Changing Places in the Fire

by Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee

What’s The Word! she cries
from her purchase on the iron
finial of the front gate to my heart.
The radio in the kitchen
is stuck in the year I was born.
The capitals of the world are burning.
And this sparrow with a woman’s face
roars in the burdened air?—?air crowded with voices,
but no word, mobbed with talking, but no word,
teeming with speech, but no word?—
this woman with the body of a bird
is shrieking fierce
buzzed volts
in the swarming babble, What’s The Word!
This evening
is the year of my birth.
The country has just gained its independence.
Social unrest grows rampant as the economy declines.
Under a corrupt government of the army and the rich come
years of mass poverty, decades of starving children
and racially-fueled mayhem. Word is
armed squads raping women by the hundreds. Word is
beheadings, public lynchings, and riots. Word is
burning, looting, curfews, and shoot-to-kill orders.
And word is more deadly days lie ahead.
Today, tomorrow, and yesterday, the forecast calls
for more misery, more poverty, more starvation,
more families fleeing their homes,
more refugees streaming toward every border.
More horror is to come, that’s the word.
More scapegoating is to come, that’s the word.
More violence is to come
on the roads,
in the streets,
in the homes, violence
in the churches, in the temples
where they preach who to love and who to hate.
How to get to heaven, and who to leave behind.
How to don the fleece of the blameless
and prosecute your neighbor.
All against all
is to come.
That’s the word.
Who hasn’t heard that! she spits.
You call yourself a poet? You
tame high finisher of paltry blots!
You publish doubt and call it knowledge!
You destroy the wisdom of ages
to gratify your envy!
You murder benevolence and virtue
with condescension. You pretend to poetry
and destroy imagination!
Your words mystify, mislead, and misdirect!
You ape The Word made flesh
with words made words
to multiply more words and words about your words!
And you ritualize these sterile pleasures,
miming joy, delight, and generation!
You celebrate cheap distractions!
Your theories bloom in suicide of the mind,
starvation of the heart, and mass maladies of the soul.
You mock and mimic sincerity!
You read and divine by irony!
You snare the little ones!
You pose stumbling blocks to the lame!
You dig pits for the blind!
You sell desolation!
Your science is despair!
What’s The Word!
I can tell she’s up to no good,
this feathered interval,
monument to the nano,
this deciding gram,
my Geronimo.
She’s out to overturn an empire,
to usurp principalities and powers,
just by swooping into the right assembly,
perplexing a senate, baffling a parliament,
or bewildering somebody’s crosshairs.
Not worth a farthing,
and without a cent,
she would own the realm
her shrill cries measure, trading
dying for being.
I tell her, I sang
in a church choir during one war
North American TV made famous.
I fled a burning archipelago in the rain,
on my mother’s back, in another war
nobody televised.
In the midst of wars worldwide, many
in countries whose names I can’t pronounce,
I tucked Christ’s promise and Adam’s disgrace
together with my pajamas under my pillow
each morning, unable to distinguish which
was God’s first thought, and which God’s second.
Therefore, I seek asylum
in the final word,
an exile from the first word,
and a refugee
of an illegible past.
Who hasn’t witnessed the laws of merging and parting,
blessing and killing! she says. Who isn’t
subject to the hand
that giveth and the hand that taketh,
the change of the guard,
with and without blood,
and their own dismembered history
fed to the unvanquished flowers?
Lift every clock’s face and see
the counting angels reckoning,
the killing angels
busy at their anvils.
Say what’s The Word,
or die!
It’s obvious she’s accounted
for what the wind will take,
what the moths must eat,
the ants carry away,
the Caesars keep.
She’s a breathing remnant
restored to springtime’s living cloth.
She’s a pair of scissors
trimming lament
to allow for all I don’t know.
And I can tell by the markings on her coat
and her black eyes
she knows which dreams to parse,
which to heed, and which to bury.
And look at those prehistoric feet.
No doubt, she’s realized the secret to surviving
her own tribe’s slaughter and dispersal.
