This Hour and What Is Dead
by Li-Young Lee
Lines 29-33 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
At this hour, what is dead is helpless, kind
and helpless. While the Lord lives.
- Our speaker characterizes the dead (his brother and father?) as kind and helpless, and then tells us that they are these things while God is alive. Huh?
- This time the refrain ends ominously. Does this mean that the dead are kind and helpless only as long as the Lord lives? Does it mean they are helpless in spite of the fact that the Lord lives?
- Is our speaker grateful toward God, or is he downright resentful? Oh, and does this mean the Lord will die? So many questions, so few answers.
- But if you think about it, the suggestion of God dying makes sense in this poem. After all, God fits into the list of the dead, after brother and father. Both of those men have already died, so in grouping them all together, it seems natural to assume that God, too, will die.
- And if we follow the logic of that thought through, we have to consider what exactly would happen if the Lord did die, at least in terms of the poem.
- Perhaps it means that the dead would no longer be helpless. Or that they would no longer be kind.
- But there's also the resentment angle. Maybe our speaker is bitter that the Lord lives, and eternally at that, while his brother and father have died, and can't ever come back. Not fair, he seems to say.
Someone tell the Lord to leave me alone.
- Our speaker wants the Lord (with his fiery, winged, river-y love) to just leave him be.
- Given the complicated description of God's love, it seems the speaker is overwhelmed by it. And definitely overstimulated. He's trying to sleep, and the Lord keeps chattering away in his furnace form.
- If we read this line back onto the couple of lines before, it gives some credence to our resentment theory. If the speaker resents the fact that God gets to live eternally, while his family members die, well then, we can understand his bitterness.
- Notice, though, that he's not telling the Lord to leave him alone. Nope, he wants someone else to do it. Or maybe he's just giving God the silent treatment.
I've had enough of his love
that feels like burning and flight and running away.
- Confirmed. Our speaker has had his fill of the powerful, complicated love of God.
- That "I" in "I've" is striking, because it's the first time our speaker has used that pronoun to refer to himself.
- Saying "I" now seems to go along with what our speaker is trying to communicate here. He wants to separate himself from God and from thoughts of his dead family members. And so by saying "I" he's making sure we know that he's independent, no longer defined only by his relation to the others.
- Burning, flight, and running away run parallel to that other simile he used for God's love: fire, doves, and river-water. Again, God's love feels like these symbols of the Holy Spirit.
- "Burning" also connects us yet again to the lines about the brother's birthplace set to the torch, and the burning in line 10, and the furnace, and so on. "Flight" and "running away" link to the word "fugitive" in line 21. This is a poem that circles back on itself, in both form and content.
- This speaker just can't seem to escape the thoughts of his dead brother, his dead father, and the living God. He's trapped in insomnia by them, and only wants some peace.
- Will he get it?