1. time, the atemporal (as framework)
4. elements: fog, fire, flame, water and ocean, air, stone
5. the construct of cities, humans therein
6. personal loss, disembodiment, bodies, the pain of others
7. home, lack there of. exile.
8. identity, lackethereof, dissociative naming of identity
10. sight / disappearance
11. trespass/ negotiation / travel / searching / movement / excavation / evacuation /absence
12. physical violence
14. no answer, no response, no echo, no return, yet backwards movement
15. scabs, bruises, wounds,
16. stillness, death, between life and death, lying still, vacancy / vanishing
17. false identity
18. gates, walls, lack of entry, physical decay both of body and inert matter
19. sunken / slumped / collapse / impingement
21. structural elements of building, supporting
22. cities as flesh, flesh as cities. elements constant yet metamorphosing
23. streets, alleys, paths – yet disrupted by the elements, dimensions and shapes
24. civilization vs. ideas
1. mixed metaphors
2. personification of elements and cities, objectification of bodies
Angle: the elements of disappearing: ceasing to be material, ceasing to be color, the anti-city.
Civilization is defined by a set of rules naturally arisen from human nature pondering itself. “the founding deed of civilization is the imposition of the incest taboo itself” (Moses and Civilization: The Meaning Behind Freud’s Myth – Robert A Paul). Civilization and consciousness are irreconcilable. Without one, the other is impossible. A human exiled from community, therefore, can’t truly be human within the most generic framework of how we understand ourselves. Exile is by definition, dissociative; man without city, like the soul without body, and city without man, body without a soul. Without belonging to civilization and community, the human experience is searching through emptiness.
“it is significant that the powerless are not named in the captions. A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if in inadvertently…
“There is only ever one subject when you are writing a poem. Most human sounds are made with the out-going breath. … When we breathe in, we feel comfortable. We can breathe in almost indefinitely. … A poem is a score for human speech. All poems are done with the dying breath. … A poem is a score for our dying. That’s the subject – the dying breath … and how do you ransom the dying breath. … Hopefully as you die and exhale your poem, hopefully, someone else is inhaling.” – lee young li
Through dissociative observation, the speaker is capable of imagining the pain of others (those he sees, and those out of sight.) He is careful to observe himself defying the instinct either to consume or be consumed by this pain. The speaker anecdotally bears witness to the death and dying of others (strangers) while he searches for a dwelling where he may capably love an idealized other (with whom he is supposedly familiar.)
The speaker makes frequent references to hunger and starvation, craving the other, rather than loving her naturally. This craving is elemental (fire seeking air) as well as bodily (hungering for a juicy fruit.)
This poem is not mysterious. It contains no riddle. It does not woo the reader with cleverness. Conversely, it is at once supernal and cutting to the bone. This contradiction is instinctively felt and understood by anyone experiencing the simultaneous separations and togetherness of the mind/body anti-binary (thus, it is understood by all.)
aside: You cant love strangers effectively in a community where you are other (where the self is destroyed) just as you cannot search for love through the pain of others – but what does this mean in world that is galvanized by global connectivity? putting love to use thru building ones own community where the self is whole (and wholly encompassed by the community) is the only hope we have? only thru retrograde, deepening into human experience, is he capable of resolution or redemption.
Song of Songs
“In modern Judaism, the Song is read on the Sabbath during the Passover, which marks the beginning of the grain harvest as well as commemorating the Exodus from Egypt. Jewish tradition reads it as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel. Christian tradition, in addition to appreciating the literal meaning of a romantic song between man and woman, has read the poem as an allegory of Christ (the bridegroom) and his Church (the bride).”
In Judaism – this song celebrates returning home from exile with sexual union
In Christianity – this song insinuates that man is returning to his dwelling, and he dwells inside a woman. Man is the erudite, woman is the form of his material shell.
The Song of Songs itself can be interpreted through either the lens of spiritual or bodily union.
