American Life in Poetry: Column 466
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE
Li-Young Lee is an important American poet of Chinese parentage who lives in Chicago. Much of his poetry is marked by unabashed tenderness, and this poem is a good example of that.
I Ask My Mother to Sing
She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and sway like a boat.
I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.
But I love to hear it sung;
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.
Both women have begun to cry.
But neither stops her song.
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©1986 by Li-Young Lee, whose most recent book of poems is Behind My Eyes, BOA Editions, Ltd., 2009. Poem reprinted by permission of Li-Young Lee and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2014 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.