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Persimmons by Li-Young Lee

“Persimmons,” a signature poem by Li-Young Lee, was published in his debut collection, Rose (1986). In this poem, Lee strolls down his memory lane, finding traces of his childhood experiences and cultural heritage. This autobiographical piece revolves around the titular oriental fruit cherished by both the speaker and his family. They know how to savor its taste with all their senses. Knives are useless when one knows how to eat them. Eating is part of a greater realization, that is nothing other than love.

  • Read the full text of “Persimmons” below:
Persimmons
by Li-Young Lee

In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference
between persimmon and precision.
How to choose

persimmons. This is precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
will be fragrant. How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down newspaper.
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.
Chew the skin, suck it,
and swallow. Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
so sweet,
all of it, to the heart.

Donna undresses, her stomach is white.
In the yard, dewy and shivering
with crickets, we lie naked,
face-up, face-down.
I teach her Chinese.
Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I’ve forgotten.
Naked:   I’ve forgotten.
Ni, wo:   you and me.
I part her legs,
remember to tell her
she is beautiful as the moon.

Other words
that got me into trouble were
fight and fright, wren and yarn.
Fight was what I did when I was frightened,
Fright was what I felt when I was fighting.
Wrens are small, plain birds,
yarn is what one knits with.
Wrens are soft as yarn.
My mother made birds out of yarn.
I loved to watch her tie the stuff;
a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.

Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat
but watched the other faces.

My mother said every persimmon has a sun
inside, something golden, glowing,
warm as my face.

Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,
forgotten and not yet ripe.
I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,
where each morning a cardinal
sang, The sun, the sun.

Finally understanding
he was going blind,
my father sat up all one night
waiting for a song, a ghost.
I gave him the persimmons,
swelled, heavy as sadness,
and sweet as love.

This year, in the muddy lighting
of my parents’ cellar, I rummage, looking
for something I lost.
My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,
black cane between his knees,
hand over hand, gripping the handle.
He’s so happy that I’ve come home.
I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.
All gone, he answers.

Under some blankets, I find a box.
Inside the box I find three scrolls.
I sit beside him and untie
three paintings by my father:
Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.
Two cats preening.
Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.

He raises both hands to touch the cloth,
asks, Which is this?

This is persimmons, Father.

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.

- from Rose (1986)
Analysis of Persimmons by Li-Young Lee


Summary

In “Persimmons,” Lee begins with one of his childhood experiences. Mrs. Walker, the language teacher, slapped the back of his head for not knowing the difference between “persimmon” and “precision.” The speaker represents a Chinese-American man struggling to cope with American culture. Yet, the Chinese heritage is resonant in his mind. He knows how to eat the fruit though he mistakes the fruit’s name with another word.

The memory of eating the fruit guides the speaker to another one. There he is with his beloved Donna, making love in the open yard and teaching her some Chinese words. After that, he recounts another instance of his childish mistakes. The words “fight” and “fright,” “wren” and “yarn” troubled him the most. But, he was well aware of their meanings.

In the following stanzas, the speaker walks back to the memories of Mrs. Walker’s class, his blind father, and returning home as an adult. As an adult, he mostly lost touch with his actual identity. However, his father reminded him of the three important things that one could never forget: the scent of one’s loved one’s hair, persimmons’ texture, and their ripe weight.

Structure & Form

“Persimmons” by Li-Young Lee is a free-verse autobiographical poem. It consists of thirteen stanzas with an uneven line count. The unpredictability of the rhyme hooks readers in wonder. Besides, Lee uses a conversational flow. He narrates the events of his life from the first-person point of view and in the past tense. In only the third stanza, he uses the present tense. It seems the memory of lovemaking with his wife Donna is still reverberant in comparison to other memories of his childhood. Apart from that, he uses italics to highlight the actual speeches from the narrative.

Literary Devices

Lee uses the following literary devices in his poem “Persimmons.”

Enjambment

It’s one of the important literary devices used in the text. One line spills onto the next creating an unhindered flow. For instance, enjambment occurs in the following lines:

In sixth grade Mrs. Walker

slapped the back of my head

and made me stand in the corner

for not knowing the difference

between persimmon and precision.

How to choose

persimmons. This is precision.