Pocket dictionary
packed with signs in another language,
blazing shard of the original emanation,
Precambrian spark deposit,
igneous jot of infinite magnitude,
fiery iota,
something about her precise little beak
convinces me she grasps degree,
and knows which i’s to dot
and which to leave large and alone.
There are words, I say,
and there is The Word.
Every word is a fluctuating flame
to a wick that dies.
But The Word, The Word
is a ruling sum and drastic mean,
the standard that travels
without moving.
Words move,
but The Word is fixed,
the true blank.
The Word is the voice of the lamp,
and words are soot blackening the glass.
The movements of words engender time and death.
But The Word lives outside of time and death.
Inside time, death rules.
Life is death’s kingdom.
We live at dying’s rate.
Words are a sop for death.
But The Word is the mother of thresholds,
regulating life and death.
The Word begets presences impossible
to confirm,
given the blinding action of time
and the sea and the earth’s
turning repose.
And who is that supposed to feed?
Whose thirst would that quench?
she screeches, her voice materializing
a greater body of innumerable birds arriving at dominion,
increasing to overwhelm every mile of my heart,
that bloody aerie branching and leafing,
her feathers become all eyes and mouths,
her voice coming now from everywhere,
When the Lover is ready,
the Beloved will appear!
Say what’s The Word or we both die!
I’ll call her my battle angel, this evangelion.
Seraphic herald of the ninth echelon,
pleromatic aeon demanding a founding gnosis,
her voice electric tekhelet, Septuagint, a two-leaved door
opening onto porches, chambers, and courts,
her voice a Solomonic column of barley sugar.
She’s why I’m crazy.
She’s why I can’t sleep. She’s why I never
sleep. She’s why I avoid people.
She’s why I drill the eight limbs with the mud-step,
why I walk the octagon of trigrams inscribed on Wudang,
why I practice the Spiral Ox Jaw and the Tiger’s Mouth.
She’s why I’m hard to live with
and why I say,
The bread that rises in a house that fails,
The Word, father of zero and one,
is our advocate.
A shut eye we name Beginning,
The Word sleeps,
and all is darkness.
An open eye
we name The Treasure,
The Word wakes
and voices are heard among the sounds of water.
The Word dreams, and worlds appear.
And stars beyond and behind our eyes.
And the moon with its hair tied up
and its hair let down.
Bound on every side,
and wide open in the center,
The Word hosts our breath, our span, the space
of our dreaming and our thinking,
our stillness and our moving. And the emerging present
is one of its bodies.
The fulcrum, the eye, the heart enthroned,
the dove without person, homing, The Word
is a hammer raining down its songs,
a river pouring out of the mouth of the anvil.
Twin and unlike, The Word is without peer.
Black and white, it is a wheeling pair
of coincident opposites turning on a point:
Existence and Nonexistence hand in hand.
Substance and Void begetting life and death.
The Word is an open book,
and its first and last pages are missing.
It is a brother and sister
telling each other
the missing parts
of one another’s stories.
It is the lover and the beloved
constantly changing places in the fire.
And it is the wind in the treetops
outside our window,
a voice torn to pieces. Hear it?
The wind without a house, she says.
Time without a gate, she says.
A memory of the ocean
torments the trees,
a homesickness, she says.
The wind is leafing through both of our histories,
looking for a happy ending.
It is my hand moving over your body, I say,
finding more and more to know.
It is a circle of women
reciting in the round
the oldest stories of Death disguised as a traveler
or overlooked familiar, friend we shunned
for less faithful playmates.
It is a house,
and from inside come the voices of children
taking turns reading to one another.
It is their own story they read.
But why do their voices seem uneasy?
Does the moon, giant
at the window, frighten them?
Does death run amok through all
the pages of the story?
Do the pages turn by themselves?
Are there strangers in the house?
Is the house burning?
Soldiers with guns are at our door again.
Sister, quick. Change into a penny.
I’ll fold you in a handkerchief,
put you in my pocket,
and jump inside a sack of rice,
one of the uncooked kernels.
Men with knives are looking in our windows again.
Brother, hurry. Turn yourself
into one of our mother’s dolls
sitting on the living room shelf. I’ll be the dust
settling on your eyelids.
The ones wearing wings are in the yard.
