Poems

Showtime

 

Something I say beforehand:
Jal butak hapnida.

This translates into, Please be kind to me,
but it suggests:

Even if I shame myself,
please be kind to me.

In the mirror, it means:
Even inside my greatcoat

of conscience, drunk and white,
please be kind to me.

 

 

1807 Oleander

 

At night, as Mom had, I rubbed
my wrists with ginkgo lotion.
They rested by my face
and I fell asleep smelling her.

Each morning in my garage-home,
I boiled salt water with pepper sauce,
used the same chopstick to stir.
I drank it.

Since I had no phone, she shipped
kimchi packets that ripened on the trip.
She sent letters from Seoul;
I signed the postal slip on tiptoe

and set them aside—her folded slip
with foreign squares, short crosses,
stops, points—
crowding the page, covering the creases.

 

 

South Korean Ferry Accident

 

276 Dead (232 Students)

28 Missing (Underwater)

1 Rescued Found Dead (Suicide)

 

Search operation is still ongoing.

 

Footage is released to the public: the captain
abandoning the ferry in his underwear. Barefoot, he jumps

into another man’s arms. On screen, his face is purple.
He knew the ferry was 300 times over capacity, they say.

He knew the lifeboats were broken, the cargo was tipping.
After the footage, the ferry owner’s son disappears.

The captain is charged with murder. A senior official
of the inspection company SeaTrust is arrested.

 

I once took the same ferry route between Incheon
and Jeju Island. The decks were green.

The students heard over the speakers: “Do not move
from your present location and stay where you are.”

My parents are crying in the other room. “Why didn’t
the students jump into the water?

Americans would’ve jumped.” My mom is saddest
about the moment of drowning.

They’re 15-year-olds. At that age, I believed in God.
Who says love that is painful is not love?

 

For the first time, my mom says to me, “Korea was wrong.
My country did wrong.”

The mother of a deceased boy dove into the ocean.
The officers fetched her out, and she appeared on television,

saying, “My son is in that dark and cold water.”
A volunteer committed suicide. The prime minister stepped down.

The South Korean TV stations ban music, variety shows, and games
for 3 weeks. My mom wakes me

in the middle of the night. “If you are on a sinking ship,” she says,
“Don’t trust anybody. Don’t listen to anybody.”

 

During a memorial service, a pastor who witnessed the cleaning
and shrouding of the bodies said, “How much the students must have

scraped at the walls while trapped in the ferry that their fingernails
have all fallen off.” The chapel broke out in tears.

Another footage from inside the ship is uploaded on YouTube
under the request of parents of the deceased student.

The footage is broadcast. The faces are blurred.
The voices are changed. They are laughing

for a brief second of nervous excitement. “Do you think
we’ll become famous?” someone says, “Like the Titanic?”

 

 

To My Mother Kneeling in the Cactus Garden

 

For a month I tried to think of what to say.
How many times you’ve swept a kitchen knife
across your neckline and said, This is how
you end a marriage. How many more wicks you light
for God. I could tell by your eyes you’ve never

seen him. What would you call the feeling
of abandon and caution and relief that keeps me
tethered to you? Let me be the husband
you prayed for, the son you wanted, or mother
who held you. I’ll build your new patio swing

and fold your coffee linens, wash your hardened
feet in warm water. To me you have become a prison
of its own light. I’ll grow greens and the parsley
you love and wrap them into cold sandwiches.
I will place them where you can reach with ease.

 

 

Ingredients for Memories That Can Be Used As Explosives

 

I am not sad anymore; I am on the rooftop of my life
cheering until my body of hallways opens, jade and steaming.

When a pope dies tradition says to hit his head with a silver
hammer 3 times to see if he’s alive: koong koong koong koong.

I’ve been so many popes. The shells of laughing are cooked.
Open the door and let them know I am not sad anymore.

Not once carrying my lunch pail soul with bright green fingernails—
Can a soul be excited to tears? That’s the one time a soul is excited.

I am together – feel my forehead – I am young
but I always forget what I meant to say; except I am alive!

And I will not jump from here because the wind is coming.
It has a beak and a tooth and has heard I am not sad anymore.

