Li Young-Lee’s “Persimmons” is a poetic collection of memories from the speaker’s experience as a perpetual student in the eyes of his parents and his school instructors. The entirety of the poem is composed of separate experiences that seem objectively unrelated, but the speaker strings them together through their relation to his earliest memory of the difference between “persimmons” and “precision.” From this inciting incident, the speaker reiterates pairs of contrasting ideas in order to reveal his own discovery of balance and connection between the things he was taught to be isolated from one another. This idea is tossed back and forth as if mimicking the development of realization within the speaker’s mind as he straddles between what he is taught and what he experiences. By the end of his sequential experiences, the speaker realizes that everything in his life is connected, and the greatest lessons he has learned have been through the connections he has made on his own, rather than the instructions others have tried to engrain into his mind.
Lee upholds a constant pattern of contrast between imagery relative to the initial distinction between persimmons and precision throughout the entire narrative of his discovery of balance and unity. The first contrast appears in his teacher’s punishment for him not knowing the difference between persimmons and precision. Immediately, the speaker slyly refutes the idea that they are unrelated by stating “How to choose persimmons. This is precision.” By creating this immediate connection and separating “persimmons” to be on the same plane as “precision,” the speaker begins his understanding of the connection between all things, despite the lessons that attempt to convince him that such elements must be separated.
Connections between seemingly isolated incidents are continued when the speaker ties the lessons he learns about persimmons to an intimate experience with his lover, Donna. Toward the end of the first stanza, the speaker repeats the emphasis his instructor placed upon the treatment of persimmons—that they must be peeled “tenderly” and eaten to the “heart.” This heart serves as a perfect lead into a romantic experience between the speaker and a lover. Their positions are placed as opposites, “face-up, face-down,” yet it is clear that they are connected as ever when he recognizes “you and me” and parts her legs as he tells her she is “as beautiful as the moon.” Again, the speaker challenges the notion that two separate elements must be placed as apart from one another. Not only is this true in the physical positioning of himself and Donna, but also with this sexual experience and his lessons from persimmons. The immediate description of this memory following the instructions of how to eat a persimmon is clearly meant to be connected. In order to love this woman properly, he must treat her tenderly, peel away her layers with care, and indulge in her so deeply as to reach her heart.
The next contrast made by the speaker appears in the third stanza, between “wren” and “yarn.” Just as the speaker connected the persimmons to a human, he again ties together an inanimate object with life. The speaker rebels against the punishment he receives for daring to confuse the two by explaining how “wrens are as soft as yarn.” Sensory details of how the yarn relates to the birds then prompts the speaker to recall his mother’s habit of crafting imitations of life out of soft yarn. In doing so, the speaker highlights the balance present between man and nature, life and art.
By the point the speaker has finished explaining the connection between persimmon and precision, persimmons and his lover, as well as yarn and wrens, the emphasis upon pairs has become abundantly clear. Throughout the poem’s entirety, the poet stresses the constant presentation of elements in pairs, maintaining balance and expression through their connection to one another. With this theme of balance in mind, the final scene of the poem extracts more weight for the poem’s overall message. In this scene, the speaker recalls venturing down to the cellar and retrieving two persimmons “heavy as sadness, and sweet as love” and hands them to his blind father. Once again, the persimmons are connected to life and used to express his feelings toward his father and his declining health.
In the final stanza, the speaker switches to italics for a direct dialogue between himself and his father. The appearance of these words alone points toward their significance to the poem, but their content especially stresses the theme that the speaker has spent the entire poem discovering. In this conversation, the father feels his own painting of ripe persimmons, and admits he was able to paint them blind. It was not the focus on technique, nor the things you can see that guided him toward creating a beautiful image, but the “things that never leave a person,” which turn out to be related to the person he loves and his memory of the feeling he received from persimmons. A direct correlation between the father’s painting of persimmons and the speaker’s experiences is drawn from this passage, as the entire poem has been used to express the incidents in which he was learning to ignore the structure and separation taught by those above him, and instead pay attention to the way in which love, nature, and memories can intertwine to teach him how to eat, love, and feel more wholly.
The speaker in Li-Young Lee’s “Persimmons” recounts the experiences throughout his life that led him to realize the delicate, yet beautiful, connection between seemingly separate entities in life. In essence, each experience or feeling, whether it be an apple, a bird, fear, yarn, or sex, taught him something else about its “opposite.” Contrary to what he was taught, the speaker came to realize that life, much like a persimmon, must be enjoyed fully and tenderly, piece by piece, in order to reach its core.
Lee, Li-Young. “Persimmons”, in The Norton Introduction to Literature, ed. by Spencer Richardson-Jones, (New York: W.W. & Norton & Company, 2016).
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