Summary of The Gift by Li-Young Lee

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About the Poet:

Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1957 to Chinese parents. His great-grandfather on his mother’s side was the famous Yuan Shikai, the first Republican President of China. His father was a physician who served Mao Zedong.  His father soon relocated to Indonesia where Lee was born. There his father played an instrumental role in founding the Gamaliel University. However, due to the rising apathy against the Chinese in Indonesia, his father was arrested and moved to a prison camp in Macau for nineteen months. The Lee family then fled the country for its anti-Chinese sentiments and traveled through Hong Kong and Japan for five years before settling down in the United States in 1964. Later, Lee’s father became a Presbyterian minister in Pennsylvania.

Lee was educated at the University of Pittsburgh and University of Arizona and the State University of New York at Brockport. It was at the University of Pittsburgh that he met the poet Gerald Stern, who also wrote a foreword for Lee’s debut poetry collection, Rose.

His work is said to be influenced by the Chinese poets, Li Bai and Du Fu. Most of his poetry is drawn from his own experiences and memory. The language of his poetry is simple, everyday language but it usually uses stark and moving imagery. Many critics claim that due to his early hardship of exile and travels through Indonesia to Hong Kong to Japan and then the USA created a platform for him and opened up a variety of experiences from which he draws inspiration for his material.

His writing has been compared to the likes of Shakespeare,  Keats and T.S. Eliot. His most notable work is ‘The City in Which I Love You’. His simplistic yet powerful writing has fetched him many awards and honors, few of which are the American Book Award, and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award (for Rose).

He has also been a teacher at the Universities of Northwestern and Iowa.

Currently, he resides in Chicago, Illinois with his wife, Donna and their two sons.

About The Gift:

The poem composed by Li-Young Lee was published in his first poetry collection, Rose (1986). The poem is written in free verse that allows the poet to express his thoughts which run a long a chosen line, freely. The poem is akin to the stream of consciousness. Like the stream of consciousness, the poem traces the poet’s thought as he reverts back and forth through time in his narrative. Also, this tells the readers not only what the poet is thinking but also what he is feeling. This poem is most probably autobiographical as most Lee’s poetry is taken from his experiences. The memory serves as an important interlocutor in this poem, and poet uses the idea of memory to focus on the present. On the whole, the poem becomes a lesson for us, telling us to learn from the past.

The Setting of The Gift:

The mood of this poem is reflective and nostalgic. It draws the readers to the speaker’s childhood where he experienced an injury his wife experiences in the present. The setting of the poem is perhaps the speaker’s house, but we can’t be sure because there is no description about anything other than the wound suffered by both the speaker and his wife, albeit separated by a number of years. The general air created in the poem, or the atmosphere, is nostalgic and has a tendency to be meditative.

Stanza-wise Summary of The Gift:

Stanza 1

“To pull the metal splinter from my palm

my father recited a story in a low voice.

I watched his lovely face and not the blade.

Before the story ended, he’d removed

the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.”


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The poet introduces the poem with an incident that had happened in his childhood. He describes how his father gently pulls out a metal splinter that had lodged in his hands. To distract the young poet from his pain, his father had told him a story. While his father recited him the story, the poet was in awe of him and hardly noticed the splinter that was removed from his hand before the story ended.

Stanza 2

“I can’t remember the tale,

but hear his voice still, a well

of dark water, a prayer.

And I recall his hands,

two measures of tenderness

he laid against my face,

the flames of discipline

he raised above my head.”

The poet here admits that he does not remember the tale his father had distracted him with, but he does remember his father’s deep and soothing voice that helped him during the painful ordeal.  He also remembers those tender hands that cupped his face. He adds special significance to this act. According to the speaker, this act of the father seemed to him like he was being presented with the gift of healing, kindness and the urgency of discipline.

Stanza 3

“Had you entered that afternoon

you would have thought you saw a man

planting something in a boy’s palm,

a silver tear, a tiny flame.

Had you followed that boy

you would have arrived here,

where I bend over my wife’s right hand.”

Here the poet addresses the readers in general and says that f the reader had chanced upon the incident from his childhood, it would have seemed to them that a father was panting a seed in a young boy’s palm. Perhaps the seed would have looked like a silver tear or a tiny flame. He adds in the following lines if the very same readers had followed the boy through the course of his life, they would’ve arrived at a similar incident in the present, where he was bending over his wife’s right hand to relieve her of the pain. We understand here that the same injury had occurred to his wife, and that he had assumed the place of his father this time.

Stanza 4

“Look how I shave her thumbnail down

so carefully she feels no pain.

Watch as I lift the splinter out.

I was seven when my  father

took my hand like this,

and I did not hold that shard

between my fingers and think,

Metal that will bury me,

christen it Little Assassin,

Ore Going Deep for My Heart.

And I did not lift up my wound and cry,

Death visited here!

I did what a child does

when he’s given something to keep.

I kissed my father.”

Stanza 4 concentrates on the poet’s skill that was passed on to him as a tradition from his father. He asks the readers to note how carefully he shaves his wife’s thumbnail down so that she does not feel much pain. He urges the readers to note how skillfully he manages to take the splinter out from his wife’s hands. Here his narrative reverts back to the past again when he had faced something similar. He says he was seven years old when the metal splinter had gotten lodged in his hands. He reflects on that moment and admits that during the painful event, he did not burst into poetic utterances like, ‘Metal that will bury me’, or ‘Ore Going Deep for My Heart’. Neither did he wax poetic by naming the metal shard ‘Little Assassin’  nor did he think that death had passed by him very closely. He says that he didn’t even cry because of the wound. Instead, he did something only a child would do when given a gift by his father, kiss him.

 

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