In ‘This Hour and What Is Dead’ the poet explores themes of life, death, and the possibility, or impossibility, of finding peace. The lines are filled with images, examples of juxtaposition, and the direct words of a speaker who is haunted by his past relationships.
In the first section of this poem, the speaker goes through several images that depict his brother as a force that haunts him in the night. The lines at first make it seem as though his brother is living, walking through the halls above his head. But this “upstairs“ is eventually revealed to be heaven. He asked at the end of the section that his brother find peace. Next, the speaker goes on to discuss his father and the complicated relationship that he had with him. It is eventually revealed that his father is also dead and the speaker makes a similar plea for peace for him.
The final lines are some of the most evocative. He discusses God, the love that he experiences, and how he wishes that “the Lord” would leave him alone.
You can read the full poem here.
‘This Hour and What Is Dead’ by Li-Young Lee is a twenty-three line poem that is divided into uneven stanzas. These stanzas range in length from one single line up to eight lines. There are several two-line stanzas and one three-line stanza. The poet did not choose to make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
Rather, the lines are written in free verse. But, that doesn’t mean that the poem is devoid of rhyme and rhythm. Both are seen within ‘This Hour and What Is Dead’. Take for example the first three lines of the poem. While not metrically identical there is a clear rhythm to their progression that lines up with the content.
Lee makes use of several literary devices in ‘This Hour and What Is Dead’. These include but are not limited to caesura, enjambment, alliteration, and enjambment. The first, caesura, occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. For example, line thirty which reads: “and helpless. While the Lord lives.”. The short sentence, “While the Lord lives” is emphasized through its centralization and brevity.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as that between lines seven and eight.
Lines 1- 8
Tonight my brother, in heavy boots, is walking
through bare rooms over my head,
His love for me feels like spilled water
running back to its vessel.
The first lines of ‘This Hour and What Is Dead’ are engaging and mind-opening. The poet begins by describing what seems to be his brother walking upstairs and then following it up with a series of rhetorical questions. These provide the reader with a very important piece of information—the brother is dead. The speaker wonders what he could “need there in heaven”.
The scene is a restless one. The speaker is experiencing his brother’s love and loss. He wonders over the house and its bare rooms, a very spooky and dark thought. What could his brother need in those empty spaces? But, as the poem progresses it becomes clear that the “upstairs” is, in reality, a metaphor. It is there to represent heaven and the realm the brother is now dwelling in. He’s only imagining his brother’s movements.
One of the most interesting lines of this section is the question concerned with the bother’s “birthplace” being “set to torches” or set on fire. This is a metaphor, likely, for the brother’s inability to return to earth and the changes that came over his “home” after he died. The fire imagery is juxtaposed against “spilled water” in the last lines of this stanza. It is used in a simile to compare the speaker’s love to water that is “running back to its vessel”. This suggests a feeling of restoration of something impossible and an interesting simile for love.
At this hour, what is dead is restless
and what is living is burning.
Someone tell him he should sleep now.
The next two stanzas of ‘This Hour and What Is Dead’ are two lines and one line. They are fairly simple-seeming statements but they bring in two of the most important themes. These include questions about what is living and what is dead and then a desire for peace/rest. He wants peace for his brother and for himself. The speaker sees himself as “restless” in a way that is similar to the way that the dead are restless.
My father keeps a light on by our bed
and readies for our journey.
the stitching uneven. But the needle pierces
clean through with each stroke of his hand.
The next lines of ‘This Hour and What Is Dead’ transition away from the speaker’s brother and towards his father. He presents the reader with images of mundane, everyday life. But they are elevated, through the poet’s use of language in their importance. The speaker describes his father mending his pants, needs in “five pairs”. He creates another smile that compares the father’s love for his sewing. It is carried and sometimes there is “too much thread”. it’s not a perfect relationship. There is something to their dynamic which isn’t quite as the speaker might like it to be.
At this hour, what is dead is worried
and what is living is fugitive.
His love for me feels like fire,
feels like doves, feels like river-water.
The plea for rest is repeated in these lines of ‘This Hour and What Is Dead’ as is a mirroring of the line about the living and the dead. He asks that his father find some rest, suggesting that he too is dead.
The following lines are about God. Some very interesting and unusual images come together to create an image of god with a stained beard and “breath / of gasoline”.
At this hour, what is dead is helpless, kind
that feels like burning and flight and running away.
This strange description of God is continued in the last lines of ‘This Hour and What Is Dead’. The speaker brings in several more images that make God feel more menacing, domineering, and needy than he is usually depicted. The fire also comes back into the poem. It comes directly after the poet mentions “human Ash”. This suggests that God has malevolent and destructive. Images of fire and doves are juxtaposed with one another in lines 27 and 28.
In the final five lines of the poem, the speaker concludes while also summing up his perspective of God there is another comparison between what is dead and what is living. He suggests that his dad is “helpless“ while the “Lord lives“. His relationship with God is complicated. One that is not filled with love and protection as one might predict. Instead, he asked the “Lord leave him alone“. He is filled to the brim with the Lord’s “love“. The final simile compares this Love to “burning and flight and running away”. The poet, or speaker, is unable at this point to get away from this triple hunting from his brother his father, and God. The palm ends without a conclusion as to whether or not he finds peace.