“The City in Which I Love You” as literal reimagining of the Song of Songs. Woman searches city for her beloved. Man objectifies (dissects) her body parts by likening them to animals and precious stones. He finds her in a garden. They can’t find each other in the city, but they can find each other in nature.
“The sky is the vaulting path of the sun, the course of the changing, moon, the wandering glitter of the stars, the year’s seasons and their changes, the light and dusk of day, the gloom and glow of night, the clemency and inclemency of the weather, the drifting clouds and blue depth of the ether. When we say sky, we are already thinking of the other three along with it, but we give no thought to the simple oneness of the four.”
“But “on the earth” already means “under the sky.” Both of these also mean “remaining before the divinities” and include a “belonging to men’s being with one another.” By a primal oneness the four-earth and sky, divinities and mortals-belong together in one.”
Forced immigration and exile are catalysts to the central struggle of Li Young Lee’s poem, The City In Which I Love You. These are crucial forces too, at the heart of Li Young Lee’s personal narrative. Thus, meaningful analysis of The City in Which I Love You without the context of a 20th century Chinese political landscape is viable, but frankly, at a loss for richness and nuance:
In the wake of World War II, the Chinese communist party promised to restore autonomy and strength to their devastated nation. The exodus of European occupation created the incendiary atmosphere prime for synchronicitous rumblings of a charismatic populist. Mao Ze Dong galvanized the Chinese people to lawless revolution, meanwhile devolving into the typical erratic paranoia of dictators. Many early supporters of the communist party were sent to labor camps or forced into exile. Lee’s family fled across Asia, eventually settling in the United States where Lee’s father attended seminary and became a presbyterian minister. The City In Which I Love You contains concrete parallels to Lee’s personal journey. The poem is riddled with the sorrows and disappointments felt by those who were destroyed by the Chinese communist party despite true and urgent commitment to their homeland. To read the poem is a transient experience of the effects of exile.
Li Young Lee adapts the Song of Songs (or the Song of Solomon) as a basis for his poem, The City In Which I Love You. Like the Song of Songs, his poem’s central narrative is a meandering search for God and community in the wake of exile. Lee’s use of mixed metaphor, personification of objects and elements, and objectification of body imbues a visceral richness to both his concept of indivisibility and to the speaker’s spiritual odyssey. The poem does not woo the reader with cleverness. Conversely, it is at once supernal and cutting to the bone — a contradiction instinctively felt and understood by the living. Here, mind, body, and spirit are one, indivisible.
The speaker’s spiritual odyssey is set upon unnamed cities. His mind is fixed on the idea of cities rather than specific qualities of a specific city. Suppose the concept of “city” is a manifestation of civilization — and civilization itself is defined by a set of rules arisen from human nature pondering itself. Using this logic, separation of civilization and consciousness is irreconcilable. Without one, the other is impossible. A human exiled from community can’t truly be human within the essential framework of how we understand ourselves. Exile, then, by definition, is dissociative. Man without city, like the soul without body. And city without man, a body without the soul. Lacking community, the human experience is searching through emptiness. Heidegger’s “Building Dwelling Thinking” illustrates this concept with the following passage, “Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build… Dwelling, however, is the basic character of Being in keeping with which mortals exist…”
The speaker wanders civilizations on the brink of destruction as he himself is destroyed; a nameless, displaced other. The poem’s language contains active verbs suggesting violence to self and buildings being torn asunder as means of becoming whole, or means of opening to the realms of the beloved. Stanzas 1-15 describe a consuming hunger for the beloved. The speaker periodically refers to his starvation, his craving the other and wanting to devour her. Here, craving is elemental (fire seeking air) as well as bodily (salivating for a juicy fruit.) The speaker yearns for consumption of (or consummation with) the beloved so she might live inside his body as one lives inside and is contained by the walls of community– a Romantic and Biblical construct.
While much of the poem deals with the sorrows of one man’s exile, and the absurdity of faith, stanzas 16-23 pose axial divergence: meditations on the suffering of others. Through dissociative observation, the speaker is capable of imagining the pain of others (those he sees, and those out of sight.) He is careful to observe himself defying the instinct either to consume or be consumed by external pain. The speaker anecdotally bears witness to the death and dying of others (strangers) while he searches for a dwelling where he may capably love an idealized other (with whom he is supposedly familiar.)
