Korean-American Poets

A small selection of phenomenal writing from Korean-American poets writing today.

do you need my mom’s estrogen

Actress Jean Seberg was hounded by the FBI for her public support
of the Black Panther Party. She had repeatedly attributed entering
premature labor to stress caused by the FBI’s investigation. Her
infant child died two days after birth. Seberg was found dead of a
barbiturate overdose in the back of her car, clutching a suicide note.

you’ll never know this poem is for you but that’s ok
i would still describe you as Jean Seberg but better
& alive despite everything Nixon lived for

she wrote, FORGIVE ME
or whatever that is in French

we are probably always losing things in translation like that

did you know the FBI spread vicious rumors
that sent her to the hospital room
where the Black Panthers rifled through her purse

as she lost her baby?
at least that’s what the white journalist says she said

we are probably always losing in translation

isn’t it funny how trust keeps running us into trouble
how violence spares no favorites when it isn’t the intended goal?

i would still say watching you almost
get hit by a car in broad daylight
is the most breathtaking ease in the world

we are probably always losing

i would still kill every doctor who made you
feel like you shouldn’t call your mom for wearing a dress

we are probably losing

i would kill every cop but there’s laundry to do



Because I did not have to smell the cow’s fear,
because I did not have to pin the man, watch his eyes
go feral, because I did not have to drag the stones
that formed in the child’s body, because I did not sheathe
my hands in dank soil, or skirt the machine’s battering, the needles
knitting my lower back, because when the factory collapsed
I smelled no smoke, and no one made me kneel at the cop’s boots
and count the pulse slowing beside me as every sound
soured, because my hands have never had to resist being comforted
by the warmth of blood, because the plastic-
wrapped meat and the mousetraps, because my job
was to stay clean and thankful and mostly imaginary, I have been stealing
what little I can:
                               onions. sandpaper. handfuls of skin.
the dumpster’s metal groan. hurried breath. hot knives.


The nastiest lick in the whole damn repertoire
is in the first movement, the conductor said
to the first violin. A concerto like tonight’s is
a dream swell, a dark circus of fluted magic,
the nasty hell of your own difficult year,
the bright chorus of your own survival, awash
in a floral weave of ocean foam among the dreaming
musicians preparing for the nasty lick, their lips
tightened like fists, rusted knives in a deep inventory:
one blade for large game, one blade for short trees,
one blade for berries, one blade for gutting the whole
damn idea. We have, what the conductor would call
a repertoire: how to maneuver if you aren’t in tune,
how to bail when the wave overtakes you, when
the concerto has such mean licks you almost break,
the lights dizzy the fighter in you, but your repertoire
comes back to you in some animal moment, your breath
now in time with your instrument, and everything
aligns as it should: your glistening body healed from
the incision, your flawed key buried under your shining
knives, your favorite chapter, your go to song.

American Dream

The alcove of your arm
has become my favorite room
for sleep, but I’ve been roused
by nightmares lately. Even thunderstorms
couldn’t wake you, my mother says
over the phone. I want to tell her
I’ve been seeing a white man, an American
man, but I can already imagine her:
Well, you can have friends. She had never meant
for me to become a Westerner — 
she’s afraid of losing me to a foreigner, being unable to speak
to her future grandchildren. Thousands of miles away
in Korea she asks if anything is wrong. I want to laugh.
Say to you, Isn’t she ridiculous? But
last night a Korean man broke into your room
and raped me, with you calm in your repose
next to me. He sat on my stomach with a knife,
the only gleaming thing. And you were still
in your platinum skin when I opened my eyes. How
can anything be wrong, I comfort my mother.

Beam, Robot

how did we meet?
        at the bar.

i thought you were beautiful across the way.

        you lit up with the
        pin ball machine.

you dazzled every time the
pool stick hit a cue.

        i liked your lights.
i liked you.

        i decided to say hi.
and there you were
dazzled by me.

        this never happens you say,
after an
evening of talking,
        we find ourselves alone,

your lights hovering over me,
my flickering dream machine.

                                there is no love manual for robots.

you’re all made so uniquely.
        in a steel factory.

where no one has the keys to
turn the electric locks.

        i never attempted to hold one
        between my breasts to turn on
        your lights.
you had so many keys all that
never seemed to work with me.

        when i began to love someone else,
would that be okay?
        im not sure,
you replied,
        how ill react.

