Two Poems

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.