I lived on 107th street with my parents until 1992. We were the only Koreans on our block. Where were the others?
I am reading Louise Bogan’s bio again, connecting with the turmoil of her young life. She recalls her mother as being unhappy and ready to take it out on her family. Her mother had relations with other men while exacting inappropriate feelings from her son. I understand being raised by a mother mired in an unrequited life, but I wish I could extricate myself from her long tail of dissatisfaction and chaos.
When the bare eyes were before me
And the hissing hair,
Held up at a window, seen through a door.
The stiff bald eyes, the serpents on the forehead
Formed in the air.–excerpted from Medusa by Louise Bogan
My first book, One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons, took me about five years to put together. This second book, I Used To Be Korean, took a little bit less time. But, golly gee, book writing just takes a long time, huh?
I wonder at how people put out all their volumes and collections. I am amazed at the speed of their output and it brings me to wonder about my snail’s pace. I do honor and respect my output for what it is: I am a preschool teacher who up ’til last July was trying to take care of my Old Ladies. But they are both gone now and “every day is like Sunday; every day is silent and gray.” That should leave me more time to write, you say? Well, in theory, yes it should. But it’s not working out that way.
I think about Harley Elliott, a poet whom I trust to set me straight on the way of our finite human condition. I do mean the way we deal with being alive and how we make the most of our time on earth. Harley has published 11 books of poetry with two books out in 2020!: The Mercy of Distance (Hanging Loose Press) and Creature Way (Spartan Press) so he must know about finding the way to more writing.
I think of Bob Hershon who wrote about fifteen books throughout his writing life. His work is a body of knowledge connoting confidence, a savvy outlook on life with little second guessing. I admire that kind of knowing. Bob’s way of seeing the world. You may not be born with it, but it can be borne within you. It’s been almost two weeks since Bob passed and I am just coming to terms with knowing that we won’t be hanging out in his backyard, sipping on reasonably priced wine whilst ducking wayward acorns from those sassy Boerum Hill squirrels.
I know I will honor his memory and legacy by writing as much poetry as I can.
In memorium, Bob Hershon, poet, publisher, friend and eternal student of the School of Keep On Keeping On:
A Bad Dinner
by Bob HershonThey gave me a bad dinner, not to make me a stranger
–Betsy Sheridan’s journal
They pelted me with rocks, not to take their love as my due
They burned my poems and papers, not to permit my self-love to
They denounced me to the FBI, so I would not grow smug, in
and take their good will as a given
They pulled out my eyelashes, so I would not blink in amazment
They blew their noses in my socks, so I would not strut
They carved my name on a headstone, not to forget that I was
one of theirs, and they begin to carve the dates
I don’t remember ever being a grandchild, but I have the pictures to prove I was.
I like looking at photos of my grandma because she looks so much like my dad.
I forget that my mom used to perm my hair when I was little. She might have done it especially for this photo, taken at a real life studio across the street from our old apartment building on 107th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
The last time I tried to perm my hair, I might have been in college and realized just how straight my hair was because there was barely a ripple in it when I was done with all the rigamarole.
I have long ago come to terms with my long, straight, black hair, and I thank my ancestors for their generous gift every day.
I am a teacher of four year olds. It has been my favorite age to teach ever since I started on the early childhood path, as far back to 1987 when I started as an intern at the Columbia Greenhouse Nursery School.
Our body holds memories of what happened to us when we were young, albeit some are murky and forget about chronological order. But they are evidence of what we were going through at the time. Living with my aunt and uncle, I felt powerless and lonely for my parents, and though my cousins tried to comfort me, it was not enough.
Even as a little kid you know you’ve got little power to change your circumstances and that’s what really sticks in your craw, and what you remember most about being a child.
My life suffocates
Planting seeds of hate
I’ve loved, turned to hate
Trapped far beyond my fate
–Excerpted from “Harvester of Sorrow” by Metallica
My mother grew up during the war. She was 13 when Chinese communists and Korean dis-loyalists colluded a hostile takeover of her homeland.
After having to leave the north where she was born, she never saw her home again. She never really talked about it, but I don’t think she knew what happened to her parents. And many of her siblings perished and were lost from her.
I didn’t grow up in war directly, but I was privy to the damage that it caused my mother as the pain and anger weeped out of her.
As a Korean child of Korean immigrants, I have conflicted feelings towards the Chinese and Japanese (along with the despot Kims of the North). And I have trust issues with white Americans, too. These conniving powers hell bent on destroying a small nation that just wanted to be left alone.
But what a phoenix Korea turned out to be: from the ashes born a creature of resilience and determination. Yes, we are.
War, illness and famine will make you their favorite grandchild.
You’ll be like a blind person watching a silent movie.
You’ll chop onions and pieces of your heart
into the same hot skillet.
Your children will sleep in a suitcase tied with a rope.
Your husband will kiss your breasts every night
as if they were two gravestones.
––excperted from “What the Gypsies Told My Grandmother While She Was Still a Young Girl” by Charles Simic
One of the Korean things I learned was to ask my boyfriend if he’d eaten lunch.
When I lived in Seoul during the early 2000’s, I dated some and learned the endearing custom of asking your significant one if they’d eaten lunch. It’s a kissing cousin to the American “Did you eat yet?”
My boyfriend is good at making lunch so when I’m home I know I will eat lunch. At work? Not so much. It’s a comfort and joy to have someone concerned about your eating habits. There are so many people who aren’t as lucky.
“Did you eat yet?”
Thirst is angry at water. Hunger, bitter
with bread. The cave wants nothing to do
with the sun. This is dumb, the self-
defeating way we’ve been.
––excerpted from “The Self We Share” by Rumi
I don’t remember a lot of trips taken as a kid. But I know we went to Niagara Falls.
We drove up in a car and when we got there I puked in a paper bag. I remember that it was from eating a whole lot of cheese doodles.
I had a feeling when I was young that we didn’t do things that other families did. My friends who were white seemed to be always going on “vacation”. It seemed like only white people could go on vacation. They had the time and the money.
And when I got older, I made it a point to be going somewhere, it was a case of ABV––Always Be Vacationing. But sometimes you end up in places that make no sense.
SUBTERFUGE & DNA
by Jiwon Choi
The whitest girl I ever knew
came from Concord, New Hampshire
she played violin, kept her hair boy short
and wore ear plugs to bed
––the one time my boyfriend came to visit
she really needed them
I went home with her one weekend
and met her family
over baked chicken and green beans I fielded questions
about my parents—what kind of work were they in?
I didn’t answer that their profession was dysfunction
I told my stories instead:
(as my parents’ only child I am good at subterfuge)
they’re in “sales” (not hyper-depressed immigrants moaning
in a dark room)
we vacation in Niagara Falls (one time when I was seven
and I threw up a whole bag of Cheese Doodles when we got there)
and our dishes aren’t all busted up (the Laura Ashley bowls were
the first to go––smashed against the wall)
Before bed while brushing my teeth, I find the diaphragm
on the bathroom sink and the ear plugs make sense.
My Old Ladies have become my inheritance.
As a youngster I didn’t think about how I was on the road to old ladyhood the minute I came out of my mother’s uterus.
The “good night” that Dylan Thomas was writing about is some serious shit. I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I am afraid of dying. I know I am dying.
What the fuck.
Another summer gone, the hills burned to burdock and
thistle, I hold you a moment in the cup of my voice,
you flutter in the frail cave of the finch, you lean to speak
in my ear and the first rains blow you away.