The Undressing

by Major Jackson

Li-Young Lee’s fifth book of verse, The Undressing, unequivocally aims for passionate, pure, and enchanted speech, taking the lyric poem as more than a vessel for perfunctory, manufactured feeling; rather, the form serves the sentiment, as the emotions emerge from the urgency of their saying. In poems such as “Three Words,” “Folding a Five-Cornered Star So the Corners Meet,” and “Adore,” Lee examines the omnipresence and manifold incarnations of God; the sources of suffering (confusion, loneliness, history, and violence); and the resuscitating powers of love: “We cannot look upon Love’s face without dying. / So we face each other to see Love’s look.” Here Lee is still the poet of rapture and tenderness, so much so that at times he seems to out-Neruda Neruda: “I loved you before I was born,” the speaker confesses in the poem of the same name, before saying, “I saw your eyes before I had eyes to see.” The book is full of intimate physical and verbal exchanges, often including a beloved or family member who critiques the speaker’s appropriation of that person’s life as the basis for his poetry. A father chides: “‘I don’t need to hear your descriptions of my garden. / I planted everything in that garden. / I can read each leaf and bud / by sunlight, by moonlight, and by no light.’” As in previous books, Lee charts the inescapable traumas and memories of war in poems filled with provocative music and dreamlike images of “falling petals make a river glimpsed / through trees.”



This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2018.

The Undressing (W. W. Norton, February 2018)