Poem for a Tuesday — “The Gift” by Li-Young Lee
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.
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.
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.
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.
in Rose: Poems by Li-Young Lee. New York: BOA Editions, Ltd., 1986.
Li-Young Lee is a poet, essayist and memoirist. His work is marked by the spare elegance of traditional Chinese poets and the mystical edge of Eliot, Keats, and Rilke. He thoughtfully and sensitively explores themes of family, spirituality, and belonging. Lee’s family fled political persecution in China and Indonesia before emigrating to the United States, where his father attended seminary and became a Presbyterian minister. As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, Lee began writing poetry and discovered his life’s work. He received the American Book Award for his lyrical memoir The Wingéd Seed: A Remembrance. In an interview with Tina Chang of the American Academy of Poets, Lee reflected, “If you rigorously dissect it, you realize that everything is a shape of the totality of causes. What’s another name for the totality of causes? The Cosmos. So, everything is a shape of Cosmos or God. It feels like something bigger than me—that I can’t possibly fathom but am embedded in.”