Imagery

Lee uses visual, tactile, and gustatory imagery in the poem. He uses this device to depict the actual process of eating persimmons, their taste, and their texture. Alongside that, he vividly describes the scene of lovemaking in these lines evoking the sense of touch:

Donna undresses, her stomach is white.

In the yard, dewy and shivering

with crickets, we lie naked,

face-up, face-down.

(…)

I part her legs,

remember to tell her

she is beautiful as the moon.

Symbolism

The persimmon is the most important symbol in the poem. It stands for the childhood memories of the speaker, love, and heritage. For Lee, it is a manifestation of something very close to his heart. It is a medium to explore what he has lost with time.

Simile

It occurs in the following instances:

  • “she is beautiful as the moon.”
  • “Wrens are soft as yarn.”
  • “warm as my face.”
  • “swelled, heavy as sadness,/ and sweet as love.”

Metaphor

Lee uses metaphors in a number of instances. For example, he compares the art of choosing ripe persimmons to “precision,” an art. Furthermore, his mother compared the core of the fruit to the sun and his father metaphorically describes the matured, swollen persimmons as a “ripe weight.”

Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-17

In sixth grade Mrs. Walker

slapped the back of my head

and made me stand in the corner

for not knowing the difference

between persimmon and precision.

How to choose

persimmons. This is precision.

Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.

Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one

will be fragrant. How to eat:

put the knife away, lay down newspaper.

Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.

Chew the skin, suck it,

and swallow. Now, eat

the meat of the fruit,

so sweet,

all of it, to the heart.

The poem “Persimmons” begins with a humiliating memory of the speaker’s childhood. In this poem, the speaker, a Chinese-American adult, recounts the events from both his childhood and adulthood. When he was in the sixth grade at an American school, the teacher Mrs. Walker cruelly reacted to his mistake. She slapped on the back of his head and made him stand in the corner for not knowing the difference between the words “persimmon” and “precision.” It was probably for the first time he realized that to be accepted in the American system he was required to learn their ways, forgetting his own. Else he had to endure the humiliations.

However, he was well aware of the meaning of the words though he did not know their American pronunciation. Choosing the ripe persimmons from the unripe ones is “precision.” Ripe ones are soft, brown-speckled, and fragrant. To eat the fruit one has to put the knife away and lay down the newspaper. Then, the skin should be peeled tenderly without tearing the meat. In the following steps, the speaker describes how to savor its rich taste by heart. It tastes sweet to the very core.

Lines 18-28

Donna undresses, her stomach is white.

In the yard, dewy and shivering

with crickets, we lie naked,

face-up, face-down.

I teach her Chinese.

Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I’ve forgotten.

Naked:   I’ve forgotten.

Ni, wo:   you and me.

I part her legs,

remember to tell her

she is beautiful as the moon.

In the third stanza, the speaker juxtaposes the memory of savoring persimmons with the memory of lovemaking with his beloved Donna. This entire section is written in the past tense as if the scene is still fresh in his memory. Compared to the other events mentioned in other stanzas, it seems this particular fragment is still with the speaker, fresh and new.

He recounts how they made love in the yard, dewy and shivering. In the backdrop, the crickets sang along. She was underneath and the speaker mounting on her “white body” tried to teach her Chinese. In the process of assimilation into American culture, he forgot the Chinese for several English terms, such as the dew, naked, etc. Apart from that, he remembers telling her how beautiful she looked, like the magnificent full moon in the starry sky.

In these lines, one can find the dominance of the color “white,” signaling the American culture. Donna, an American woman, represents the dominant culture and the speaker bears a fragmented identity. When he parted her legs, he not only went into her but also lost the fading tinge of his Chinese identity. His colors were lost in the vast whiteness.

Lines 29-39

Other words

that got me into trouble were

fight and fright, wren and yarn.

Fight was what I did when I was frightened,

Fright was what I felt when I was fighting.

Wrens are small, plain birds,

yarn is what one knits with.

Wrens are soft as yarn.

My mother made birds out of yarn.

I loved to watch her tie the stuff;

a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.

In the fourth stanza of “Persimmons,” the speaker talks about the words that got him into trouble. These are “fight” and “fright”; “wren” and “yarn.” He was aware of the meaning of the words, but he could not pronounce them properly. According to him, he fought back while frightened and felt frightened during a fight. In a similar fashion, he describes the meanings of “wrens”(“small, plain birds”) and “yarn” (“one knits with”). Using a simile, he compares them beautifully. In the next lines, the speaker remembers how his mother made birds, little animals such as rabbits, and a “wee” man out of yarn.

