Li-Young Lee’s poetry in the book, Rose, has a depth of sadness and reflection that makes it meaningful and thought provoking to the reader. Lee draws on his own life experience in such a way that readers will wonder if he is trying to exorcize those experiences from his inner self. While these poems are deeply personal, they are also universal in their appeal. Lee uses a simple and uncomplicated voice to render complex themes that are held together by the threads of his memory. His work is filled with vivid images of nature that take the reader on a journey through flowers and trees in Lee’s imagined garden of experience.
The central theme in Lee’s work is how the past and the present are interconnected. Lee not only suggests that the past affects the present, but also suggests that there is a great deal of past alive and well in the present. Lee seems to longer on the memories of his father. His father, both in life and in death, is omnipresent throughout Lee’s offerings in Rose. For example, Lee writes his “hair spills/ through my dream, sprouts/ from my stomach, thickens my heart, and tangles in the brain” (22). The threads of the memories of his father and the threads of the thoughts that Lee has about his own life are weaved into an elegant tapestry of verse in Rose.
Lee’s use of symbolism is very interesting in Rose. For example, in the poem, “Water,” Lee explains that water is the way his father was destined to die according to the zodiac. As a result, water becomes the symbol for the inevitable and timeless qualities of death. For Lee, “the sac of water we live in” (27) is death itself. In Falling: The Code,” Lee uses apples falling to the ground in the middle of the night as an allegory for death. When Lee considers their “bruised bodies” (28), he decides to locate them the next day only to find “they all look alike lying there” (28). Wanting to know the “syncopated code” (29) of the falling apples – of death – Lee sleeps outside the next night only to hear “each dull/ thud of unseen apple-/ body, the earth/ falling to earth/ once and forever, over/ and over” (29).
Lee uses symbolism throughout the work and does so often in contrasting ways. For example, in “Dreaming of Hair,” the hair is the ominous thread of death. This symbol can be juxtaposed with the use of hair in “Early in the Morning.” In this poem, Lee uses the simple image of his father braiding his mother’s hair. In the more sensual poem, “Irises,” Lee writes “the memory of hair/ lingers on their sweet tongues” (32). Lee’s work is filled with these varying symbolic representations of the ordinary. This is one of the things that make his work so unique and interesting.
The poetry of Li-Young Lee consists of simple forms that create a natural and earthy feel for the reader. The symbolism and imagery in his work comes from the deep well of experience and Lee writes in a style that gives the reader a sense of his urgency – almost as if Lee is trying to purge himself from what lies within him. Because of this, Rose is a very interesting and thought provoking read.