“Epistle” by Li-Young Lee

Of wisdom, splendid columns of light
waking sweet foreheads,
I know nothing

but what I’ve glimpsed in my most hopeful daydreams.
Of a world without end,

I know nothing,
but what I sang of once with others,
all of us standing in the vaulted room.

But there is wisdom
in the hour in which a boy
sits in his room listening

to the sound of weeping
coming from some other room
of his father’s house,

and that boy was me, and he
listened without understanding, and was soon frightened
by how the monotonous sobs resembled laughter.

All of this while noon became vast day,
while sunlight and the clock
gave birth to melancholy,

before the days grew vacant,
the sun grew terrible, the clock stopped,
and melancholy gave up to grief.

All of this
in a dead hour of a dead day,
among doors closed for nap or prayer.

Who was weeping? Why?
Did the boy fall asleep?
Did he flee that house? Is he there now?

Before it all gets wiped away, let me say,
there is wisdom in the slender hour
which arrives between two shadows.

It is not heavenly and it is not sweet.
It is accompanied by steady human weeping,
and twin furrows between brows,

but it is what I know,
and so am able to tell.

As I wait impatiently for Li-Young Lee’s latest poetry collection The Undressing to come out in February, I’ve been revisiting some of his older work. Rose, published in 1986, was his first book and contains some of my favorites of his poems, among them “From Blossoms” and “Irises.” I didn’t give much thought to “Epistle,” the collection’s opening poem, the first time I read it, but this time, I found it much more compelling. Even the title alone is evocative: the word “epistle” is so seldom used these days outside of a religious context (the Epistles of St. Paul, and so forth) that it’s hard to divorce it from the idea of something timeless. At the same time, “epistle” is just another word for a letter, the intimate correspondence of the writer to his reader. By calling this poem an “epistle,” Lee identifies it both as an address to all people, meant to convey truth, and as a more intimate experience, that of the writer sharing his own unique vision with his readers on a one-to-one basis. If a poem is good, it should be for all times and all people, but also for the individual.

This ties into the main theme of the poem, namely the growth of a young person as he tries to learn about the world. In the opening stanzas, the speaker is thinking of a church, where he used to pray (“… a world without end, / amen”) and sing hymns, with “all of us standing in the vaulted room.” The later stanzas, however, find him in his father’s house, listening to someone weeping in another room. One experience is public, shared with others and performed similarly by countless millions all over the world. The other is unique and private: he might have been the only one in the house that day, and the only one who could hear that weeping. And yet in both experiences, there is wisdom. These two forces—religion and his family’s grief—are the two wellsprings from which his wisdom comes, and therefore, the source of the wisdom that is to be found in his poems. Something specific and private, without the validation of any outside authority,  becomes the means of granting him some truth.

I think that’s what poetry—and literature more broadly—tends to do: bring the personal and temporal in contact with the universal and the eternal. The father’s rising early to light the fireplace and polish the shoes is a first lesson in what it means to truly love a person. A bird flying becomes a sort of messenger from God. And in countless love poems, the beloved or the love itself becomes a way of understanding and internalizing truth.

So what was the truth that the speaker gleaned from his experience of another person’s grief? He doesn’t say in so many words. Only that “It is not heavenly and it is not sweet. / It is accompanied by steady human weeping, / and twin furrows between brows”. I like that he leaves that hole in his story, so that the reader, if so inclined, can fill it in with his own ideas or his own experiences. It becomes yet another way of deepening the intimacy between writer and reader. Now, the reader is not only a passive observer in this situation, but an active participant as well. That’s one of the things I love about Lee, the regard he has for his readers. He understands that they, like him, are seeking wisdom and he encourages them to take part in his journey toward it.

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