Cancellation, Contradiction and Affirmation in Poet Li-Young Lee’s “Arise, Go Down”

It’s been more than a decade and 500+ posts since we last visited in this space the Chinese-rooted, Indonesian-born, American-raised (since age 7) poet Li-Young Lee and his much anthologized, gorgeous peach of a poem, “From Blossoms.” Fortunately, Lee, now 66, remains above ground and has continued to write in the intervening years. Even more fortunately for me, so have I.

So it was a happy accident last week when I came across his poetry again while looking for something else and got thoroughly distracted from whatever that something else was as I landed upon “Arise, Go Down.”

Unlike “From Blossoms” and its ecstatic, sense-drenched celebration of the peach-eating experience as a form of divinity, in “Arise, Go Down,” Lee explores more of the shadowy, yin-yang, to-and-fro of existence. What is similar in both poems, however, is the deep spiritual yearning that undergirds Lee’s life and the poetic vocation he has dedicated that life to.

Ultimately, a poet of the world, contemplating a God of that world and all that such a God abides, must stand up and see as God sees, no longer hiding in a cleft of rock but taking in the world full-frame…

Even more than most poets, Lee is besotted by words, with how every word reflects a struggle for expression, like a baby’s gurgle slowly, intently, and finally being lassoed into coherence. Which for Lee represents, in its larger aggregate sense, the very Word of God, who remains both elusive to the rational mind yet manifest in every word and dust speck of the creation.

It’s a poetry rooted in a kind of self-constructed fusion religion one might call Taoist Christianity, with eyes and ears bent always close to earth.

That earth includes not only the natural world of flowers and fruit, soil and insects, but also, the often conflicted humans who sit uneasily as lords of their material plane, sometimes abuzz with love and wonder and other times crushed by self-doubt, hatred and fear.

“Arise, Go Down” reflects deeply on those twin poles of wonder and conflict, the latter a constant in Lee’s life given that his father, a one-time personal physician to Mao Zedong, had to successively flee dictators in China and then Indonesia (where he was jailed and tortured for 19 months in a leper colony) before finally landing in the United States. Once here, he followed his burgeoning Christian sensibility by enrolling in a seminary and becoming a Presbyterian minister in Pennsylvania.

His father as both hulking presence and absence looms large in Lee’s life, the absence given more weight with his father dead at this poem’s writing, and arising no more.

“For years now I have come to conclusions/without my father’s help, discovering/on my own what I know, what I don’t know…” Lee writes. That “know/don’t know” is but one tension Lee explores here as he deftly blends the historical/personal, concrete/cosmic polarities, those forces never as separate and opposed as they may appear to be.

Let’s read the whole poem now before we resume discussion.



                  ARISE, GO DOWN

                  By Li-Young Lee

It wasn’t the bright hems of the Lord’s skirts
that brushed my face and I opened my eyes
to see from a cleft in rock His backside;

it’s a wasp perched on my left cheek. I keep
my eyes closed and stand perfectly still
in the garden till it leaves me alone,

not to contemplate how this century
ends and the next begins with no one
I know having seen God, but to wonder

why I get through most days unscathed, though I
live in a time when it might be otherwise,
and I grow more fatherless each day.

For years now I have come to conclusions
without my father’s help, discovering
on my own what I know, what I don’t know,

and seeing how one cancels the other.
I’ve become a scholar of cancellations.
Here, I stand among my father’s roses

and see that what punctures outnumbers what
consoles, the cruel and the tender never
make peace, though one climbs, though one descends

petal by petal to the hidden ground
no one owns. I see that which is taken
away by violence or persuasion.

The rose announces on earth the kingdom
of gravity. A bird cancels it.
My eyelids cancel the bird. Anything

might cancel my eyes: distance, time, war.
My father said, Never take your both eyes
off of the world, before he rocked me.

All night we waited for the knock
that would have signalled, All clear, come now;
it would have meant escape; it never came.

I didn’t make the world I leave you with,
he said, and then, being poor, he left me
only this world, in which there is always

a family waiting in terror
before they’re rended, this world wherein a man
might arise, go down, and walk along a path

and pause and bow to roses, roses
his father raised, and admire them, for one moment
unable, thank God, to see in each and
every flower the world cancelling itself.

—From the volume, “The City in Which I Love You” (1990) • Courtesy of  BOA Editions Ltd.


Written in three-line “tercets” until the four-line finale, “Arise, Go Down” begins with a religious allusion to the Book of Exodus, wherein Moses asks God to show himself at long last and God begs off yet again for the stark reason that “…no man can see Me and live.” 

So God tells Moses he will place him in the “cleft of a rock” that he will cover with his hand until he passes by, allowing Moses to emerge and catch sight only of his back and thus live another day.

Lee then brings himself and us into the picture not with a blinding image of an elusive God unwilling to show his face but with another “face” of God entirely: a wasp perched suddenly on Lee’s cheek. Lee knows better than to move or open his eyes upon this god either, so he keeps eyes closed and body still until the fearsome presence alights elsewhere.