The ones adorned with lightning are in the house.
The ones decorated with stars
are dividing our futures among them.
Don’t answer when they call to us in the voice of Nanny.
Don’t believe them when they promise sugar.
Don’t come out until evening,
or when you hear our mother weeping to herself.
If only I could become the mirror in her purse,
I’d never come back until the end of time.
The treetops buck and heave
in the night wind.
Like drunks at sea leaning
too far over a rocking bulwark.
Like a woman throwing her green and gold hair
in time to a song only she can hear.
And from inside
that windswept bulk growing darker
comes a frenzied uproar
of what must be
hundreds of hidden birds.
All that noise
of wind, leaves, and branches,
all that uttering from unseen throats,
and is there no word?
All that shrieking, iterating, crying
in the rustling leaves. All that screaming,
shrilling, running din
of squeaky wheels, radiant numbers of tongues,
beaks, hubs, wings, spokes
keening in centrifugal spinning,
and not one word?
Not any? Nor part? No bearing?
One hunger, a fanned fire, roars
in the voice of the sea.
One light eats itself, unconsumed.
The wind is taking the night apart, she says.
The wind is dismantling
the leaves, the branches, the minutes, our listening,
and finding more and more
moving pieces to index:
our hands, our mouths, our voices, recurring stairs
of an imperfect past,
a rumored present,
figures multiplying inside a mirror.
Each, alone
in his dream of the world, I say,
is host and guest, a book
and the one who reads it
by the light of a vanished childhood.
Don’t say that, she says.
We see by the light of who we are.
Look at us: you inside me
inside you. We’ve lived inside
each other from the beginning.
And from before beginning.
Before the world was ever found.
Before the world was found, I say,
I dwelled inside you,
and you breathed all through me,
in my body and its happiness,
in my body and its loneliness.
After I found the world, I had to go
looking for you. Ever since the world,
I only lose you and find you.
Lose you. And find you.
The body of the beloved
is the lover’s true homeland, she says.
I can hear you, but I can’t hear me, I say,
your voice a burning gown of song and time,
and me with my ghosts, me with my mockingbird.
Don’t say that, she says.
What is my mind, I wonder,
but the reflected light of your
voice, O, burning one, O, seeing voice, O,
speaking eye that renders us
now legible,
now indecipherable, now
strangers traveling
under assumed names.
Don’t say that, she says.
Look. A single page of the wind
copied by hand
is the volume of despair
the smallest living wing displaces.
And your voice will be your cup
each day my wings shelter
your dear, momentary earth.
My mind is several minds, I say,
each abiding differently: in your eyes,
in the smell of your hair, in your voice
moving over me, in my voice moving over you.
She says, Don’t look at your hands.
Watch the shadows they make.
I say, Moving over you, my voice crosses
out of forbidden chambers of the Emperor of China,
through chronicles of exile and death in a foreign country,
to touch the ground I touch in me
when I speak to you.
She says, A new mind makes the world new.
True words are a little blue.
And being human makes the saddest music in the world.
She says, Postpone all morning bells.
The ore lies awake inside the rock, a dream
of origin waiting to be rescued.
I say, The glare of your nakedness
confounds me, a distraction
from the darker incandescence of your being.
Inside you is the safest place to be.
The radio in the kitchen is stuck
in the year I was born.
The capitals of the world are burning.
And of all the things on my mind this evening,
words weigh the least,
Death weighs the most,
and your voice’s body
beneath my voice’s moving hand
is a green agent of freedom and law,
best friend to my earth and my ache.
Of all the things keeping me from sleep,
words weigh too much, yet not enough.
Time weighs nothing at all,
but I can’t bear it.
And your body, burdened by minutes
and ancient rites, is my favorite sad song.
One wave that gives rise to three, shoulder, hip, and knee,
your body is the Lord’s pure geometry.
Disguised as Time, your body is tears, lilies,
and the mouth of the falls.
And of all the things we’re dying from tonight,
being alive is the strangest,
surviving our histories is the saddest.
Time leaves the smallest wounds,
and your body, a mortal occasion
of timeless law,
is all the word I know

Last updated December 19, 2022