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‘The Gift’ is a poem written by Li-Young Lee. It revolves around the close-knit relationship the persona had with their father and how it reflects on their later life.
About the Poet:
Li-Young Lee (1957-) is a prominent American poet. He is famed for being the great-grandson of Yuan Shikai, China’s first Republican President. Famous works of his include ‘From Blossoms’, ‘The City In Which I Love You’, and ‘Book of my Nights’.
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.
The poem begins with an incident from the persona’s childhood. Upon a metal splinter piercing the persona’s hand, their father is seen to be narrating a ‘story in a low voice’ and removing the splinter the persona thought they’d ‘die from’ gently. This is a core memory in the persona’s childhood wherein their love for their father is highlighted.
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.
The persona does not remember the story their father had told them that day. What they do remember is his voice and how his hands were tender against their face. The discipline he instilled remains fresh in their mind as well, revealing the respect they had for their father.
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.
The persona addresses the readers here. They state that had the readers been there that afternoon when this eventful incident had taken place, they would have seen a man placing a ‘silver tear, a tiny flame’, indicating how their act of infinite kindness proved to be ‘the gift’ the title reveals.
Again, the persona addresses the readers. They state that had they followed the young boy the persona was then, they would arrive at the present where the persona was grown now, bending over their 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.
Here, the persona is taking the same stance their father had years ago. They shave their wife’s thumbnail down ‘carefully’ so that ‘she feels no pain’, just like their father had when the persona himself was 7 years old.
The childlike innocence of the persona is revealed when they realize how they had thought the metal splinter was a ‘Little Assasin’ that would kill them and had wanted to cry out ‘Death visited here!” Rather, they had done what a child who had been given a gift did- they kissed their father.
This is a beautiful poem. It reveals how the little acts of kindness a child receives impact their lives for years to come in the best way possible.