                                            who programmed you?

        you placed two silver coins on my eyes
        and asked me
        to stay.

and i couldn’t, dear robot,
        not to be cruel
but because i thought
i was right.

        i was
        following the morse code of my human heart.

why did you buy flowers and cards for me
even though.
                     why did you shine and
                     flicker and blink
                     after it was
                     long over.  

all i naively
remembered of you was
a softened dim.     

        now, i understand why you took what you could.
        the cold moon sullies a wet san francisco lawn.

small glints on blades of grass depend on how you look.

        what i remember: once,

after we had dinner in the city.



        turk street and 7th

i stroked your shoulder

                                            your lights began to beam and

you stayed put,
                                            as all the cars passed

us, and the traffic lights



The Wolveish Forage

each day is a gorgeous wet machine - - -  the rain-slicked bridge under the night bridge - - -  let us walk together along its swaying twisted cables and let the rivets fall from our necks as we shed sky and pelt and heat and sleep

I’ve written your undertow into my will - - -  I have signed it with a fistful of bloody salt - - -  this wound my last resort - - -  all the music in the dark brine of my heart - - -  its secret pangs like a muffled church bell - - -  my eyes these hard gates and every kind of armor

you knew we were warmongers and cannibals - - -  you made me into a wolf whereas before I ate everything bleating and shivering - - -  whereas before I lay myself down in a lonely grave with my outcast fellows - - -  only now to confiscate the law of lucid dreaming upon this small invisible fire


you signed this contract of wheat paste and unconditional city rain - - -  you summoned the wailing wall - - -  you made a socket out of our last night - - -  into the diurnal wilderness we turned into swallows and sewed yesterday into our open mouths - - -  open to eat wind - - -  open to make dark rooms for ghosts - - -  for the pack of wolves inside the teeth

rough blood - - -  lurid orbit inside the subtle body - - -  the vindication of God - - -  the deposition of Lucifer - - -  all the rivers of mercy flooding the rings of Saturn inside your morning - - -  tint of gloat - - -  the void my guide - - -  the son of the god his heart on a stake - - -  a jar of water drained like this eulogy - - -  some indelible outline branded on the skin of the earth - - -  the earth in flight - - -  the earth in pursuit of this heavy light

in this wolveish congress with the letters of the dead - - -  my appetite for graffiti - - -  genuflection to the twenty-six occult symbols made of leopards and glass and fury and orphic keening and wax-wing flight - - -  each day is a prince on his lesser throne with his lesser hate - - -  his strange brother left in the forest - - -  left to make a machine out of the indifference of owls - - -  what to spell with their pellets of the delicate broken bones of mouse and vole - - -  every night is a widow


what the outside woman craves is strange testimony of the despot - - -  the law and the police report in illegible half-tongues - - -  if you could swallow scissors and thread and birth something durable - - -  your own face and body but burning on the outside instead of the inside - - -  the despot is the gloat of caw and mercury and an army of centaurs en route to the farthest necropolis - - -  their bloody hooves the calligraphy of man - - -  uncanny man in medias res - - -  dragging the penal colony behind them as if shadows were machines and crimes

the pack of wolves inside me spent a year in silence studying the corpses of flight of the architecture of wind - - -  the ships breech birthed on surprised shores - - -  coasts with chronic insomnia - - - facing always the wet suffocation of the great black fish with no face - - -  the great creature a mass grave - - -  the shapeless tunnel to swallow light and gravity - - -  the pack of wolves gnawing on a manuscript of organs - - -  each with a hood - - -  each harboring its own verses on the body

summon the heart’s four-chambered congregation - - -  we will chase our wolves through the starving blue to the piquant red - - -  what kind of recovery does the tongue make in its dark narrow room in the back of the throat - - -  all the strange velvet inside me - - -  rooms and rooms of it - - -  a suite of crimes and siblings - - -  sharing duration - - -  sharing a soldier’s reprieve - - -  my body a kind of necropolitan cradle - - -  a museum blazing on the inside like the world’s last night circus


if I vanish after a certain conjuring - - -  follow the spelling - - -  follow the leopards with human hearts in their mouths - - -  follow the scent of singed fur as walking through flames is often required to renew the hollows of the world

lucid dreaming a kind of air balloon travel - - -  oneironauts floating through ships built hastily in the space between wake and sleep - - -  assembled and disassembled by morning - - -  the wood shavings and surplus boards and uncanny convex portholes left hastily under your narrow bed - - -  they keep falling through the floor

the perimeter of the bed guarded by my soldiers - - -  the black laces of their black boots caught in my hair - - -  binding my hands


when I gave the wolves my opera glasses - - -  binoculars - - -  magnifying glass - - -  telescope - - -  pinhole camera - - -  and a set of sharpened knives they set fires all along the tree line - - -  they set to polishing the world’s remaining lonely library carrels - - -  eating the empty space along the way

the poetics of wolveish space and the displacement of air with the hot breath of the future - - -  I fell asleep in their den which filled with night-serum and the medicine became my lungs as I wandered through the rough carbon sleep of abandoned coal mines and saw my spirit panning for gold in the streams and creeks of the dead

I saw us there - - -  lingering over the remains of a spectacular - - - glittering feast 


perhaps born in a crime scene - - -  perhaps drawn from my mother as though an exorcism of pins and needles - - -  perhaps a child is a prosthesis and a pantomime - - -  perhaps a child is a cauterization of an oblivion

no matter because I am a maker of tourniquets and a hawker of all the holy orders of the world

