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“The Gift” is a poem by Li-Young Lee, published in his collection “Rose” in 1986. Lee, an Asian-American poet, delves into themes of heritage, familial bonds, and the delicate yet strong connection between human relationships. In this poem, the poet talks about the complexity of love, loss and culture. The poem is the narration of the poet experiencing a déjà vu while doing something. He is reminded of the time when he was with his father. The poem shifts its narration from present to past and then back to present to highlight the temporal characteristic of love and loss.
About the poet
Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia. He moved to America and abolished himself as an Asian-American poet. He has received multiple awards for his works including the American Book Award, the Whiting Award for Poetry and James Laughlin Award. He is best known for his collection “The City in Which I Love You” and “From Blossoms”.
The poem is written in free-verse. The poem is made up of 4 stanzas. Each stanza has an irregular line count.
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.
In these lines the speaker describes a moment with his father. The speaker has a metal splinter in his palm, and rather than focusing on the blade his father is using, he pays attention to his father’s storytelling. The father, in a low voice, shares a story as he skillfully removes the metal splinter. The narrative unfolds with the speaker’s anxiety about the sliver he thought could be fatal, but by the end of the story, the father successfully removes it.
In the lines provided, the act of the father reciting a story while removing a metal splinter from the speaker’s palm serves as a powerful metaphor for the healing and transformative nature of narratives within the family. The father’s shares the story in a “low voice” . This adds a layer of intimacy within the poem. The poet highlights how his father’s act of storytelling becomes a means of distraction and comfort, allowing him to focus on the story instead of the pain from the blade. The poet employs vivid imagery, such as “the metal splinter in my palm,” to create a tangible and relatable scenario. Additionally, the use of enjambment enhances the flow of the lines, mirroring the seamless connection between the act of storytelling and the physical removal of the splinter.
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.
In these lines the speaker talks about how although he can’t recall the specific tale, the resonance of his father’s voice is vividly present, described as a “well of dark water” and a “prayer.” The memory then shifts to physical gestures, emphasizing the father’s role in the speaker’s life. The father’s hands are remembered as “two measures of tenderness” against the speaker’s face. Simultaneously, the father’s hands are associated with the “flames of discipline” raised above the speaker’s head, suggesting a complex dynamic that includes both nurturing and authoritative elements.
The poet unfolds the theme of storytelling when, despite forgetting a specific tale, he emphasizes the lasting impact of his father’s voice, describing it as a “well of dark water” and a “prayer.” This suggests a meaningful and spiritual dimension to the storytelling. The poet smoothly transitions to physical gestures, with the father’s hands remembered as both tender and disciplinarian—providing a nuanced portrayal of their relationship. Through the lines, the poet tells a complex father-son bond, where the father’s role involves both affectionate care and authoritative guidance.
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 speaker now imagines a scene where an observer might have witnessed a moment of significance between a man and a boy. The man appears to be planting something delicate and meaningful in the boy’s palm, described as a “silver tear” or a “tiny flame.” This act suggests a transfer of something precious or symbolic. The speaker then shifts the narrative to the present, where the speaker, now grown, is bending over his wife’s right hand. The implication is that the planted seed or flame has grown into a connection that extends to the speaker’s own family.
The poet in these lines talks about imagining the moment between a man and a boy. He creates the image of planting something delicate and meaningful, described as a “silver tear” or a “tiny flame,” conveying a sense of profound symbolism and the transfer of something precious. The shift to the present, where the grown speaker is bending over his wife’s hand, is used to show the continuity in the metaphorical planting. The seed or flame, initially given by the father, has evolved into a connection that now extends to the speaker’s own family. The poetic devices used by the poet, such as metaphor and symbolism, play a significant role in conveying the depth of these themes. The “silver tear” and “tiny flame” serve as powerful metaphors, suggesting not only fragility and delicacy but also the potential for growth and warmth.
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.
The speaker in these lines talks about an intimate and tender act, where he is shaving his wife’s thumbnail with great care to avoid causing her any pain. The description is parallel to his childhood memory of his father doing the same for him when removing a splinter. The act of removing the splinter is depicted as a shared experience, connecting generations. The speaker contrasts his own childhood response with a more mature understanding. As a child, he didn’t perceive the potential harm of the metal shard but instead accepted it as a gift, naming it “Little Assassin” or “Ore Going Deep for My Heart.” The poem ends with the speaker, reflecting on this memory, expressing gratitude and affection by kissing his father.
The poet in this stanza describes a tender moment of shaving his wife’s thumbnail, reminiscent of a similar act by his father in his childhood. The act of removing a splinter becomes a shared experience connecting generations. The contrast between the speaker’s childhood perception of a metal shard as a gift, named “Little Assassin” or “Ore Going Deep for My Heart,” and his current understanding adds depth to the narrative. The use of naming reflects the innocence of childhood, where even potential harm is accepted as a gift. The poem concludes with the speaker expressing gratitude and affection by kissing his father. This highlights the enduring impact of familial gestures.