translated by Wayne de Fremery, Brenda Hillman, and Jeongrye Choi
From Instances: Selected Poems [forthcoming]
We arrived, passing through that dust,
passing through that worm;
we arrived, after passing endlessly through.
I let the baby down off my back and,
while I ordered and ate sundubu,
and sniffled and wiped my nose,
the baby cooed
and crawled on the floor.
My age and yours—
I can’t count the ages
that began in that dust.
Stone monuments have crumbled.
A lot of treasure has been buried,
even the crows have composed a long lineage.
The dust that clings to dark clothes—
little pale things holding on so stubbornly,
what do you want to be?
whisked off and rising up—
do you want to be a beast?
clinging to dark clothes—
sundubu: tofu soup
The Five-thousand-Year-Old Heart I’ve Swallowed
The hooves, the hooves of horses came toward me.
I stared at the ceiling bulb; I stared at the filament in the bulb, at the little hooves.
No, I didn’t know that they had come clop-clopping into my eyes from an evening five-hundred—some five-thousand—years ago.
Why did my body miss the desert for such a long time? Why did I borrow the body of that dying water bird to wander the empty sky?
The heart some five-thousand years old that I’ve swallowed listens to the sounds of the desert’s sand storm. It watches a deep-blue lake float, rippling gently.
When morning comes I hear the shrieks of the horses that came toward me all night as the hobnails are struck at heaven’s village blacksmith.
Do earthly flowers bloom and fall in thirst for everything useless thing
in the world?
I should go on my way but it’s too far; my eyes still endlessly swallow the horses’ hooves. Do the flowers bloom and fall and bloom and fall without knowing the endless
of my bare feet?
The Absent Tree
The name of that tree is dark.
I saw only the sun burning in it
for a moment,
grazing over it like lightning.
White-charcoal tree, heavenly tree, tree of emptiness—
none of these names exist;
the names are not in it…
after the sun surfaced slowly,
after the multitudes flowed by,
coming over and over the clouds,
having fallen into underpass of my sleep
after the splash,
above my head,
for a moment;
it was the burning star at my fingertips,
the beast boiling in my throat,
the bird I let fly away when the drought
of my body had finished.
Does the path leading to one tree
go like this to another?
Does it finally arrive
at all the ultimate trees?
The ideal beauty of one tree
is so much like that of another.
No end and no beginning.
for a moment—
whose shadow are you?
On the Way to Buy Meat
It looked like I was going to buy some meat and was on my way.
Someone said I had to get it from that store.
I went past the fake fish pond behind the church
to arrive at the place
near where Susŏng kalbi was written,
but that wasn’t it.
I had to go farther.
Where a heap of yellow earth crumbled,
children were catching ants.
Where the ant laid her white eggs,
they were looking for the queen.
One kid touched an ant’s behind to his tongue
and was shuddering.
I was just thinking: I need to get the meat and go home.
Everything was quiet.
Trees leaned over,
as if a big storm were passing though.
Windows were closed soundlessly.
flowed in the gutters.
I was on my way to buy meat.
The kids were face down.
speechless, blood smeared on their lips.
They were the ones I had seen in the newspaper.
Those who kept the chaff of the rice and wild fruits in their pockets—
someone said they were spies.
I was lost on my way to buy meat
and been captured there too.
I needed to be awakened.
The rain outside—
it was blood-colored.
In front of that room, there is a big tree blocking the window. When dawn comes, a thousand birds arrive to chirp in that tree. The tree weeps like the swirling of a stream. Each leaf becomes a bird and shakes itself. To appease the one window, the tree drops all its leaves.
There is a man sleeping like the dead in that room. There is a man who piles up time in his body. He doesn’t know that the tree came to stand in front of the window. He can’t hear it weep. There is a man in the world, — who tries to extinguish the fire in his chest but has turned utterly to ash. In that room , he is there, lying down.
Watermelon Patch and the Moon
Moonlight, from so far away,
on the watermelon patch,
and in the dark patterns of its furrows,
shining into the motel and the sky-black car
slipping up to it,
and the red car pulling up soundlessly.
The watermelon patch was hot all day long, and now
lays the shadows of the poplars down so they
sway in the water of the rice paddies,
Moonlight moves through a place like the flickering consciousness
of dreams, too.
All alone, the watermelons grow rounder and rounder and rounder.
With their leaves,
they row toward the round moon;
in the green and the dappled stripes,
to fill the red rooms inside,
they mumble, You have no idea
how long it has taken —
from the black spots of the far off sun to these black seeds—
to find you .
Summer days, winter days, all mixed together,
on crimson patches in a green ravine.
An Apple Seller Scattered in Front of a Musso
Say what it was
shining in your eyes,
in those small apples,
in the flutter and sway,
in the trace of crimson and green,
in the sunlight and clouds passing.
Say what vanished
in new red hope bought
with crumpled bills,
in the swagger and wiggle of a hip,
in the child coming to him, crying,
sunset burning in the windows.
Say what scattered, oh,
in the moan of the moment
when the fresh scent of the newly-ripe
apples rose, something also rose with them
on the cart.
The birds on the street pull you into a deep sleep
circling in empty air;
the Musso stops to stand staring
into your depths,
deep and dark;
over the tops of black apples
opened and still,
what scrapes quietly past,
what hustles to fade away.
Musso: an SUV made by Ssangyong
Even when they’re piled at the store, watermelons ripen.
And when they can’t ripen anymore, they grow old.
Trapped with its black lines,
burnt, its insides
crimson, the seeds of my heart are black.
They don’t speak. Of course, they can’t.
Shall I call it
Donkeys loaded with watermelons leave.
Bells clinking among the boulevards of trembling poplars
at the Taklamakan desert oasis —
they still use donkeys there.
In the big markets, craftsmen of silver and gold
bend over their rings; they want to become something.
Wanting to become what cannot be,
they die there, and I die here.
They lived there and I lived here.
Lived. Did I? In the desert?
Veiled women pass by
against a background of buildings pocked by bombs exploding.
Hollowed eyes flashing; they come and go like gulls;
Maybe it was me.
When, instead of a reply,
I got my letter back, torn to pieces,
it was like a dream,
I thought it could not be.
But can that be called Lebanese emotion too?
All over the world, lovers become ex-lovers.
The man returns home in full glory, riding in glimmering cars.
He goes to Lebanon to be a king.
He goes to Lebanon to speak a foreign language and marry again.
He becomes a father and flashes a quick smile.
White teeth behind black lips,
why doesn’t he die?
And when he does why won’t he just go away?
He blows in like a wind from across the desert,
a wind almost forgotten, clouds aloft with his breath.
The clouds float up, they drift along,
they cry red.
They hold their heads in their hands and whimper.
They glance off to the side, and, finally,
today, it rains all day.
Shall I call it Lebanese emotion?
Shall I call these Lebanese clouds?
Rising and falling —
let’s call it Lebanon. Yes, let’s do that.
Jeongrye Choi has published four books of poetry. In 2007, she received Korea’s prestigious Modern Literature Award. Choi participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2006.
Wayne de Fremery, a native of northern California, is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.
Brenda Hillman is author of many books and chapbooks, the most recent of which are Pieces of Air in the Epic and Practical Water published by Wesleyan University Press. She is the Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry at St. Mary’s.