Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Gift by Li-Young Lee

The Gift
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.

Li-Young Lee

This beautiful poem does something seldom seen in literature: it dramatizes a vital moment between a careful, loving father and his open-hearted son. That's why I love it.
It's rare, complex and lovely.
The son has learned the important things from his father whom he treasures. The poem's language is succinct, clear, astounding and poignant. My favorite lines, other than the last which always brings tears, "...his hands,/ two measures of tenderness/ he laid against my face, the flames of discipline/ he raised above my head."
 I love the courage in these lines - the courage to say how careful and important his father's way of parenting was.  The poem shows a man who has learned from his father to be careful, who has learned how to heal, how to relieve pain. Caring for his son taught him how to love. Words like dark, well, silver, tear, flame, palm, splinter, metal, thumbnail,and shave bring the scene to mind, words like prayer, tenderness, christen give more to think about.  I can see the father, then the grown son, leaning over the outstretched palm of the wounded. 

But I can also see the poet bending over his poem in concentration and yearning. But the poem's cohesion and power show a poet who writes with careful attention to the idea he wishes to bring out. The words and images are placed as carefully as the hands were placed when they removed the splinter and planted skill. The parallel structure of the lines and of the time periods, the beauty of the images, the suggestion of deeper life, create a picture vivid and true - a picture that says something meaningful and important.  Poems like this can heal as surely as hands that remove a splinter.  The truth, aptly spoken, can lift a human being's heart, comfort fears, give hope. We need more poems as true, as carefully made, and original as this.


  1. This is a wonderful poem. What brought it to your mind today? I wonder why people always remember their fathers for discipline?

  2. I love this, I had never read this poem before and you are right it is wonderful but what I love most I think is the second to ending sentence. I rejoice in that!

  3. I love the poem, very sweet. I remember little of my dad but have lucky to get to know him later in life. He was missing from about 30 years but now we spend time getting to know each other again. I am blessed now to have the time with him.

  4. A lovely healing poem for a day that has been feeling rent. Thank you!