Lines 40-48

Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class

and cut it up

so everyone could taste

a Chinese apple. Knowing

it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat

but watched the other faces.

My mother said every persimmon has a sun

inside, something golden, glowing,

warm as my face.

The speaker revisits one of the memories of Mrs. Walker’s class. Once she brought a persimmon to the class, referring to it as the “Chinese apple.” She told one student to cut it up so that everyone could taste it. The speaker knew it was neither ripe nor sweet. So, he refrained from taking a bite and watched the reactions of his classmates. If the teacher would have asked him, he might have saved the class from having a bitter first encounter with this incredibly delicious fruit. She did not know the traditional way of eating the fruit either.

This memory leads the speaker to another related to his mother. She said to him, “Every persimmon has a sun/ inside”. It looks golden and glows like his face. In this way, the speaker metaphorically connects the color of the fruit’s core to that of the sun. The simile at the end hints at the sweet relationship between the speaker and the fruit.

Lines 49-60

Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,

forgotten and not yet ripe.

I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,

where each morning a cardinal

sang, The sun, the sun.

Finally understanding

he was going blind,

my father sat up all one night

waiting for a song, a ghost.

I gave him the persimmons,

swelled, heavy as sadness,

and sweet as love.

“Persimmons” is a concoction, a thread tying some important yet fading memories of the speaker. He jumps from one to another based on a dominant image. He follows where his mind leads him and shares it with readers. In this stanza, the speaker recounts the discovery of two persimmons wrapped in newspaper in their cellar. Knowing not yet ripe, he set them on his bedroom windowsill. Each morning a cardinal sang there. He waited till the fruits were ripe.

In the next stanza, the speaker describes how he gave the ripe persimmons to his father, who was going blind. His father sat up all alone one night. Then he gave him the persimmons. They were swollen and felt “heavy as sadness,” and “sweet as love.” Through these comparisons, he actually hints at his sadness and love for his aging father.

Lines 61-76

This year, in the muddy lighting

of my parents’ cellar, I rummage, looking

for something I lost.

My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,

black cane between his knees,

hand over hand, gripping the handle.

He’s so happy that I’ve come home.

I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.

All gone, he answers.

Under some blankets, I find a box.

Inside the box I find three scrolls.

I sit beside him and untie

three paintings by my father:

Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.

Two cats preening.

Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.

In this section of “Persimmons,” the speaker shares one recent event of his life. He went to his paternal home and tried to find something he had lost in the muddy lighting of their cellar. It was the warmth and solace that he missed as he was not living there for a long time. He somehow lost the connection. The phrase “looking/ for something I lost” makes it clear why Lee uses past tense throughout the poem.

His father sat on the wooden stairs of the gloomy cellar, placing a black cane between his knees and gripping the handle with both hands. He was happy as his son had come home after a long time. The speaker asked him quite awkwardly how his eyes were. He knew what his father was going to say: “All gone.”

The speaker surprisingly found a box under some blankets. He opened the lid to find what was inside. There were three scrolls. He sat beside his father and untied the scrolls one by one. These were three paintings by his father: a hibiscus leaf and a white flower, two cats preening, and two ripe, swollen persimmons. The last painting was so vivid that it felt like the painted fruits wanted to drop from the cloth. These paintings hint at the fact that his father took inspiration from nature.

Lines 77-88

He raises both hands to touch the cloth,

asks, Which is this?

This is persimmons, Father.

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,

the strength, the tense

precision in the wrist.

I painted them hundreds of times

eyes closed. These I painted blind.

Some things never leave a person:

scent of the hair of one you love,

the texture of persimmons,

in your palm, the ripe weight.

On the discovery of the persimmon picture, his father raised both hands to touch, to feel the painting upon the cloth. He asks, “Which is this?” Due to old age, he started to lose his sensing abilities. However, from the way he describes how the picture was painted, it seems though he lost his main senses, he had not forgotten his past. His brain was working fine.

