Arts & Culture » Culture

American Life in Poetry


Li-Young Lee, who lives in Chicago, evokes through the use of carefully chosen images a culture, a time of day and an understanding of love through the quiet observation of gesture.

Early in the Morning

While the long grain is softening

in the water, gurgling

over a low stove flame, before

the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced

for breakfast, before the birds,

my mother glides an ivory comb

through her hair, heavy

and black as calligrapher's ink.

She sits at the foot of the bed.

My father watches, listens for

the music of comb

against hair.

My mother combs,

pulls her hair back

tight, rolls it

around two fingers, pins it

in a bun to the back of her head.

For half a hundred years she has done this.

My father likes to see it like this.

He says it is kempt.

But I know

it is because of the way

my mother's hair falls

when he pulls the pins out.

Easily, like the curtains

when they untie them in the evening.


Reprinted from Rose, BOA Editions, Ltd., 1986, by permission of the publisher. Copyright 1986 by Li-Young Lee, whose most recent book of poetry is Book of My Nights, BOA Editions, Ltd., 2001. This weekly column is supported by the Poetry Foundation, the Library of Congress and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.

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