Seven Marys

July 2006 WLT

Father John,
I have seven Marys.
What am I to do?
Ancient when I was born,
each sings to me in three colors: Blue,
wishing, and following the river.
Growing younger while I die faster
every year, they speak to me
in four languages; Thinking, dreaming,
drowning, and guitar.
And one never knows what to do with her hair.
And one rocks me in and out of moonlight.
One cauterizes broken wing joints with black honey.
And one lifts my heart
onto the weighing pan opposite hunger.
Seven Marys, Father, and one
sets me on her lap and opens a book
and moves her finger from word to word
while I sound out evening’s encrypted sentences.
And one is the book itself. A book,
yet not a book,
but a house called Day.
Seven, Father John, Marys, Father John,
the fulcrum, the eye, the heart enthroned, the dove
without person, homing.
And I can’t tell the one who’s always looking ahead
from the one who’s always looking behind,
the one who’s late for everything
from the one who’s quick to remind me:
Be ever beginning.
At time’s brim, abreast
of that dream
whose wake is each flown act, word,
wish, the stars, their dust,
who stays too long at childhood’s window
leaves earth’s shadow unsung.
Seven Marys, Father John, seven laughing Sarahs.
One to kiss my mouth and one to tie my hands.
One to build the pyre and one to assure me:
Don’t be afraid. Find yourself
inside good-bye, one with life,
one with death.
Seven mothers, their backs turned,
walk ahead of me forever.
Sisters dancing, they’re the hub
of all that wheels,
all that joins or comes asunder.
Rachels underneath my bed, they decide
the fate of my sleep.
Bells tolling my solitude,
they’re seven zeroes
trumping every count.
Lure, slaughter, feast,
blood in the throat,
fire at the whispered gate, the song
that keeps leaving, they’re seven wings
stalking my voice,
they’re seven dragons marrying seven sheep
with their heads bent down
by seven enormous crowns.
Marys, Father, Rachels and Sarahs,
and I can’t tell one from the other.
Is it Rachel who sings to remember the flood?
Is it Sarah who sings to forget it?
Is it Mary making my bed?
Which one can tell me
the shape of my destiny?

Li-Young Lee’s previous verse collections include Rose (1986), winner of the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award;The City in Which I Love You (1991), the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and Book of My Nights (2001). He is also the author of a memoir, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (1995), which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee, forthcoming from BOA Editions in fall 2006. Lee’s honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lannan Foundation, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. As a juror for the 2006 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, he nominated poet Gerald Stern for the award. Born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, of Chinese parents, Lee fled Indonesia with his family in 1959 after his father spent a year as a political prisoner in President Sukarno’s jails. Between 1959 and 1964 the Lee family traveled throughout Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan before settling in the United States. Lee currently lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife, Donna, and their two children.


Recommended Reading: