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Li-Young Lee

Early in the Morning

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1986

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Summary and Study Guide


“Early in the Morning” is a lyric poem written by Li-Young Lee. It was first published by the American Poetry Review before its inclusion in Rose, Lee’s debut collection of poetry. Originally published in 1986, Rose established Lee as a prominent new voice in contemporary American poetry. It is considered an integral collection to the Chinese American poetry canon and has been heralded as a masterwork.

Lee’s poems are distinctly multicultural, as his influences include ancient Chinese poetry, American poets such as Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and various other European literary traditions. In particular, “Early in the Morning” incorporates elements of traditional Asian cuisine and invites associations with Chinese calligraphy while being written in English and in free verse. Lee’s cultural hybridity allows him to move beyond borders to create poems that encompass a universal experience while still remaining uniquely personal. He uses biographical content to explore philosophical questions and larger human concerns.

“Early in the Morning” depicts intimate moments of domesticity and sensuality and explores the relationship between a mother and father figure. True to its lyric genre, the poem centers on the speaker’s personal experience and explores themes of mindfulness, love, and human sexuality. It relies on the imagination of the speaker to develop its narrative structure, as the speaker is not present for the moments that transpire. However, the poem remains committed to clarity through its conversational tone and employs simple, direct language to create powerful images.

Poet Biography

Li-Young Lee was born on August 19, 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia to Chinese parents. Both of his parents came from powerful Chinese families: Lee’s great-grandfather was the first president of the Republic of China and his father was the personal physician to Mao Zedong. Despite these connections, the Lee’s became political exiles. While living in Indonesia, his father was arrested due to widespread anti-Chinese sentiments and imprisoned for a year. After his release, the family fled Indonesia and continued to relocate for five years. They lived in Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan before immigrating to the United States in 1964, settling in Pennsylvania.

His father studied to become a Presbyterian minister and often read the bible to Lee as a child. Consequently, Lee’s familiarity with biblical verse and ancient Chinese poets greatly influenced him. However, he did not begin to seriously write poems until he was a student at the University of Pittsburgh. Under Gerald Stern’s instruction, Lee continued to further his passion for the English language. Lee’s education also included time spent at the University of Arizona’s Creative Writing Program and SUNY Brockport, but he left each institution without completing his degree.

Lee married young and started a family early in his life. Because of this, he has said that he often felt like an outsider while studying at university. These feelings of exile and unbelonging are prominent themes of Lee’s work and can be traced back to the experiences of his childhood. However, Lee’s literary success has subsequently allowed him to teach at various institutions, such as Northwestern and the University of Iowa. SUNY Brockport awarded Lee an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in 1998.

Lee continues to study spiritual philosophies and theories of consciousness. He maintains that writing poetry is a spiritual practice for him and believes that each poem is a “descendant of God."

Poem Text

Lee, Li-Young. “Early in the Morning.” 1986. Poetry Foundation.


The poem begins with a description of any empty kitchen: rice is soaking over the stove while the other food preparations have yet to begin. It is very early, before the birds have begun to sing. Before his mother enters the kitchen to begin preparing breakfast, the speaker describes her combing her hair.

The setting changes from the kitchen to the bedroom, going back in time. The speaker depicts another scene: his mother sitting at the foot of the bed. His father watches and expectantly waits for the sound of the comb moving through her hair.

The speaker then describes his mother’s routine: how she pulls her hair back, twists it between her fingers, and pins it into a bun. The speaker reveals his mother has done this for the past 50 years because his father likes her to wear her hair in this fashion.

In the final stanza, the speaker asserts he knows the reason why his father likes his mother’s bun. It is not because of the way the hair looks up but because of the way it falls when it is removed. The speaker relates the hair’s movement to the drape of the window curtains when they are closed for the evening.