When the speaker told him which painting it was, the old man precisely remembered how it was drawn. He recollected the feel of the wolftail on the silk, the strength of his fingers, and the tense precision of his wrist. He painted them hundreds of times with his eyes closed. How could he forget!

Some things never leave a person even if he is old. These are the scent of the hair of one’s beloved, the texture of persimmons on the hand, and their ripe weight. In this way, Lee elevates the fruit to the next level. The persimmons are the symbol of his identity, culture, and love. It could be a “Chinese apple,” to Mrs. Walker and others like her, but for him, its rich core has a world in itself. The speaker revisits this sweet, soft world often and tastes the sweetness it provides with a heavy heart.

Theme

In “Persimmons,” Li-Young Lee explores the themes of memory, cultural assimilation, relationship, and love. The main idea of the poem revolves around the poet’s memories concerning eating and appreciating persimmons, a symbol of his true identity. This fruit becomes a medium to explore who the poet really is. It is a manifestation of all the memories that still provide nourishment to his heart. Alongside that, he also sheds light on an Asian (specifically Chinese) child’s struggle to cope with the demands of western culture. The humiliations coupled with a sense of loneliness had a lasting imprint on the speaker’s mind.

Historical Context

“Persimmons,” a signature piece from Li-Young Lee’s first poetry collection, Rose published in 1986. The collection won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award from New York University. In the forward to the volume, poet Gerald Stern wrote:

When I first came across Li-Young Lee’s poetry I was amazed by the large vision, the deep seriousness and the almost heroic ideal, reminiscent more of John Keats, Rainer Maria Rilke and perhaps Theodore Roethke than William Carlos Williams on the one hand or T. S. Eliot on the other. … There are poems of Li-Young Lee I return to over and over. I am amazed at their simplicity and their grace and their loveliness.

Such is the beauty of Lee’s poetry that makes one revisit them quite often. There is fragility, quietude, and affection in the voice of the poetic persona. In “Persimmons,” Lee incorporates autobiographical elements in order to explore the lasting impression of ripe persimmons on his mind.

Questions & Answers

What is the poem “Persimmons” by Li-Young Lee about?

“Persimmons” by Li-Young Lee is an autobiographical poem revolving around the titular fruit. In this poem, Lee presents a wide array of episodes from his childhood and adulthood. All the episodes are intricately tied with the image of ripe persimmons, the symbol of identity, culture, and most importantly heartfelt love. Occurring just after his best-loved poem “The Gift” in the volume Rose (1986), this piece showcases the value of memories to the speaker.

What is the theme of “Persimmons”?

“Persimmons,” an intricately beautiful poem containing a tapestry of memories, explores the themes of remembrance, love, identity, culture, and relationships. The main idea of the poem concerns the titular fruit persimmons, their rich taste, and their texture. He shares the memories that have the fruit in them and ties them so beautifully that it seems he is telling an unbroken tale of his life.

What is the connection between “persimmons” and “precision”?

According to the speaker, the art of choosing ripe persimmons from unripe ones is “precision.”

What is the relationship between the sun, the bird, the persimmon, and the speaker’s father?

There is a beautiful relationship between the sun and persimmons. The core of a ripe persimmon resembles the color of the sun. The speaker’s mother makes birds out of yarn. Lastly, the speaker’s father liked the fruit so much that he painted them hundreds of times with his eyes closed.

What are the two symbolic meanings of persimmons in Lee’s poem “Persimmons”?

In Lee’s poem, the persimmons have a number of symbolic meanings. It symbolizes the poet’s identity and the ripe, swollen ones symbolize love.

What does “Persimmons” by Li-Young Lee mean?

The poem “Persimmons” is a poem about exploring one’s true identity, culture, and past. In this poem, Lee uses the fruit as a central image his whole narrative revolves around. In one instance, it evokes the taste of ripe persimmons on the tongue. In other instances, it becomes a symbol of sadness, love, and passion.

When was “Persimmons” by Li-Young Lee written?

The poem was originally published in Lee’s first poetry collection Rose in 1986.

What is the tone of the poem “Persimmons”?

The tone of the poem is calm, passionate, nostalgic, and sad.

What is the setting of the poem “Persimmons”?

The poem begins with the setting of an American classroom during the second half of the 20th-century. After that, Lee takes us to the setting of his paternal home in China during his childhood and again in the last few lines of the poem as an adult.


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