‘Immigrant Blues,’ the title of Li-Young Lee’s poem unravels the main idea that is the immigrant experience, the feeling of dislocation, and a sense of loss, too deep to decode. This poem was first published in Lee’s 2008 collection Behind My Eyes, published right after his introspective and somber piece, Book of My Nights (2001). Blues as a genre of music emerged from the pain and suffering of the African-American people. Lee chose this title in order to tap on the same idea of bemoaning the internal sufferings of the immigrants.
Explore Immigrant Blues
‘Immigrant Blues’ by Li-Young Lee describes an immigrant’s bewilderment with the idea of internalizing a second language other than their own.
The poem begins with a hint of a story that the speaker’s father used to tell him while teaching him the importance of learning a “second tongue.” He recounts how he has been chased to death since his birth. The same old story repeats in the speaker’s life when he tries to teach one of his sons the “second tongue,” a reference to the English language. The speaker chooses non-fictional titles for their personal tales in order to include the experiences of those who had to immigrate to a new country. “Survival Strategies and the Melancholy of Racial Assimilation” and “Patterns of Love in Peoples of Diaspora” are some of the titles he uses to talk about immigrant experiences, such as internalizing an alien language, sense of disconnection, and inner mutism.
You can read the full poem here or listen to Lee reading the poem.
People have been trying to kill me since I was born,
a man tells his son, trying to explain
It’s called “Psychological Paradigms of Displaced Persons,”
called “The Child Who’d Rather Play than Study.”
Lee begins the poem ‘Immigrant Blues’ on a serious note. The speaker’s father confesses his experience of being chased for his life for a long time. He had to live not for himself but for the family that would be left behind, all by themselves, vulnerable and weak. The urge for survival led him to immigrate to different countries. Finally, he had the realization that learning a “second tongue” was also an art for survival. The person explains the same to his son.
This story dates back to the latter half of the 20th-century when the speaker’s (Lee’s) family immigrated to Indonesia, and then to America. The speaker told his son the same yesterday morning when he was trying to explain the importance of learning a new language, a “second tongue.” The speaker describes this father-to-son advice as “Survival Strategies,” and indeed, it is a “Melancholy of Racial Assimilation” to learn a new tongue and forget what is one’s own.
The speaker further describes the immigrant experience by using other descriptive titles. Through these titles, he tries to hint at the fact that the “Displaced” individuals show similar “Psychological Paradigms.” Their children prefer playing to studying. While playing, they need not learn a new language, but in studying, they must unlearn what they are taught and have to learn a new language whether they like it or not.
Practice until you feel
the language inside you, says the man.
at peace with the soul’s disregard
of space and time.
The speaker quotes his father’s advice: he has to practice the new “tongue” until he feels it inside him, impregnated and inseparable. He does not have the same regard as his father had for learning a new language. The man had to sacrifice a lot. He was spared with nothing except his physical body. The day he left his country, his spirit died. Thus, the speaker sadly asks what he really knows about inside or outside.
The speaker finds himself torn into two pieces. He cannot find the connection between his body and soul. Once he asked a woman (probably his mother) over the telephone whether he was still inside her. The voice on the other end replied that he was within her as always. But, the question still lingers in the speaker’s mind regarding the feeling of dislocation and disjunction. Somehow, he tries to be at peace with the finiteness of his body and his soul’s disregard for the space and time he is in.
Am I inside you? I asked once
called “I want to Sing but I Don’t Know Any Songs.”
Once again, he asked the same question to his partner. This time the term “inside” is used literally, not figuratively. He was lying between her legs, making love, and confused about how his body felt or what his heart truly wanted. While making love, his partner replied that it depended on how he interpreted the situation. Not knowing what to think or what to do, he kept on with what he was doing. There was bewilderment in his heart as he could not decipher what it really wanted or missed.
