by Li-Young Lee
I buried my father
in the sky.
Since then, the birds
clean and comb him every morning
and pull the blanket up to his chin
I buried my father underground.
Since then, my ladders
only climb down,
and all the earth has become a house
whose rooms are the hours, whose doors
stand open at evening, receiving
guest after guest.
Sometimes I see past them
to the tables spread for a wedding feast.
I buried my father in my heart.
Now he grows in me, my strange son,
my little root who won't drink milk,
little pale foot sunk in unheard-of night,
little clock spring newly wet
in the fire, little grape, parent to the future
wine, a son the fruit of his own son,
little father I ransom with my life.
Li-Young Lee's elegiac poem explores both the physical and psychological ways in which we bury the dead. Its first stanza refers to sky burial, a Buddhist funeral practice in which the body is left on a mountaintop to be eaten by scavenging birds.
Lee was born in Indonesia to Chinese parents before emigrating to the U.S. in 1964. The author of many books of poetry and a memoir, he has taught at Northwestern University and the University of Iowa. He lives in Chicago."Little Father," from Book of My Nights © 2001 by Li-Young Lee, used by permission of the author.