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Analysis of Poem "The Gift" by Li-Young Lee

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee and a Summary of The Gift

The Gift is one of Li-Young Lee's reflective poems that contrasts childhood memory with present action in adulthood. It's a free verse poem of four stanzas so has no set rhyme scheme or consistent meter.

In it the speaker recalls the time when his father pulled a metal sliver from his young hand. This scene is fast-forwarded in time to present the reader with the speaker now removing a splinter from his wife's thumbnail. The poem explores the contrasting scenarios.

As in several of Lee's major poems, his father features strongly. The Gift focuses on a specific incident at a time when the speaker, as a child, is particularly sensitive and aware. The child feels threatened by the iron sliver; the father by pulling it out 'saves' his life.

So the poem is also about childhood fear and irrationality, and the learning of a lesson from the father. His calm and unusual yet disciplined approach reassures the son and it is both powerful presence and action the lines gather around.

The Gift has a typical Li-Young atmosphere - tensions are allayed by a meditative voice which invites the reader in with first person intimacy; a story-like narrative then takes over that at times borders on the mystical, presenting symbolic imagery and folk-wisdom.

Li-Young Lee had a traumatic childhood. His parents, both Chinese, (his father had been a doctor to Mau Zedong, Chairman Mao) had to flee from Indonesia, where Li-Young was born in 1957, because of political upheaval. After living in Hong Kong, Macau and Japan, the family finally settled in the USA.

The Gift, first published in The American Poetry Review, September/October 1983, also appeared in his first book, Rose, 1986.

As a poet Li-Young says:

"The minute I wake up, there’s something inside of me that’s reading the world for its poetic state. I feel there’s a part of me that’s doing it even when I’m not jotting things down: I’m looking and listening and feeling, trying to stay in meditation. I’m listening for poems all the time." (from An Interview With Poet 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.

Analysis of The Gift Stanza by Stanza

The Gift has four stanzas, 35 free verse lines, no set rhyme scheme and varying meter.

This is a reflective poem, prose-like, chopped into lines that mostly flow sequentially, as if the speaker is quietly telling you a story. Although first person 'I' is apparent throughout the poem there is a shift in stanza 3 where the speaker addresses the reader as 'you.'

First Stanza

The reader is straight into the action - here is a child having a metal splinter removed from his palm by his father, who, to distract his son, tells a story.

The first person speaker who is the poet is going back in time to a specific incident, focusing on the power of the father, mentioned in the second line. A splinter in the flesh is a common enough occurrence for any child, but here there is a special tension created because the child fears death.

Three sentences, two lines enjambed (no end punctuation, so the reader can continue with hardly a pause, and the meaning runs on line to line), and an accidental iambic pentameter mode to lines 1 and 3, which flow with rhythmic ease.

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Second Stanza

Shorter lines follow as the speaker further details the feelings he had as that child being taken care of by his father. Metaphor is used to help enrich his father's voice, a well of dark water, a prayer. Out of feeling comes the religious language. The child thought of death, the father brought relief through words carried on faith.

Further strong imagery appears as the father comforts the child with his hands, not used for prayer, but holding heat, fire, flame, which the child feels above his head. This almost seems to be an act of purification.

After the metal splinter is out the father's hands become part of the healing process - they feel tender. The father's empathy with the child's predicament is clear; the experienced hands perform the delicate task; the voice soothes and distracts the child from pain.

Third Stanza

Leaving the past behind, the speaker rhetorically suggests that had you (the reader) entered in on the scene of the splinter removal at that time, you would have seen the father depositing something in the hand of the child. Or it would have looked as if this was happening.

This change in perspective is unusual. The silver tear, the tiny flame represent emotion, feeling and healing. These are the basic elements, symbolic.

Had the reader followed the boy (through life, up to this present time) they would now be witness to another splinter removal, this time the boy turned adult male husband is helping his wife.

Fourth Stanza

The reader is further invited to 'look' 'watch' as the husband carefully removes a splinter from his wife's hand. Reflective lines follow, the speaker recalling his thoughts on mortality when he had the metal sliver removed by his father.

Are these memories valid? The question needs to be asked, because the adult, the husband, is now expressing the fears of dying he had as a child but the various utterances on the subject of splinter and death are in the negative - the child did not hold that shard and think of death.

The child simply kissed his father because he had been given a gift, something to keep, for life. The gift of healing, how to help someone in pain. It's debateable whether or not, at the time of the father's removal of the sliver, the boy knew he was receiving a gift. All he felt probably was huge relief. He didn't die. He paid respect to his father with a kiss.

The reader has to decide if the poet succeeds in pulling off the transition in the third stanza, when the speaker addresses the reader directly, the tone like that of a narrator of a short story.

Sources

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

“The Undressing”: Poetry of Passion Laid Bare | The New Yorker

The Body Electric Anthology, Norton, 2000

Being Alive, Bloodaxe Books, 2004

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Andrew Spacey

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