My Sweet Accompanist

Li-Young Lee

We were alive together once.
I thought it was that way from the beginning
of time. And I sang
my songs for him, and he rocked,
squeezing and pulling the accordion in his lap,
while his eyes glistened, shining.

My singing done, he stopped and looked away,
wiped his eyes, then turned
another face to me.
And he said,

“I don’t need to hear your descriptions of my garden.
I planted everything in that garden.
I can read each leaf and bud
by sunlight, by moonlight, and by no light.
You think I don’t know what’s in my garden?
Or who or what’s been there?
I taught you to love your neighbor.
Write a song about that.”

Two fathers in one, I was their son,
we three alive together
in one space two at a time,
each of us taking his turn
alone in a double shadow.
He and I, and him remaindered.
Both of him, and me carried, carrying.
From the beginning of time.

And I thought it would be forever
I would sing for them,
my father in tears, whose fingers jumped
up and down the black and white keys,
and my father who waited
for the end of my song to say:

“I don’t need to hear about your categories:
Self/not self.
Nature/not nature.

Where your cleverness can’t reach,
there are victims in the world without a defender.
The accusers are full of passion.
The persecutors hated us without a cause.
The ones who know not what they do are fierce,
though sometimes they apologized before murdering their prey.

Yet, I taught you to renounce violence.
I taught you love means to vest your interest
in the outcome of the other.
Desire means deriving
pleasure from the other.
I taught you to distinguish
poison from elixir, salt from decay.
Degree, degree, degree.
Write a song about that.”

A boy becomes a young man in an instant.
But not before he learns to say yes to life
is to say yes to death.
To say no to death
is to say no to living.

A young man becomes an old man even quicker.
But not before he gives up life
and death, yes and no.

These days, it’s one in the light, and two in the dark.
Or two beyond light and dark,
and one still subject wondering
in what key one of two fathers would play,
and what would the other of that stubborn pair say
if they could hear the song I wrote just yesterday,

A song in which the people
are the same size as the animals and the trees,
and all of them are the same size as the sun.
And every living thing is crying with its mouth wide open.
Blue tears the size of giant petals are spurting
from the eyes of the sun,
from the eyes of the trees,
from the eyes of the grass,
and from the eyes of the four-legged
standing on four feet,
and from the eyes of the four-legged
standing on two feet,
and from the eyes of the two-legged
standing with hands and arms raised.

One remains and carries the two,
so I won’t say I’m fatherless,
Though I’ve been singing to myself for years now,
without my father’s playing, that sweet accompanist
and sad witness, wounded plaintiff, now silent
casualty of the 20th century.

Li-Young Lee is the author of several volumes of poetry, including most recently The Invention of the Darling, as well as a new translation of the Dao De Jing (with co-translator Yun Wang).
Originally published:
November 1, 2017


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