 

 

Korean War

 

You are the North and I am the South.
My tanks aim for you. I shoot you a thousand times.

Your missiles launch into my oceans. You raise monuments to scorn me.
You eat clams cooked in gasoline.

I drink milk and cider. I raise skyscrapers of businessmen.
You build towers of empty rooms. You refuse me from where I am most loved.

I clean a wintermelon of its guts and seeds cling to my wet fingers.
Aren’t you the North, and I the South?

Phantom, disease, you’re trembling. There is no patience in my country.
There is no safest place in yours.

The heart stiffens at the sound of church bells. I wonder where you sleep now.
You are the North and I am the South.

I cannot see the sky beyond the ceiling.
I cannot forgive you for cutting me out.

I see all my ground, and you, walking over me—before you were
the North and I was the South.

A photographer captures a mass execution on film.
Men and women tied to posts, blindfolded—Korean spies.

The man nearest to the camera fiddles with his blindfold
until it rests comfortably over his eyes.

 

 

All Bodies Are

 

hauled off,
harried by raw earth,
holy,
wounded,
disrobed, both
him and her hard-pressed
against a rifle, or
a silver knife, hand-to-hand
on a straw mattress
or a foxhole,
his and her trenches,
warpath of Banzai charge,
the origin of the term:
A man would rather be
shattered jade
than a complete roof tile.
All bodies befall
humiliation,
hot stinging welts
open at the crotch,
offered to an altar:
overcrowded,
all-white, bleached,
salted by weeping dogs.

 

 

Testimony Over Tape Recorder

 

I am the youngest. I am 85 and yesterday,
I was 15 in a military station;
my friends each dying, one by one;
and now I am old and I will die, too.
Today, the military gave me money.
But I ripped it apart and ate it up.
The president said, I’m sorry. That was
war. I stuffed my ears with cotton
and plastered my breasts with gruel.
The historian said, it was necessary,
girls like me, for war, girls for war,
girls for boys dying in war, girls must die
for boys dying in war, we cannot be
sorry for girls dying for boys dying
in a war of dying, girls for war, girls for
winning the war. Is it true? Girls, with
dug-up bellies, told they won the war!

 

 

Pledge of Allegiance

 

I am the country of myself, liberty and justice
for all, and my country cannot apologize anymore.

When my mother tells me, under allegiance:

Be happy! When you smile happiness is chase you
her language is a hand she lays on my head.

Time swings by the front of our lives and doesn’t undress itself,
will not bathe itself. You cannot pity a baby for which it cannot stand

one nation, under god. The type of people I am,
300 million times over:

I pledge to the flag just-wet with jet fuel
from the Hubblescope of the United States of America.

Read the news: Protestor dies from fumes of burning flag.
Pistachios undergo spontaneous combustion. The grenade

hand-made from YouTube comments to the republic
for which it stands, Jurassic Park, under god,

indivisible. Pick one for all. God is 65 million years away.
Looking into a telescope at Earth,

he sees dinosaurs. We stare at Mayan temples
and they are giant loudspeakers.

 

 

6CO2 + 6H2O light→ C6H12O6 + 6O2

 

I am trying to make an equation to convert light
into reasonable dioxide.

Put your fist like a rock over your chest, say:
I am ahead of the future if I am a kind tiger
swimming underwater. I’ll live in a little river
house because I am really a scientist.

If I am an alien, then families surprise me most.
Biological lottery: staying with whoever bore you
or whoever was born of you. Primate: hoping
you don’t dislike those you meet/are lucky not to.

Person depressive + Person angry → Person suppressive
Person suppressive + Person happy → Person liar

You’ve ruined it Mom and Dad. You’ve evolved
humankind into liars. 4 billion years should have
photosynthesized reason and your crapulous genes
to liberate a good person. Good people:

when you see one, then see them everywhere
it’s called the Baader Meinhof phenomenon. Sounds
like a baseball player with a gun; or a dead person
the color of cooked chicken; or quicksilver.

I don’t want happiness to chase me: I want metallic
blues in miscellany. You don’t want to calculate
your molecular life: You want to be overwhelmed.

