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Analysis of Poem "Visions and Interpretations" 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 "Visions and Interpretations"

"Visions and Interpretations" is a meditative account of a family death, that of the father, and the speaker's attempts to make sense of that loss. It is a poem that travels back into the past in order to understand the present, in order to find some absolute truth.

  • Grief is a central theme. The speaker, the son, tries several times to put his father's loss into perspective, so in a way, the poem is a therapeutical tool, a calm almost logical story that moves along on a stream of underlying emotion.
  • The speaker is in transition, learning to cope with memory, loss and the foundation of truth.

Li-Young Lee, born in Indonesia in 1957 to Chinese parents, has strong ties to his father and has written many poems about him and the family. His father was a political prisoner in Indonesia for a time before moving to the USA, where Li-Young Lee grew up and was educated.

Memory plays a big role in his poetry, which is sometimes heavy with symbolism and quiet, personal involvement. His work has been called 'near mysticism', a reflection of his love of nature and simple interior unfolding.

Li-Young Lee can move from the everyday object to the ephemeral with ease. A shift in perspective, a look back, a suggestion—he can introduce flowers, blossom, children and death into a poem and distill a sense of joy out of his lyrical style.

Readers of his poetry sometimes accuse him of being sentimental, even trite. Perhaps this is because he shows great humility in some of his poems and often searches for a grain of universal wisdom, wanting to transcend time.

"Visions and Interpretations", published in his first book Roses, 1986, moves between imagined scenarios and reality, a here and now. The speaker is carrying flowers up to a grave, that is certain, but seems hesitant and cannot reconcile the death and his emotional state.

The speaker has been here before, but never quite made it to the actual grave of his father. First, a book, then a dream, proved too big a distraction, so he must keep trying, despite the grief and tension.

"Visions and Interpretations"

Because this graveyard is a hill,

I must climb up to see my dead,

stopping once midway to rest

beside this tree.

It was here, between the anticipation

of exhaustion, and exhaustion,

between vale and peak,

my father came down to me

and we climbed arm in arm to the top.

He cradled the bouquet I'd brought,

and I, a good son, never mentioned his grave,

erect like a door behind him.

And it was here, one summer day, I sat down

to read an old book. When I looked up

from the noon-lit page, I saw a vision

of a world about to come, and a world about to go.

Truth is, I've not seen my father

since he died, and, no, the dead

do not walk arm in arm with me.

If I carry flowers to them, I do so without their help,

the blossoms not always bright, torch-like,

but often heavy as sodden newspaper.

Truth is, I came here with my son one day,

and we rested against this tree,

and I fell asleep, and dreamed

a dream which, upon my boy waking me, I told.

Neither of us understood.

Then we went up.

Even this is not accurate.

Let me begin again:

Between two griefs, a tree.

Between my hands, white chrysanthemums, yellow chrysanthemums.

The old book I finished reading

I've since read again and again.

And what was far grows near,

and what is near grows more dear,

and all of my visions and interpretations

depend on what I see,

and between my eyes is always

the rain, the migrant rain.

Analysis of "Visions and Interpretations" Stanza by Stanza

"Visions and Interpretations" is a free verse poem with 13 stanzas made up of 40 lines. There is no set rhyme scheme and no regular patterns of meter.

Stanza 1

The speaker sets the scene. He is to climb up a hill to the graveyard and has to stop under a tree to rest.

The tree has long been a symbol of family and life—rooted in the earth, branching up towards heaven, the connection between the mundane and the spiritual. And of course, in common parlance, the family tree is familiar to all.

Stanza 2

As he rests he ruminates, thinks back to a time when his father came to him, to that very same tree. Again, the sense of transition is apparent—note the repeat of the word between...implying that the speaker (and the father?) isn't yet settled, hasn't yet completed the journey.

So the poem starts off in the present and shifts to an imagined past.

Stanza 3

They go together to the top, the father holding the flowers, the son not wanting to remind the father of his own death or resting place; a strange phrase, a strange thought to have.

The son thinks that because he doesn't mention the grave he is being good.

Stanza 4

So, in this first imagined past scene, the father and son have reached the top. Now the second imagined scene, where the son is reading a book, an old book and is inspired presumably because of the text?

The son sees one world go and a new world appears. There is no detail, no specifics. All the reader knows is that, for the speaker, profound change is about to come. His father has died and the son must adapt and admit that his world has to change.

Because it is described as a vision, this gives the fourth stanza, arguably, a mystical feel.

More Analysis

Stanza 5

This is a negation of a previous imagined past meeting with the dead father. The speaker realigns with the truth and admits that he made the whole story up—he did not go arm in arm. It was all a ploy.

Stanza 6

The speaker continues his explanation. He does bring flowers but doesn't need assistance. He alone brings them, even if the blooms are affected by his own grief.

Note the simile—heavy as sodden newspaper—old longer fresh flowers.

Stanza 7

The longest stanza of the poem repeats the need for truth. It's as though the speaker is really challenged - does he know the truth, does he know the reality in which he currently lives?

He came to the same tree with his son, again to rest, and found himself sleeping and dreaming. Being woken up, he told that dream to his son - there are no details - and both had no clue as to what it meant. They went up to the grave.

Stanza 8

Yet another twist. This nonrhyming couplet is an admission. The speaker is challenged by the truth and wants to be crystal clear about what has gone before.

Stanza 9

The transitional language recurs. The speaker and the father both have grief and the tree, that most solid of symbols, is crucial. It seems to hold the key. It is a place of rest and meditation; it inspires dreams, it connects two worlds.

Stanza 10

The old book comes into focus again. It must be of importance but the reader isn't given the title. No detail. Could it be the bible? A book of Chinese wisdom?

Stanza 11

Something has clicked in the mind and heart of the speaker, perhaps because of the book, the tree, the flowers; a new clean perception is at hand.

Something that was far away...happiness? Love? He lost his father, lost the love...but because of this transcendent experience on the hill, by the tree, he's regaining that love through memory?

Stanza 12

He has a new way of seeing life, of interpreting his father's death.

Stanza 13

But there's always grief, a strange kind of emotion...part of the natural transition...first grief...then memory...then a kind of happiness...but it will never feel like home.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2018 Andrew Spacey


Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on March 16, 2018:

Thanks for the comment on Li-Young Lee's poem

Dianna Mendez on March 16, 2018:

He does write with a deeper sense of emotion than expected. Poetry helps one think through those moments in time beyond our understanding.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on February 28, 2018:

I don't know of Li-Young Lee, but I did enjoy reading this poem and your analysis of it. I'll check out more of his poetry. =)