Poetry / Keunhae Lee
:: Fire and Silence ::
In Gyeongju, father tucked his feet beneath him, kneeling low, his bombast stilled for once. His cousins crouched around a silver spray from a metal spigot thrust from a concrete pad behind the house to wash a bloodied skull. In the main room, low-slung trays bulged burdened dishes laden with spiced pickles. My sister, curled on mother’s lap, wept in ugly waves. A cousin grinned and warned us not to eat the meat and jerked his head towards a partly empty pen. The dogs there in watchful repose, ready sprung. An aunt shushed him before he spoke, but still I grasped already what my sister witnessed. Steaming pans of stew, garlicky and hot, thick with strands of brown meat which hung tangled like slender noodle clumps, roused dinner and the soft click of metal chopsticks against steel bowls and breath blowing across hot food. Walking alone through the woods the next day, my fingers brushed against a poison caterpillar hidden on the underside of a leaf. The pain was immediate, intense fire arcing its way up my hand. What blaze was stayed as I braced my wrist amid the forest calm?
:: How Debt Travels ::
I punched my fist through ice formed owing to the prolonged decline in mercury over a five-gallon bucket. The ice dipped and bobbed as if it, the bucket, wanted to be the ocean deep in the arctic, owing to the sustained upsurge of water owing to my hand and arm’s descent that barely scraped the bottom of the white bucket owing to my short stature owing to my brief life of five years owing to time’s sustained progression. I washed my tongue with water owing to injury caused by grownups in the way that children often are. I spit and did not swallow owing to what I knew about poison and kept my mouth shut owing to the fragility of grownups owing to their fear of death who yawns wide like a lion who pinned the tail of a mouse with its knife point claw owing to death’s inevitable arrival owing to real mortality owing to a failing body that really is only made of mud or God’s spit and ash owing to uncertainty of biblical accounts owing to unreliability of the human tongue owing to the porousness of memory owing to fantastical feats of mind owing to fallibility of electric pulse of synaptic leaps from terminal to terminal. I kept my mouth shut owing to self-preservation or moxie and now those grownups are gone or faraway and now I am taller owing to time’s persistent crawl and now I am fragile and their debt is mine. I have carried it with me and towed it forward, cradled it until the still hours of dawn, and now I wonder who could come collect if I should leave this debt behind.
From the writer
:: Account ::
Generally, I have noticed that the past asks to be revisited and made relevant, if not entirely understood. In these poems, I write about moments in my life that will not be quiet. It has been a challenge to pare these moments down to what I think are essential to the integrity of each poem.
For example, “Fire and Silence” began as a long narrative poem about the events of two days in Geyongju, South Korea. As I began the process of editing, I noticed a sense of things being constrained and released, like a closed fist opening to outspread fingers. I chose to keep images that I hope convey that sense. The people in this poem are constrained in some way, described as being “crouched” or “curled up.” Even the dogs hold back “in watchful repose,” whereas descriptions of food tend to meander a little more, open up and spread out. I hoped to mimic that sense of a closed fist opening in the form as well, using lines with 5 stresses, to 4, to 3, and then relaxing that constraint in the last line, where I used 7 stresses.
For “How Debt Travels,” I really wanted to use a chant of some kind and looked all over the place for an established closed form. There is most likely something out there that would have worked, but I wasn’t able to find one I felt would fit. In the end, I decided there was nothing wrong with just straight repetition inspired by religious chants since the poem deals with religious themes of sin, legacy and death. I really wanted to emphasize the interdependence of things and actions by suggesting a causal relationship between each set of lines. In this poem, I focused not on the number of stresses to determine line breaks, but discrete images or ideas instead. I used my own breath as a significant factor for determining stanza breaks. It was really fun to write and to read aloud!
Keunhae Lee received her MFA from NC State University and currently lives in Bonney Lake, WA.