 

 

Ghosts

 

always sit in swivel chairs that won’t fit under low desks.
A fireplace log shifts
and the center leg of a table sinks without sound.

You can tell a ghost is here when the dog sniffs plaster walls,
or your left elbow itches, or windowpanes
bend where the sun hits.

Just now the staircase called out, old wood rasping.
A ghost has drifted in and he
settles like dust with nothing to gain or lose,

a sculpture in a museum—
until headlights cast beams across the ceiling,
bursting the shadows. If I say

ghost out loud, he will hover over the vacant seat at the table,
a voyeur from my past. No wonder
I enter the house like a visitor.

 

 

My Father in His Old Age

 

There is a Korean belief that you are born
the parent of the one you hurt most. Watching
my father use chopsticks to split chicken katsu,
he confesses that I may be the reincarnation
of his own father. We finished our waters in silence
and walked home chatting about who to blame
for where we are. He says, The present is the revenge
of the past. Revenge goes too far, I argue. And
in our unhappiness, we both want to know
we cannot pay enough. Pain becomes meaning.
After this life, I fear I’ll never meet him again.

 

 

My Father the Musician

 

Even now my father plays his guitar inside his breast.
It was troublesome at first—

packing it away like pickling cabbage. He rinsed it in wine
vinegar, mustard seed, and peppercorns.

He quartered the tough outer leaves and grated the stem.
Now he gathers his body and bows before bowing.

He lies down a commoner and hands himself to the bed.
This is the chorus of godliness or decay.

In the pockets of my father’s work clothes, his hands
are mice running the wire wraps, but when I look at him—

from my periphery, I see the ghost in him strumming, preserved
in its brine. Tell me what you wanted.

 

 

Sleep

 

There is always too little. The tea-stained tablecloth creases
where my hand rests. My head wilts. I sit and sit (my body
grows over the hide of the chair). To me, it seems the body
knows what it is to forget. Aroma of apple and figs and a memory
draw blush from my cheek. Not unlike the time I watched

the wind going and going, and taking with it bellyfuls of millet.
My mother in the other room is stirring a saucepan, making
round sounds. I lived unaware of how the stunning bird offered
herself to the bluff. Her milk-wings, umbrellas, folding.

On my left, a breeze drums the padlock. The fruits roll
onto their softened sides. I hear booted mudfeet at the door.
Ants cross water. The knives tune themselves. The jug
(open with its handle bent on its high hip wants to say
something about seeing truth). I am sick in my own way.

 

 

Love Appears in Three Lines

 

A boy danced. He was the Buddha.
At night, he shape-shifted into two rivers.
I stole into him, then drowned.

 

 

Icicle Creek

 

1.

Undressing an orange from top to bottom, I want another child
—that man’s child. He squats under a tree with a folder, too busy
to tend to anyone but papers, comforted by page after page.
He would discover me washed ashore inside a chest stuffed
with love letters, each one containing a knife with no instructions.
Now I ache for rude, sturdy things like his thick muscled calves.

 

2.

At night inside a hut, an argument rises between two men
about who will have me first:
            I will have her because she doesn’t fear me. I bring her pleasure.
            No, I will have her because she depends on me. I lead her.
            I will both times, the first for me and you. Because I can.
            You do not love her. What is your purpose of lying with her?
            We are pretending to be human.

I call out from the earth. My voice—hoarse, crumbling:
It doesn’t matter. I will have monsters, monsters for husbands,
            then monsters of our own making.

 

3.

I give birth to a boy and girl. I don’t know which child
belongs to which man until they are old enough to curse me.

 

4.

I am the daughter of a demigod and a hunter. They lived
on Jeju Island. I visited once. Trash blown by the wind
through howling cave tunnels, tangerines floating in the bay,
volcanic rock walls shaped as if people were trapped inside.
I am a cave of people—first of husbands, then my children
who fight. I tell them to stop. Fight your fathers instead. Be angry.

 

5.

It’s unnatural to see the tears of my children, husbands,
and then mine—all collected on the roof of my house.
Give me the shovel. I will go out into the field to bury
what makes us cry. Bring me salted tilefish we can eat.

 

6.

