Friday, April 24, 2009

Eating Alone - Li-Young Lee

EATING ALONE



I've pulled the last of the year's young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old. What is left of the day flames
in the maples at the corner of my
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.
By the cellar door, I wash the onions,
then drink from the icy metal spigot.

Once, years back, I walked beside my father
among the windfall pears. I can't recall
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
I still see him bend that way—left hand braced
on knee, creaky—to lift and hold to my
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.

It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.

White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.

---Li-Young Lee


Li-Young Lee's Eating Alone

Sharing meals with others is common practice for humans. So common, in fact, that eating alone carries a stigma of social awkwardness. Look at that guy at a table by himself—he must be lonely. Where is his family, his friends, anyone who knows and cares about him? Why has everyone deserted him? Alright, maybe I'm being a little melodramatic, but there definitely is a tendency to look at someone dining alone and consider that person to be unhappy and worthy of pity. If you can get over the initial weirdness of eating alone—lifting your head and putting down your fork to describe a funny moment from your day, only to realize there's no one there to listen—then you'll come to understand valuable lessons about yourself and life in general. You'll be better calibrated to your natural instincts and the routines that you follow, and in Li-Young Lee's case you'll recognize the ghosts of memory milling about in your life waiting for you to notice them.

Stacked upon each other like stones forming a rough wall, the images in the first stanza are unyielding and cold. “I've pulled the last of the year's young onions. / The garden is bare now.” His hands are in the farewell to the warmth and bounty of the growing season. He ushers this time of the year out with his final act of gardening. There is sorrow and loss in this is goodbye and our speaker seems to be unable to capture the things around him before they slip away. “What is left of the day flames / in the maples at the corner of my / eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.” Lee creates the blink-of-the-eye departure of the cardinal with a speedy and choppy sentence construction. The comma that separates “I turn” and “a cardinal vanishes” acts as a jump cut does in movies and television. The poem's speaker looks for signs of life—the cardinal, the day within the maple tree, the onions—yet when he senses they are with him he tries to acknowledge their presence and in doing so he scares them away.

Moving into memory, the second stanza takes us “years back” to a time when our speaker “walked beside” his father “among the windfall pears.” I must pause and mention how beautiful an image that is: father and young son walking together silently among pears blown from the tree limbs. With these lines, Lee has crafted a very photogenic scene within the poem. It is the father and son's togetherness that matters. Lee “can't recall” if they shared any words, but he does remember his father leaning down “to lift and hold to my / eye a rotten pear.” The little things we commit to memory are fascinating, how they remain in our minds even as we lose large and more traditionally useful pieces of information. This scene stuck with Lee because in the pear his father presented to him “a hornet / spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.” Like Lee at the end of the poem, the hornet was eating alone. He was intoxicated, possibly infuriated, by the pear, a lovely treat to satisfy his base urges.

“It was my father I saw this morning / waving to me from the trees.” We were with Lee in the morning, this was the poem's first stanza. He certainly appeared a little unnerved and spooked, but enough to have seen the ghost of his father? I'm not one for solving poems as if they are old fashioned capers—it's preposterous to believe that you must approach a poem like Sherlock Holmes. Still, I want to examine some of the possibilities in Lee's reflection that he saw him father in the morning. 1. He simply could have seen some thing or things that eerily reminded him of his father and he is taking it a step further to assume his father was with him. 2. His attempts to capture what was slipping away—the day, the cardinal, the remainders of the growing season—was actually an attempt to conjure his father. 3. He looks at the cardinal as his father. Just when he sees the bird it “vanishes.” 4. This one is similar to the first idea, but he is in the same place, same time of the year where he walked with his father and he can't escape his father's presence, feeling it still resides here and inside Lee. A fifth and final explanation comes later in the third stanza itself. “I almost / called to him, until I came close enough / to see the shovel, leaning where I had / left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.” Lee's father could have been a mirage; from afar Lee saw the shovel against the tree and believed it to be his father. All of these explanations illustrate the depth of emotion that this poem contains. As teachers are known to say, there is no right answer, but we can draw a conclusion: Lee misses his father, most of all when he is farming and eating the fruits of his labor. The tasty list of food that ends the poem is punctuated by a stinging self critique: “And my own loneliness. / What more could I, a young man, want.” Earlier I mentioned the merits of eating alone; Lee has discovered much about himself through eating alone. That doesn't mean he has to be happy with this discovery.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nice job on this! Very insightful :)

High Tall Man said...

a very enjoyable blog came upon by chance one rainy Saturday in Europe.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thank you both for those appreciative comments. I'm glad you're enjoying the poems and postings.

Anonymous said...

It's Amazing, simple and relatable.