19 pages 38 minutes read

Li-Young Lee

Eating Alone

Fiction | Poem | Adult

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Summary and Study Guide


“Eating Alone” is a lyric poem written by Li-Young Lee. It was first published by the Missouri State Review before its inclusion in Rose (1986), Lee’s debut collection of poetry. 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 critics heralded it as a masterwork.

Influenced by ancient Chinese poetry, American poets such as Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and various other European literary traditions, Lee’s poems are distinctively multicultural. In particular, “Eating Alone” encounters an American landscape with the eye of a Romantic-era poet while cooking an Asian-inspired meal. 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.

“Eating Alone” addresses the death of Lee’s father from scenes of mealtime and other pastoral observations. True to its lyric genre, the poem centers on the speaker’s personal experience and explores themes of death and loneliness. It relies heavily on memory to develop its narrative structure but remains committed to clarity. The poem is written in a 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. His parents were political exiles—both came from powerful Chinese families (Lee’s great-grandfather was the first president of the Republic of China)—and left the country due to political shifts. In Indonesia his father, the former personal physician to Mao Zedong, helped found Gamaliel University. However, anti-Chinese sentiments were widespread, and his father was arrested as a political prisoner. Upon his release, the family fled Indonesia, which resulted in a five-year journey through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan before successfully immigrating to United States in 1964. Lee’s family arrived in Seattle and settled in Pennsylvania.

As a child, his father often read the bible to Lee while studying to become a Presbyterian minister. Lee’s childhood familiarity with biblical verse and the ancient poetry of Li Bai and Du Fu greatly influenced him. However, he did not begin to seriously write poems until he was a student of Gerald Stern’s at the University of Pittsburgh. Lee furthered his literary education at the University of Arizona’s Creative Writing Program and the State University of New York at Brockport, but he left each institution without earning a degree.

Since Lee had married young and started a family early in his life, he said that he felt like an outsider while at university. Such feelings of exile and unbelonging remain prominent themes of Lee’s work and can be traced back to the experiences of his childhood and his immigration to the United States.

Lee’s feelings of alienation inspired him to study various spiritual philosophies and theories of consciousness. He maintains that writing poetry is a spiritual practice—that each poem is a “descendant of God.” Lee has won numerous awards, including the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award from New York University for Rose, the Lamont Poetry Selection, now known as the Laughlin Award, for The City in Which I Love You (1990), and the American Book Award for his memoirThe Wingéd Seed: A Remembrance (1995), as well as a Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, and a 2003 Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets.

Poem Text

Lee, Li-Young. “Eating Alone.” 1986. Academy of American Poets.


The poem begins with a first-person speaker working in his garden. He pulls up the last of the onions from the hard, winter ground. It is sunset. The garden is surrounded by maple trees. The speaker observes a cardinal on one of the tree branches before it flies away. He washes the dirt off the onions with a garden hose and then takes a drink. He is making his way back to the house.

As he walks, the speaker recalls a memory of his father. Years ago, both of them walked together through a stretch of pear trees. The speaker cannot remember what the two of them spoke of and he wonders if they may have walked together in silence. What he does remember is the way his father bent over to pick up a fallen, rotten pear. When his father shows him the pear, the speaker remembers that there was a hornet inside of it, devouring the fruit.

The speaker then recounts another memory: something that occurred earlier that day. He recalls how he mistakenly saw his father waving to him from the trees. He was so convinced that the apparition was his father, he almost called to him. However, as the speaker continued to walk forward, he realized that what he had mistaken for his father was just a shovel propped up against a tree. His eyes had simply played a trick on him.

By the final stanza, the speaker has returned home and is making dinner. Time has passed while he was lost in memory. He is now cooking the onions he pulled from the ground. The speaker admits he is lonely, but he is also content. In this moment, he does not want anything more than what he has.