by Li-Young Lee

Original Language English

In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say,
A house inside a house,
but most of all to hear his mother answer,
One more song, then you go to sleep.

How could anyone in that bed guess
the question finds its beginning
in the answer long growing
inside the one who asked, that restless boy,
the night's darling?

Later, a man lying awake,
he might ask it again,
just to hear the silence
charge him, This night
arching over your sleepless wondering,

this night, the near ground
every reaching-out-to overreaches,

just to remind himself
out of what little earth and duration,
out of what immense good-bye,

each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.

-- from Book of My Nights, by Li-Young Lee

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

How about this poem for the Christmas season today?

Maybe we should first ask, just what does this poem have to do with the Nativity anyway? What does it have to do with the traditional scene of the Christ child lying in a manger?

The poem starts with a question asked in the dark by a child: What is the world? The responses he gets are beautiful and soothing, but also fleeting. There is something haunting about asking such a question in the darkness.

So, back to the Nativity. In the Nativity, we discover the pure spark of light that is the Christ child, surrounded by the emptiness of the night. The Nativity is an image of light in the darkness. A small child, vulnerable, humble, poor, a tiny point of existence, surrounded by the immensity of the night... but with the promise that the light will increase until it floods the world with its light. (It's no accident that Christmas occurs near the Winter Solstice, when the world is plunged in darkness and awaits the rebirth of the sun.)

Li-Young Lee, asking his question into the night, feels that smallness. The boy first asking the question is small, the man grown feels small too. Even the question itself seems ready to be swallowed up in the dark. But it isn't. The question persists. It persists and grows and shines.

The question is alchemical. It causes the child to become aware of existence. As he grows, he notices the process of coagula et solve of existence, the way life both gathers together and then dissolves. He discovers "earth and duration," but also the "immense good-bye." Though they seem opposites, one flows into the other. And from their living, dynamic tension, the mind is stretched open. And the heart, broken and warmed, broken and warmed, it too opens.

That question -- What is the world? -- haunting the nights and the years, working its quiet alchemy, becomes an invitation and a challenge in the awareness, coaxing us to make of the heart the true manger:

each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.


Li-Young Lee has a fascinating family history. Lee's maternal grandfather was the first president of the Republic of China. His father, however, came from a family of businessmen and gangsters. During the Chinese Civil War, Lee's father was attached to a nationalist general who switched sides, which resulted in Dr. Lee becoming the personal physician to Mao Tse-tung for a brief time.

Li-Young Lee was born after the war when his family had moved to Indonesia. While Lee was still a toddler, his father was jailed for political reasons for nearly two years. When he was eventually released, the family moved about for a while. In Hong Kong Lee's father became a hugely successful evangelical preacher and businessman.

Lee's father was an emotional man and, after an argument, he dropped everything and left with his family, finally settling in the United States, where Dr. Lee became the minister of a small church in Pennsylvania.

Li-Young Lee grew up in the US and studied at the University of Pittsburgh. He currently lives in Chicago.


May we all remember that this time of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Solstice, is for the renewal of the light within ourselves and our world. Regardless of religion, may we recognize our shared brotherhood and sisterhood within the human family, all within the lap of the generous green earth that is our home. Sending love to everyone!

Recommended Books: Li-Young Lee

Book of My Nights Rose The City in Which I Love You Behind My Eyes: Poems