One husband leaves. He is tired of us. He goes alone.
The other husband is jubilant. He wants another child.

I abandon them and the children. I hike through
a mountain pass and arrive at a German town. A brass band
plays folk music outside. I walk into a mineral store.
The first stone I see is a sheet of basalt. An old man appears.
He turns to me and asks, How much will you pay me to eat this?
I tell him, I don’t have money and I’ve already killed before.

 

7.

In town, I meet a fox wearing a blue shirt.
He invites me to join him in a hammock
he pitched between two boulders in the forest.

We sway off the boulders jutting off a ledge.
When I leave the hammock, I am pregnant.

The fox asks to take the baby for himself.
When I refuse him, he follows me until I give
birth under the bough of an olive tree.

He takes the baby. For fifteen years, I chase him.
Looking for him, or looking for the baby.

 

8.

At Icicle Creek, I find the fox dead and gray.
I see a woman standing over his corpse.

Her tail whips behind her, stirring air.
I pray to be harmless.

 

9.

Looking at the woman, I see all my life as hers.
There is no such thing as alone. I say to her,
One day, you will give up everything. No one will know you
—because of this, how beautiful you ought to be.
She breathes joy and ease, joy and ease.
Everything born is ready to become an answer.

 

 

Tiger Balm

 

Yellow pears, basketfuls, relate to distance
between the you and the me – mu.

Startling up as you walk goosefooted
through my door. I am heavy.

I feel the continent under me. I am 99
percent hydrocarbon.

Through me, the cosmos can look at itself.
Come to the sink. Let me wash your feet.

Why do you call me embalmer
when my job is time mechanic?

Come with me. I know which home takes the turning,
which mind washes in hot water.

I am the shelter you need –
needle-threaded with the truth of dark wood.

 

 

Blurb

 

They say the mother in my world has no pulse.
They say the god I talk about is not the god people fear.
They say the subject of race is no exception.
They say I have difficulty with the surfaces, the echoes, the sudden, the no longer there.
They say the shape of the crown on my head is only a narcosis of motherlessness.
They say I am cracked. I am no river but a lizard against a backdrop of oddly
reigned and oblique conversations of people.

I am common, they say, a commoner.
I am a map of betrayal, of refusal to prick into our times.
I am no storyteller, only troubled.
I am not sad, nor inventive, nor magnetic.
I am forgettable man and forgettable woman.
I have done nothing more than create an angry reader
with a sense that nothing is profound, all is meaningless.

I have no friends with cancer.
I have no career and no future.
I have no finest and most famous work that tells a story of a small town.
I do not live in Nebraska, Montana, or Michigan.
I was not born in Colombia with a prize for literature in 1982.
They say, deeper and deeper, I prove there is nothing in me
hard-earned or spiritual or broken. They say I will never have enough to lose.
There is no judge, nor critic, nor author, nor poet that is my friend.

There is no great enterprise in my life.
There is no cult of personality.
There is no exquisite tension created in my deftly stiff juxtaposition of images.
There is no death like the death of expectations after I dare to rear up and ripple language against the innocent pressure of readers that must compromise
nature itself to look upon me.
There is no exuberantly constructed richness in my speech, my speech
that is so unsophisticated in its use, a betrayal of literary traditions
from the language of the Bible to Faulkner.
No words of mine should be required for the entire human race.

My real gift is for my exceptionally non-diverse work.
My words are the most unenticing choices of our century’s literature.
My words punish the reader. My words do not convey sincerity.
My premature, debilitated, crippled words without meaning of drama or self-discovery.
By calling my words poetry, they would be denying its considerable failure as words.

I am irresistible to flies.
I am lame.
I am ugly and sometimes, achingly so.
I am challenged, narrow, and dull.
I am never a delight and never full of lyrical variety that distinguishes a rich tradition
of allusiveness. They say I am an artist that fails both a private and national heritage.

They say I am not funny.
They say I am tasteless.
They say I am a fugitive.
They say I am disturbing.
They say I am descending and disorienting.
They say I am a box of pins.
They say I am an intimate world, incoherent, private, and unrelatable to culture.
They say I write from a common sensibility that no one can admire.
More than poetry, they have tried to find something human in me.