issue 4: spring 2002

> Sue Kwock Kim

Translations from the Mother Tongue

for my mother                          

1. Khimjahng

It held you once. Chora of hands splashing water,
to scour and peel mugwort piled in bamboo creels.
Chora of knives hacking sowthistle or lotus-root,
steel beating against wood boards, blades glinting.

It was. Now November sun slants into your eye
from a foreign sky. You scrub, rinse, chop, wring.
In America you labor through khimjahng alone—
without your sisters, an ocean away, or your mother,

long dead. There must be hunger in these rhythms,
if not happiness. To cut and crisp cabbage with salt,
to smear shreds of wild radish, bracken or scallion
with chili, skinned anchovies, garlic crushed to pith.

Next your arms work the spices in. Slap. Slur.
Nose stinging from onion-juice and pepper-fumes,
eyes tearing. Your fingers slowly blister, stain.
Meanwhile your mouth waters, starved for the taste

of home, not wanting to wait until winter seasons
what you bury now. Pack the clay crocks well;
cram the khimchee jars with what will sour and scald.
This is the covenant of autumn, its hard blessing:

what survives cannot survive unscathed, not fallen
burr or shoot, not fists of spore or snarled taproot.
Dig the furrows deep, sow the hahngari in rot.
Steep them in the element that destroys and saves.

2. P'ansori

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 dry.
You sing of hemp-weavers spinning fabric for hanboks,
knife-grinders, papermakers pounding mulberry bark,
workers hauling burlap sacks of pinenut or quince.
Fishermen watch mask-dances set to kayagum and gong.
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 like sandbags,
and paper lanterns lit with candles for the wounded,
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 the dead.
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 one generation
to the next. Not much, but not
nothing: maybe the Paektu mountain tune
you both loved, crags grizzled with pine, rock maple,
black walnut, their burred and scabrous spines.
Shagbark or needledust. Gingkos scoured by snow.
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, spiced,
to nourish and to burn. Tell me if this is true.
I want to know what survives, what’s handed down
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
that’s only you, lonely fist of sinew and blood,
deep in your gut where cords lash bone, nerve, breath,
the part of you that first began to sing.


> Sue Kwock Kim



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