But the encounter leaves him slightly shaken. (Who wouldn’t be!) Not, or so he claims, “to contemplate how this century/ends and the next begins with no one/I know having seen God…”

I’d like to stop for a second to note a little sleight-of-word I think Lee performs quite admirably there.

If he’s not contemplating the end of the tempestuous 20th century and the challenge its horrors (world wars, genocides, the nuclear bomb…) present to his own lifelong search for some wisp or other of God, why bother to mention it in a poem where every word and syllable needs to count mightily for what he is contemplating?

The answer is he is contemplating it a-plenty, and he wants you to take due note of that fact before he elaborates on a whole additional sequence of conundrums he is facing without his earthly father’s guidance—nor any certainty whatsoever regarding the true nature of a celestial Father who continues to hide his face.

So the poet simultaneously knows and doesn’t know as “one cancels the other,” leaving him as a veritable (and memorable!) “scholar of cancellations.” (Something tells me I’m going to use that term again…)

The rose no sooner “announces on earth the kingdom/of gravity” than “A bird cancels it…” only for the poet’s eyelids to close and thereby “cancel the bird.” 

And so it goes (and goes and goes…), rising and falling, birthing and dying, arriving and departing, attending and ignoring, much of it the blind, driven propulsion and cycles of nature, but sometimes, human nature of the malignant kind intruding. That’s when we find, to our dismay, “a family waiting in terror/before they’re rended,” the dark dictator and his fateful night-time pounding on the door forever altering lives.

And we know that there, but for dumb luck or grace or whatever we choose to call it, goes our own family, and all that we hold dear.

Ultimately, a poet of the world, contemplating a God of that world and all that such a God abides, must stand up and see as God sees, the poet no longer hiding in a cleft of rock but taking in the world full-frame, unafraid and, in a profound sense, unto a God himself in reckoning with the enormity of the world’s conflicts and contradictions but never forgetting to “pause and bow to roses, roses…”

And if the poet does so, if we as the poets of our own lives do so, we can conclude with an affirmation for the ages, rooted in fearless admiration that serves as liberation at last:

unable, thank God, to see in each and
every flower the world cancelling itself.




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Rock by Nathan Dumlao, Los Angeles, California

Roses by Andrew Hidas

4 comments to Cancellation, Contradiction and Affirmation in Poet Li-Young Lee’s “Arise, Go Down”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    As a child, I read several of Hugh Lofting’s “Dr. Dolittle” stories. In his menagerie of strange animals, the Pushmi-Pullyu, a two headed llama looking creature, was the most fascinating. I wondered how in the world this thing could ever make a decision without an argument arising. One head would say, “Don’t eat the donut. Way too many calories.” The other head would say, “Boy, it tastes good.” I can say without any doubt whatsoever my youth would have sided with the “don’t worry about the calories” head. As the years have gone by, I’ve grown wiser (maybe not), thought less about donuts and the Pushmi-Pullyu’s innocence has evolved into a yin (dark side) and yang (light side) dilemma, a complex being with far-reaching and serious consequences. There’s a certain cancellation to the concept of the yin-yang, although often imbalanced and certainly subjective. How I would have hated being President Truman in August, 1945. His War Department told him that dropping atomic bombs on Japan would save thousands of G.I. lives and certainly end the war. While Truman stated it was an easy decision and one never regretted, it’s hard for me to imagine that the aftermath photos of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t over the years diminish his initial enthusiasm. Is it possible to dismiss the emotional impact of a photo showing a mother cradling her disfigured, dying child in her arms without some degree of regret? I recall a passage from “Inherit the Wind’, a play based on the Scopes Trial, in which Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) faces the jury and says, “Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, “All right, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.” There’s a cancellation quality to his summation as there is in so much of life. Speaking of trials…

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, it was not for nothing that Truman took a shine, sober as it was, to “The buck stops here.” Glad I have never faced the likes of that buck, nor even a penny’s worth of it. I think it melds nicely with another maxim: “There’s no free lunch.”

      Also: it’s impressive how often the Scopes trial and the works it spawned come up for discussion, I must say. One of those historical watersheds that inform every era. Nice little soliloquy you cited, thanks! Something tells me we won’t hear anything quite so eloquent emerge from the current trial riveting the country.,..

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Throughout much of my professional life I lived the “buck-stops-here” reality of decision-making and, hence, surfed the turbulent waters at the confluence of the “what I know/what I don’t know” tension. It was often a helluva place to occupy (accompanied by more than a few restless nights when the demons of the night raged in my conscious and unconscious battles to settle on the correct course of action). I learned that the “don’t know” side of the equation can debilitate and leave one paralyzingly indecisive. (Not a good position for one tasked with leading a team, department, or organization—or a family, for that matter). The act of moving forward amid the doubts of unknowns and what-ifs requires a commitment to acting upon what-I -know, when-I-know-it and then, like the rose petal, detaching from the security of the vine and parachuting toward the ever-changing ground below to stick the landing with resolve that the determination decided upon fits into the flow of things.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      It’s that pivot foot all over again, Jay! You’ve finished your dribble and two or three defenders are swarming all over you. Better do something—but what? Probably should’ve had something mind before you picked up the ball, but it’s REALLY imperative that you do something now, so get on with it, can’t just stand there!

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