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  • Five Poems
  • Chonggi Mah (bio)
    Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé (bio)

The Fall of Paterson

"The great city split into three parts and the cities of the nations collapsed."

(Rev. 16:19)


The streets of Paterson, New Jerseyare so dangerous you cannot walk alone even by day.Flowers and squirrels, pigeons and clouds,parks and benches and lawns are all rottingand what poets called "beautiful things" have left.

The city's little waterfall used to sing a high-pitched chorus,the sky above the waterfall where a doctor strolled in the 1940s,within that sky the water daily becoming a rainbow, butnow even the fresh foam is a dumping ground of dry ruins.City of poverty, crime, drugs, and AIDS,only hatred, insomnia, and gunshots of fear remain.

People's glares make the smoky city shake. [End Page 357] Bloodstains die a second time under the wheels of automobiles.I cannot stand upright in your cityand with a horrified heart I hastily tear to shreds poems about heaven.In the collapsing city sterile children are dying,and meanwhile all the nation's cities are collapsing.


Los Angeles by night, late April 1992,the City of Angels engulfed in the dark flames of hell,in Korea Town, raised by the efforts of immigrant Koreans,sweat and tears, hope and promises were all trampled underfoot.Days, years of arson, plundering, murder,and the city collapsed into an ash-heap of despair and shame.

Once driven out in an endless struggle against poverty,their homeland too far away, bullets daily grazed their ears.Shouting in a mixture of English and Korean,tears of frustration welling in their bloodshot eyes,even with the shield of machine guns mounted on the roofs,it was still hard to hold back the high waves of lawlessness.

I long for your new songsas you cover and rebuild the fallen city.The rainbow swiftly rising heavenward,"beautiful things" as people of every race join hands and dance.Sweet sighs of admiration for this new Paterson.And look: all the water drops composing the rainbowcome pouring down, enveloping us in unity.

Translator's Note: Paterson is the title of one of the most famous works by William Carlos Williams, poet and doctor, pioneer of modern American poetry. [End Page 358]

Calling Names

Are we still calling out to one another?One blackbird sitting on a branchkept calling out with a desolate songthen after a time a similar bird came flying alongand, feigning indifference, settled on a nearby branch.So close that its wings stirred up a breeze.

Are they still calling out to one another?That second bird stopped coming, I don't know when.No matter how often its name was called, it failed to show-talking in its sleep on still, dry nightsfrom the same branch, that bird still seeking its mate.

Indoors, full and heavy, prejudice sinks down deepas the sound of a faraway train whistle, moss-covered, strangelypierces the interstice between night and night then vanishes.Streetlights are going out one by one.And broken hearts roam the sidewalks.With even their names concealed, they all find themselves alone.Are we still calling out to one another? [End Page 359]

Alaska Psalm 1


Until you camethere was nothing but a sound of waters,nothing but a pea-green sound of watersflowing from melting high icy slopes.It was only when you came onto the scenethat fireweed blossomed in bright and dark shades of pink,covering mountains and valleys.Then, belatedly, the wind arrived.

The pink flowers went dancing with the wind,while spruce trees stood on the shady siderocking as they kept time to the beat.The boisterous flowers at last grew stillas evening fell. That is the truth.Until you came herethere was nothing but a sound of waters.Nothing in the world was movingexcept for the sound of waters.


You say you simply raised your head for a momentand took a look around?It was only when you came that the blue sky appeared.That is the truth. And...