The Poetry Aisle

I used to travel to London once a month from Paris.

After a few visits, I started a new routine.

The day of my return, I would go to Waterstones bookstore and head straight to the poetry aisle.


There I would play a little game:

  • I had to choose a book of poetry to read on the train home.
  • I had to choose it in less than a minute.
  • It had to be very slim.

Once it was in my hands, I would try not to look at it and would make my way down to the till, pay for the book, and then quickly put it into my bag.

Only once comfortably settled into my train seat, would I take the book out and really see what I had bought.

the city in which i love you by li-young lee

I would sometimes only read one of the poems during the train ride, saving the rest for another day. Other times, I would read the entire collection during the journey.

Incredibly enough, through this odd system of selection, I can’t remember ever having bought a book of poetry I didn’t like.

This is “My Father, in Heaven, Is Reading Out Loud” from the city in which i love you by li-young lee (one of the books I discovered in this manner):


My father, in heaven, is reading out loud

to himself Psalms or news. Now he ponders what

he’s read. No. He is listening for the sound

of children in the yard. Was that laughing

or crying?  So much depends upon the

answer, for either he will go on reading,

or he’ll run to save a child’s day from grief.

As it is in heaven, so it was on earth.


Because my father walked the earth with a grave,

determined rhythm, my shoulders ached

from his gaze. Because my father’s shoulders

ached from the pulling of oars, my life now moves

with a powerful back-and-forth rhythm:

nostalgia, speculation. Because he

made me recite a book a month, I forget

everything as soon as I read it. And knowledge

never comes but while I’m mid-stride a flight

of stairs, or lost a moment on some avenue.


A remarkable disappointment to him,

I am like anyone who arrives late

in the millennium and is unable

to stay to the end of days. The world’s

beginnings are obscure to me, its outcomes

inaccessible. I don’t understand

the source of starlight, or starlight’s destinations,

and already another year slides out

of balance. But I don’t disparage scholars;

my father was one and I loved him,

who packed his books once, and all of our belongings,

then sat down to await instruction

from his god, yes, but also from a radio.

At the doorway, I watched, and I suddenly

knew he was one like me, who got my learning

under a lintel; he was one of the powerless,

to whom knowledge came while he sat among

suitcases, boxes, old newspapers, string.


He did not decide peace or war, home or exile,

escape by land or escape by sea.

He waited merely, as always someone

waits, far, near, here, hereafter, to find out:

is it praise or lament hidden in the next moment?