You Must Sing
by Li-Young Lee
He sings in his father’s arms, sings his father
to sleep, all the while seeing how on that face
grown suddenly strange, wasting to shadow,
time moves. Stern time. Sweet time. Because his father
asked, he sings; because they are wholly lost.
How else, in immaculate noon, will each find
each, who are so close now? So close and lost.
His voice stands at windows, runs everywhere.
Was death giant? O, how will he find his
father? They are so close. Was death a guest?
By which door did it come? All the day’s doors
are closed. He must go out of those hours, that house,
the enfolding limbs, go burdened to learn:
you must sing to be found; when found you must sing.
There’s three Freaky Friday-type switcheroo’s in Li-Young Lee’s beautiful “You Must Sing.” The parent singing to the child in bed becomes the child singing to the parent; the parent calling out for the child, lost somewhere in the house or yard, becomes the son doing the same to find his father; and the parent worrying that someone, a stranger, has abducted the child becomes the son fearing death is spiriting his father away.
Past is present, present is quickly becoming past—time moves, as the poem says, but it moves forward and backward at once. That puzzle is built right into the central image of father and son in a tangle of enfolding limbs, together but not together, so close and lost. Complicated syntax, with phrases embedded in phrases, and line and stanza breaks that sometimes run forward and sometimes halt the action, reinforce the confusion. The most stable element in the situation is also the most ephemeral: the son’s singing. The brief moment of song bridges past, present and future and connects father and son, as if the two were walking through time on a rippling staff, each note a stepping stone.
Reading this poem, loving this poem as I do, two memories of singing have cropped up, one with my father and one with my father-in-law.
My father was a difficult, complicated man—not always a joy to be around to say the least—but we spent many wonderful hours singing together at the piano. Show tunes, American standards, folk songs—I’d play and he’d stand beside, one hand on the old ebony baby grand, leaning over at times to read the lyrics. We sang together often, school nights, weekends, holidays, probably to the great annoyance of the other eleven people in our split-level house which could never contain noise to single floor.
There were times I’d wish he’d let me play alone and times I was glad of his enthusiasm. Sometimes he’d sing so loud (always the case for “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Hello Dolly”), I’d just stop singing and let him have the floor. It never struck me till recently that I’m lucky to have such memories; now I think back and could choke with grief on how those singing sessions showed a glimpse of what was and what might have been.
My father-in-law wouldn’t have considered himself much of a singer, but he had a pleasant, if tuneless baritone and a comical expression when he used it. We all loved when he sang, especially his grandkids. Over the years he taught them his favorites and they’d sing along with him: “Marzy Doats,” “Old Man River,” “Elmer’s Tune,” “Chatanooga Choo Choo,” “Old Man River” and others.
When he was dying in the hospital, after they had turned off the respirator and he lingered and lingered hours longer than expected, I found myself alone with him. The nurses told me that, all evidence to the contrary, he might still hear, and they suggested I sing or talk to him. I sang more than talked (because one can only say “I love you” so many times), all his old favorites. The silliest song was the one I sang the most:
Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy diveyA kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you? If the words sound queer and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey Sing “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.”
I sang till he rattled out his last breath. Then the room was quiet. There was no more reason to sing.
I’ve often wondered if, during that time however long it was, inside his still, unmoving body he was screaming, Shut the hell up! Poor guy, he’d have had no way of telling me. Singing can be, depending on the mood and the quality, as unpleasant as it can be pleasant. I’ll never know what he was thinking or if he thought at all. But even if he got fed up with Marzy Doats, I hope he heard until his last moment on earth the love, gratitude and solidarity I was trying to communicate.
Apologies for such a long post but I have one more story to tell.
I had so many thoughts on “You Must Sing” that I couldn’t think of how to begin this post. So I took a short walk. Nothing came to me, but on the way home I heard singing from across the street. A man with headphones was singing along to whatever he was listening to, something soulful. I stopped to listen because I love to hear people sing, especially in non-performance settings. But he was headed in a different direction so it was brief.
An hour later I decided to go on a longer walk. From across the avenue, rolling through the traffic noise and piped-in music from storefronts, came a voice I recognized. I looked around to trace the source and there was the same man I had seen earlier. This time I could hear his song better. It was in the vein of R&B and gospel, mostly vowels and syllables—he was crooning, very smooth—and then a phrase like, “I’m so glad for this day” or words to that effect.
Suddenly the last line of the poem came to me like a curtain lifting on a stage set:
you must sing to be found; when found you must sing.
The stranger wanted to be found, by everyone. Why else would he be singing? And I recognized him, that is, I found him, by his singing. You must sing to be found, I got it!
The second half of the last line still eludes me. When found you must sing. You must sing to be positively identified, to be authenticated? You must sing to connect yourself to those who found you? Weigh in, if you’ve got some ideas.
I left the poem at a performing arts center in northern Michigan mid-August. Took me a while to get to it, I know.
Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia into a well-connected Chinese family. His great grandfather was the first president of the Chinese Republic, and his father was Mao’s personal doctor. His father, a Christian, fled China when it became People’s Republic of China in 1949 to live in Indonesia so he could practice his religion freely. There his father helped found Gamaliel University. Unfortunately he was jailed for a year as a political prisoner. The family escaped, wandering country to country for five years, eventually finding themselves in Pennsylvania in 1964. His father went to seminary and became a Presbyterian minister.
Lee went to University of Pittsburgh, University of Arizona, and State University of New York. He’s won many awards, including grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA, and written five books of poetry and published a memoir. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons. (By mistake I wrote “two songs” instead of “two sons.” Given the subject of this poem, I considered leaving it.)
Link here for Lee reading his poems. Listening to it is just like being at a poetry reading. https://poetryarchive.org/poet/li-young-lee/
And link here for another beautiful poem about the Lee family singing together, “I Asked My Mother to Sing.”