But what about the suffering stranger? In stanzas 16-23, the speaker steps out of himself and his consuming plight for spiritual love. His journey is meaningful, but the stillness provided by selfless intermission is, perhaps, more valuable. Here, the speaker’s passive stance may be interpreted as purposeful restraint of the ego, or, as a form of normative complicity, the latter, when defined by Hannah Arendt’s essay, Eichmann in Jerusalem, is the foremost vehicle for political evil. Susan Sontag explores the idea of normative complicity through portraiture with her essay, Regarding the Pain of Others. Sontag writes, “It is significant that the powerless are not named. A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if inadvertently… Making suffering loom large, by globalizing it, may spur people to feel they ought to “care” more. It also invites them to feel the sufferings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local political intervention. With a subject conceived on this scale, compassion can only flounder — and make abstract. But all politics, like all history, is concrete…” Given the ideas posed by Arendt and Sontag, the speaker is a failure, his passivity, evil.
Contrarily, portraits or scenes of great suffering have been shilled since the dawn of civilizations. Displays of suffering are lauded as high art, used as marketing material, entertainment, demonstrations of political power, or means of dehumanization. In this sense, to restrain from consuming external suffering is a fundamental good.
Stanza 16 is a grammatical continuation of stanza 15, but unspools a subjective retrograde,
“I called to you,
and my voice pursued you,/ even backward/ to that other city”
The two stanzas construct a visual and linguistic breaking: the literal stanza break, the literal page break (stanza 15 and stanza 16 are presented on two separate pages,) and the linguistic break of calling the other to the self, and the voice’s subsequent pursuit of the other. The voice depicted by the poem skews traditional “call and answer” song formats by constructing a loop or echo effect which behaves in a similar pattern, but is different because it is perpetuated by a singular entity, moving forwards (calling the external to the self) and moving backwards (pursuing that which escapes.)
Stanzas 17,18 and 19 again, are a grammatical continuation of stanza 16. Each stanza break illustrates an insurmountable distance between the bodies of the subjects, living and dead, between the dead body and perceived intent, and between speaker and subjects, respectively.
“and my voice pursued you,/ even backward/ to that other city/ in which I saw a woman/ squat in the street
beside a body,/ and fan with a handkerchief flies from its face./ That woman/ was not me. And/ the corpse
lying there, lying there so still it seemed with great effort/ as though/ his whole being was concentrating on the hole/ in his forehead, so still/ I expected he’d sit up any minute and laugh out loud:
that man was not me;/ his wound was his, his death not mine./ And the soldier/ who fired the shot, then lit a cigarette:/ he was not me.”
The scene encompasses three individuals through the lens of our speaker. It is both intimate and isolating. One man has killed another, and a woman tends to the dead after the fact. Our speaker merely watches, observing that he is not the woman, he is not the dead man, and he is not the killer. He is kin to none, and does not bear their consequence of death, killing, or bereavement. The woman acts to respect and preserve the sanctity of the dead by fanning away/staving off flies with her handkerchief. The dead acts dead, still, a false foil for the living. The killer acts with nonchalance or anxiety — depending on the reader. The speaker’s detachment is twofold: He separates himself from his subjects, and he recognizes his subjects’ ownership of their lives and deaths. He does not search for his beloved in the pain of strangers, and he does not call forth his beloved to ease their pain. Presumably, in a dying city where he is other, the self destroyed, he can do neither.
In stanzas 20-23, the speaker expands upon the intimacy of first-hand observation to discuss his position at large, in the global context,
“And the ones I do not see/ in cities all over the world, the ones sitting, standing, lying down, those in prisons playing checkers with their knocked-out teeth:/ they are not me. Some of them are
my age, even my height and weight;/ none of them is me./ The woman who is slapped, the man who is kicked,/ the ones who don’t survive,/ whose names I do not know;
they are not me forever,/ the ones who no longer live/ in the cities in which/ you are not,/ the cities in which I looked for you.