God has chosen me - - -  lowering all things to me on a rope - - -  busy reading the syllabus of the body I leave the knitting of my white cloths and send the wolves inside me to the grotto with that vintage water from snow melt - - -  that water that tastes of the birth of planets - - -  of the iron moon and its magnetic dreams writing roses all over the night-skin we wear like a priest disgraced in his winter hunger

perhaps my private hospital business will expand into purgatorial burial ritual and the eros of prayer - - -  they will come from far and wide not to be stitched back together like dolls but to pay homage to me as to a fine landlord - - -  a man who hoards the calamitous light under his robes - - -  a scholar of usury - - -  perhaps I was born to be a minister of handbills and rainwater


a human-headed bird made its arrival night after night - - -  in my dreams I fell down upon things which are hidden during the day - - -  which advance upon me at night which draw my lightless body downward toward their receding forms - - -  which remind me that I have submerged the boat of my enemies and brought myself to silence

I surrendered my mask and maps and deck of cards to god who made me his property without quarantine or inventory - - -  a plate of ozone slipped under the cell door - - -  the key made of mushrooms and eaten every morning - - -  a shadow made of soot - - -  he brings me a kind of a spike to bleed the humors that turn to dust when they meet the air - - -  he promises new veins - - -  he promises gifts like morphine and exams I’ve already taken  

in this city of God - - -  all the stones rose surprised before me as a flock of birds disturbed from their morning feeding - - -  the stigma of childhood marking my palms and feet - - -  orphaned by pain - - -  I felt nothing though I attempted repair of the body’s summers through a kind of Christmas pageant - - -  then a swimming through the dream of olive groves - - -  then the quilting of buried music into twelve gowns - - -  then the eating of worms - - -  then the gathering of incomplete births - - -  and a series of flashbacks immaculate as the white room of the ivory mathematics of Mary - - -  we fell upon the placenta still pulsing like a heart and gorged on it like a pack of wolves 


we shall be purified - - -  we were promised - - -  we were soaked in rum and honey - - -  drunk as choirboys - - -  the many anonymous eyes all over their unnameable bodies and their backs made blank for punishment

one day I was offered an advance cremation - - -  why wait I thought - - -  let the gross body fall away - - -  let me save the organs for later - - -  let me fill these jars I have inherited from my mother’s mother - - -  let me empty them in that field down there - - -  let me visit the slums of the world looking for the king’s trident

let me bury my brothers who come endlessly from over that hill - - -  who come like a line of ants - - -  like a swarm of bees - - -  like a ring of fire


from the eastern gate to the western gate - - -  I 

        made a womb out a sparrow’s nest
        assembled every meal out of moss and the scorned end of each hour
        used my palm as a cutting board
        wrote a child out of forbidden grammar - - -  a grimoire
        a child of pure glamour - - -  a child not to be looked at directly
        a child to walk ahead and not look back

        orphaned myself every morning and every night
        let the wolves out of my mouth at noon and swallowed them for dinner
        never fell into despair or aporia
        reused every letter as a frugal woman was taught to do
        dactylic hexametered several martial epics while my husbands were away at the wars

        engraved a secret dossier on God and buried it under the floorboards like a heart
        finished him a suit of armor knit from stinging nettles
        abandoned all ghosts who entered me with good intentions

Revisionist History

The weather in Seoul in October is bright and balmy.
All the hospital beds are full, and women with thick arms
and bent knees, feet in the stirrups, scream in an echoing

symphony. A woman with small ankles can’t see
beyond her bloated stomach. She keeps her eyes shut
as forceps dig, doctors’ hands twisting between her legs

like a corkscrew pulling out the plug.
It’s been a busy morning, and between heaving breaths
she wonders how much longer? First the head,

then the shriveled body, bright as a small sun.
For the first time in her life she sighs and means it.
That’s how it happens in my fantasy, the movie I watch

on repeat, re-imagined myth of my birth. No. I emerged
from seafoam flapping my tailfins in the Pacific froth.
I washed ashore encased in a mermaid purse, crawled on all fours

and learned the power of breath. No. I was stardust,
an accumulation of space matter falling to earth in tiny pieces.
I’m still gathering my limbs. They’re scattered all over the planet.

None of that is true. I was born in the airport, propelled
through the gaping mouth of sliding glass doors.
My father’s second cousin ferried me down the stairs,

my mouth bubbling with Korean consonants, eyes still wary
of sight. In the video recording of my arrival, the airport light
burns everything so yellow it’s purple. My grandfather’s cheeks

behind his glasses glow like round speckled eggs. I’ve watched
the video so many times it’s etched like a scar. I can feel
my mother’s yellow tears fall purple on my cheek. My father

tucks his upper lip inside his tongue. Years later I will learn
why he does this: searching for words when the mouth is lacking,
soft tears cradled in the pockets of his open eyes. What’s

the difference between memory told and memory burned?
I was born in the womb of a stranger, my face a reflection
of somebody else’s shadow. If I told you that I missed you,

would you believe me? Would I?