like an image of God as a devourer, as a cremator.
- God being a furnace sounds all right – a source of heat and warmth, that's good, right? Plus it also connects to all the burning we've seen earlier in the poem. Maybe it's all coming together.
- Enter teeth. Those are not so warm and fuzzy. In fact, they're downright menacing.
- And then there's the matter of the stained beard, which makes God seem kind of wild and unruly.
- Feasts are good though, right? We all like to gorge ourselves every now and then.
- But then there's that breath. First of all, it definitely wouldn't smell good. Gasoline? Airplanes? Human ash? That combo puts garlic and onions to shame.
- Plus, that last one really makes our knees tremble. Human ash means dead bodies. There's no way around that one.
- And when you combine the furnace image with the human ash in God's breath… well, it looks like God's been eating people again, according to our speaker. This retroactively makes that stained beard and those feasts a lot more terrifying. Shudder.
- This connection to death also provides a link to the speaker's brother and father. As he remembers his dead brother and dead father, he can't also help but think of God.
- And just as thoughts of his brother and father keep him restlessly awake, could these thoughts of God be bothering him, too? After all, God "keeps talking." That can't be helping with the insomnia.
- What's particularly interesting here is that this stanza on God fits the form that the poem has already developed – a larger stanza that introduces a character, who so far has been a family member, followed by a refrain. It almost seems like God is introduced like another one of his family members, which adds intimacy to the relationship.
- But let's not get lost in all the metaphors and lose sight of what's really going on. Don't forget that our speaker is literally lying awake at night. So maybe all that yammering on that God's doing is really just the furnace, clanging and clanking as it warms the room.
His love for me feels like fire,
feels like doves, feels like river-water.
- In keeping with the pattern he has set up in the poem, our speaker now has to compare the love of God with… something, using a simile.
- In this case, our speaker compares God's love to fire, doves, and river water.
- Now that's a combination. In fact, this description also sounds a lot like a mixed bag, just like his father's love. (In that way, this comparison makes a connection between the father and God.)
- Fire and water seem contradictory, and doves aren't even an element! What are they doing in the mix? Clearly God's love, as experienced by our speaker, is a complicated thing.
- In any case, though, this combination of images suggests purity, or at least the ability to purify.
- How so? Well, fire can burn things clean; it can sterilize; it can reduce things to a small essence (like a person to ash in an urn). The mention of doves calls to mind that these birds are often used as symbols of peace, and the fact that they're pure white. And water (do we need to say it?) washes things clean.
- Not that they're therefore all the same. We'd much rather be washed in river water than "purified" by fire.
- Of course, these lines are also an allusion to the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. In Christian traditions, all three of these things – fire, the dove, and water – act as symbols of the Holy Spirit.
- So maybe, according to our speaker, God's love feels like, well, the Holy Spirit. That certainly sounds a lot more pleasant than teeth.