The rain stops, the moon/ in her breaths appears overhead./ The only sound now is a far flapping./ Over the National Bank, the flag of some republic or other/ gallops like water or fire to tear itself away.”
Stanzas 20-23 explore dualities of the universal and the foreign. The speaker recognizes the shared human experience of suffering, political oppression, interpersonal violence and joy in communion with nature. In stanza 22-23, he removes himself from personal culpability for the intimate personal and structural workings of foreign entities.
The flag image in stanza 23 calls forth the image of the handkerchief in stanza 17. The handkerchief acts as mechanism for swatting off vehicles of decay (maggots,) while the image of the flag suggests an animal tearing itself away from a decaying institution (the national bank). The language surrounding both images is reminiscent of birds (flies, flapping.)
In stanzas 24-25, the speaker’s solipsistic dialogue reemerges, not as a narration of his sorrowful odyssey, but as a direct address of the beloved,
“If I feel the night/ move to disclosures or crescendos,/ it’s only because I’m famished/ for meaning; the night merely dissolves.
And your otherness is perfect as my death./ Your otherness exhausts me,/ like looking suddenly from here to impossible stars fading./ Everything is punished by your absence.”
Our speaker witnesses then meditates upon the suffering of strangers and finds only meaninglessness. He addresses the beloved, a presumed source of meaning. He declares the”otherness” of his beloved “perfect as my death.” Until the fact of his death, his death is abstract. Until the fact of some permanent transformation of the beloved’s “otherness” in relation to himself, the otherness of the beloved remains abstract, an ineffable barrier to their union.
Only through union with the beloved can he become whole, and only by finding community where his love is possible can this union occur. The speaker may be capable of easing external suffering, as a man made whole by love and community, if that suffering exists within the matrix of his community — a community with which he is intimately familiar.
In his passive role, is the speaker guilty of moral failure? To what extent is he responsible for the foreign communities he passes through? To what extent is an individual accountable for the immediate suffering of strangers? How tantamount is the notion of collective responsibility on a global scale? And finally, is the speaker even capable of easing singular or collective pain infesting communities that are foreign to him?
The speaker himself, suffers. His suffering derives from being dissociation from community and therefore strange to himself. To ease his suffering, he must become intimate with himself in the context of belonging. Only then can he become effective and whole. As a stranger, strange to himself and to others, he is useless, lacking intimate knowledge of the self and therefore, intimate understanding of community. Without intimate understanding of community, and the relationships and structures therein, providing effective aid is impossible. In this line of logic, the notion of “foreign aid” itself is an oxymoron. The foreigner is certainly capable of intervention, itself, neither good or evil, but fleetingly disruptive.
Arendt’s concept of the”banality of evil” is applicable to those who perpetuate the suffering of others by falling into the order of their community – neither questioning or fully comprehending its logic, nor owning culpability for the community’s activities as an extension of their action. The speaker is not a member of a community. He is ineffective. He can’t thwart the banality of evil where is presence is inconsequential.
In terms of “being good” and “doing good,” the speaker, lacking identity, can’t claim to be or do anything. He can only be good and do good once and usher outsiders into his community once secure in a community defined identity. If intimate understanding of community structures is necessary to providing effective aid, good deeds can be most effectively applied to one’s own community, or those communities connected to it by shared experiences, histories, and value systems.
The line “Everything is punished by your absence” suggests the legions of others forced into exile and immigration, lost, alienated from the beloved, and incapable, like the speaker, of expressing practical compassion in service to an obliterated community. Human upheaval, then, results in a catastrophic loss of practical good. Belonging to a community not only endows man with a sense of identity and purpose, but also with a share of communal resources (both monetary and emotional).
In conclusion, Lee Young Li’s poem “The City in Which I Love You” offers an important lesson to compulsive altruists: Stay In Your Lane. or, Find Your Lane and Stay In It.