The speaker shifts to the present moment and discloses that the incident happened with him yesterday evening. This incident is not novel. It happened with each individual after immigrating to a totally different country and culture. That is why he describes this incident as an “ancient story” and gives it the title, “Patterns of Love in Peoples of Diaspora.” The following phrase hints at the reason behind the speaker’s feeling of disjunction. The loss of one’s “Homeplace” and its “defilement” make them feel that way.
In the last line, the speaker describes his inability to sing as he does not know any songs. It is not the ignorance of the songs the speaker refers to. Instead, he hints at his relationship with the English language. He wants to sing, but his true feelings cannot be captured in the songs written in an alien language. In this way, Lee describes how the voice of immigrants gets lost in the course of assimilation.
Structure and Form
Lee does not use a regular rhyme scheme or meter in the poem. He deliberately keeps readers in suspense regarding the words that could appear next. The poem begins with an internal rhyme between “born” and “son.” Other than that, there are no such repeating rhymes in the poem. Instead, Lee uses repetitions in order to create a sense of rhyming, such as in the lines, “at peace with the body’s finitude,/ at peace with the soul’s disregard.” Apart from the rhyming, the poem has a loose structure, shifting from tercets to couplets and to one-liners.
This poem presents some interesting uses of literary devices that somehow enhance the mood and meaning.
- Allusion: In his short introduction to the poem, Lee alludes to his father’s experience in Maoist China and his own experience of living in America during the Vietnam War. The first two lines allude to the experience of Lee’s father.
- Metaphor: The “second tongue” is a metaphor for American English. Lee describes it as a “tongue” in order to hint at the idea of internalization.
- Alliteration: This device is used in “me and my,” “Survival Strategies,” “Paradigms… Persons,” etc. As Lee does not use a rhyme scheme, these alliterations create sporadic rhymings across the text.
- Repetition: The repetition of the term “inside” is important. Firstly, the speaker is told to feel the language inside them. He goes on with the idea of assimilation in different scenarios, such as while making love and conversing with his mother.
Li-Young Lee’s poem ‘Immigrant Blues’ is about the experiences of an immigrant who struggles to locate his true self and fails to feel what he truly wants to feel. This poem explores a number of themes including language, dislocation, assimilation, and the sense of alienation and loss. What is most important with regards to the poem’s recurring idea is the word “inside.” Lee uses this word from different perspectives. Firstly, he uses the term to hint at the idea of assimilation. Secondly, it refers to the feelings one has for their loved ones. Lastly, the term is used to portray an immigrant’s disjunction between his body and soul.
Li-Young Lee’s free-verse poem ‘Immigrant Blues’ is about an immigrant’s experience in grasping a new “tongue” and the ensuing trouble with internalizing an alien culture. The title gives a hint at the main idea that concerns a speaker’s sense of loss and his struggle to assimilate a different culture and language.
The poem was written in the early 21st-century. According to Lee, he composed this piece when he was having a hard time finding his roots. It was first published in the collection of poetry entitled Behind My Eyes in 2008.
In this poem, the speaker asks his partner whether he was inside her during lovemaking. It is paradoxical to think how one could feel disconnected even though he is inside his partner. This image is used in the poem in order to reflect an immigrant’s state of mind.
This phrase appears in the fourth stanza of ‘Immigrant Blues.’ It hints at the main idea of the poem, which is about the survival strategies of immigrants (learning the “second tongue”) and their sense of melancholy caused by racial assimilation. In the process, they lose their true identity and their ability to feel.
Readers intrigued by Lee’s ideas in ‘Immigrant Blues’ should consider reading the following immigration poems. You can also read more Li-Young Lee poems.
- ‘Immigration’ by Ali Alizadeh: In this autobiographical piece, the poet talks about his own immigration story and explores the themes of racism, alienation, and religion.
- ‘The Émigrée’ by Carol Rumens: This poem depicts the miserable condition of the refugees.
- ‘How I Got That Name’ by Marilyn Chin: This poem is about Chin’s Asian heritage, her name, and her bicultural identity.
- ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire: This poem depicts the haunting journey of refugees in search of safety.
You can also explore these stirring poems about grief.