from the Mother Tongue
held you once. Chora of hands splashing
to scour and peel mugwort piled in bamboo
Chora of knives hacking sowthistle or
steel beating against wood boards, blades
It was. Now November sun slants into your
from a foreign sky. You scrub, rinse,
In America you labor through khimjahng
without your sisters, an ocean away, or
long dead. There must be hunger in these
if not happiness. To cut and crisp cabbage
to smear shreds of wild radish, bracken
with chili, skinned anchovies, garlic
crushed to pith.
Next your arms work the spices in. Slap.
Nose stinging from onion-juice and pepper-fumes,
eyes tearing. Your fingers slowly blister,
Meanwhile your mouth waters, starved for
of home, not wanting to wait until winter
what you bury now. Pack the clay crocks
cram the khimchee jars with what
will sour and scald.
This is the covenant of autumn, its hard
what survives cannot survive unscathed,
burr or shoot, not fists of spore or snarled
Dig the furrows deep, sow the hahngari
Steep them in the element that destroys
You are singing of
bamboo flutes and barrel drums,
clapping as your village celebrates the
birth of a child,
red peppers spread out on straw mats to
You sing of hemp-weavers spinning fabric
knife-grinders, papermakers pounding mulberry
workers hauling burlap sacks of pinenut
Fishermen watch mask-dances set to kayagum
Street peddlars hawk makkolli,
soju, soup boiled with sea-bracken,
shark fins, dried squid, ginseng roots
pickling in jars, tiger balm.
There are sweet rice cakes and pears piled
and paper lanterns lit with candles for
sculling down the river to the open sea.
There are soldiers in your song, gunfire,
a city bombed to rubble,
and starved dogs gnawing the bodies of
A surf of objects that beat against the
doors of the skull
and are never abandoned,
the sand-grain variousness of things that
can't be known
or forgotten, of people that have vanished.
I listen for your mother in your voice
and cannot know
if I find her. Not much lives on, from
to the next. Not much, but not
nothing: maybe the Paektu mountain tune
you both loved, crags grizzled with pine,
black walnut, their burred and scabrous
Shagbark or needledust. Gingkos scoured
Or cabbage chopped and scummed with pepper,
stocked in clay vessels, rocked into the
soil like seeds.
Buried in fall, dug up in spring, soured,
to nourish and to burn. Tell me if this
I want to know what survives, whats
from mother to daughter, if anything is,
bond I cannot cut away, that keeps apart
what it lashes together.
And I want to know what cannot be handed
down, the part of you
thats only you, lonely fist of sinew
deep in your gut where cords lash bone,
the part of you that first began to sing.