Song of Songs (or the Song of Solomon) is a basis for Li Young Lee’s poem, The City In Which I Love You. Like the Song of Songs, its central narrative is a meandering search for God and community. Lee’s use of mixed metaphor, personification of objects and elements, and objectification of body imbues the speaker’s spiritual odyssey with a viscerality rarely assigned to spiritual realms. The poem 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 odyssey is set upon unnamed cities, 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 their community can not be truly be human within the essential framework of how we understand ourselves. Exile, then, is dissociative: Man without city, like the soul without body; and city without man, a body without the soul. 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…”
While much of Lee’s poem engages one man’s exile, stanzas 16-23 pose a divergent meditation. 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.
Stanza 16 reinforces this divergent tone by acting as a grammatical continuation of stanza 15, but unspooling 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 17-19 again, are a grammatical continuation of stanza 16. Each stanza break creates literal distance between the bodies of the subjects, living and dead, between the dead body and perceived intent, and between speaker and subjects, respectively. The scene depicts three characters through the speakers’ lens. One man has killed another, and a woman tends to the dead after the fact. The speaker watches all, observing that he is not the woman, he is not the dead man, and he is not the killer. He does not bear their consequence of death, killing, or bereavement. The woman acts to 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.
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 recalls the image of the handkerchief in stanza 17. The handkerchief is mechanism for swatting vehicles of decay (maggots) while the image of the flag suggests a bird tearing itself from a decaying institution (the national bank.) The language surrounding both images is reminiscent of birds (flies, flapping.)
In stanzas 24-25, the speaker directly addresses his beloved, a presumed source of meaning. Our speaker meditates upon the suffering he has witnessed, finding only meaninglessness. 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 an ineffable barrier to their union.
The beloved can be a woman, a feminine apparition, the embodiment of spirituality, communion with God, a church community, or all of these at once, whatever the reader chooses to project onto the text. Only through union with the beloved can the speaker become whole, and only by finding a community where his love is possible can this union occur. The line “Everything is punished by your absence” suggests those forced into exile, incapable, like the speaker, of expressing love/practical compassion in service to their obliterated communities. 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.