Five Poems by Lee Young-ju
When I was young, my aunt told me the name of the woman who goes to the public cemetery to meet her lover. Having cut a corner from the hemp cloth that covered the lover's face, she carries it around in her pocket, my aunt said. As though her life was the fact of his absence. In the middle of summer, because it was so warm, I used to sleep under a hemp blanket. My aunt said that in the summer you had to be friends with frightening dreams, and that you had to call on each ghost by name. Her name, made of geometric shapes, changed every day, so how was I supposed to look at it? Falling asleep next to me, carrying on my sleep from beside me, such beautiful shapes. On warm nights, I tend to drool on the hemp blanket, and the slobbered, wet blanket keeps on sliding down past my feet. Having dribbled out the door, I would see the lover's face cloth neatly tucked in a nook. I kept finding myself barefoot. Blue blood ran through my soles, and strangely, I felt hopeful that, if I fell asleep, I could touch the clouds. That within the dead lover's name I would discover what was beyond our senses. I don't believe there's anything that can't be touched. Only the lover, like the ghost whose fingers grow long and whose toes grow sharp under a burned tree, only the one who became this [End Page 113] lover. If you rub your stomach through the hemp blanket, a cool breeze flows in. When it gets too warm, barefoot, I leave the hour behind. At the street corner on my way out, my aunt's crying. I have to become friends with a frightening real world. [End Page 114]
The Stonemason's Yard*
Today's sleep, this sleep, is the last. The day to leave the bed of cold stone and go inside is tomorrow. The stonemasons, who break the stone and eat the powder, say they know by instinct. The sentiment of a patient … biting into rice and soup. Blunt feet slip when it rains. I lie on the bed of stone and, with a white towel, cover my eyes, and with another towel, cover my eyes again. Place a dimmer pair of eyes on top of the closed eyes, and there's always the foreboding that the approaching sleep will be your last. Like a mole who leaves this place to go to that place, I have to endure the summer. The fact of someone leaving me is like the heart of a patient who breaks the stone and eats the stone. It was as though they were leaving even when they were close, and the palisades were so beautiful I carried a hammer to the edge and cried, I remember the afternoon. Like a mole. I don't like you. I don't like myself for not being able to get rid of you all. I hate how, in the end, I can't hate the things I want to hate, and that the fact makes me sad. … This summer, I dig a shallow cave and face down so the blood can drain more easily. Inside the cave, Jesus's face, wrapped in a white-white light, speaks, today, while falling asleep. Words no one listens to, warnings not to slip on the stone. How tightly does it need to be tied to withstand the quake? Like a mole. The untraceable stone. When we break the stone, our lives remain, the lump of dead flesh. The slick stone is finished, and there they are, the palisades. To greet the lost lover. [End Page 115]
The cat resembles a fat mouse. I want to eat it. The thing that resembles me. It wears Grandmother's hemp dress and plays. Smells of the onesie Mother used to bring out of the closet. A hungry smell. It seems, in the hunger's midst, despite being born prey, it eats me. When the time to replicate myself has passed, will I know which carcass is mine? With white-haired Grandmother in her arms, white-haired Mother laughs. I want to fight a duel. When the morning sun rises. Against the dark disappearing on the other side. The cat doesn't eat the mouse. Stretches its body long and eats the shade instead. For a heartful of night. The baby mouse trapped in a mousetrap. The moment the cells replicate. The smell of Grandmother sniffed in a dream. The dusty winter smell that sweeps in when you open the window. Little by little, I walk caressing the neck bone. Somewhere, the smell of bread baking. I thought I took off the onesie a long, long time ago. [End Page 116]
Your old and difficult heart. I don't know it at all. You stand wearing your European-style hat like dim clouds from a chimney.
Once, you were trapped in ice while walking. Clean, cold, and far away. You said, adjusting your hat, Is that when I lost my age, lost my ability to negate? The starchy dark, too, had been trapped inside. You wanted to be a boy who doesn't die.
I'm watching you, from inside a European-style cupboard, discolored and hardened by fire, like a powerless fungus.
You laugh, seeing that I'm trapped inside the glass.
Whoever raised this semitransparent glass to prevent people from approaching was an exceptional glassblower. A person, having returned from a place far away, who, in silence, stacks the hours like dishes. The glassblower said that impurities dig in deeper when you try to wipe them away so don't try to wipe it too clean. That glass, when crusted, has a complex, beautiful pattern.
You take off your hat and peer inside the glass, wanting to forge a boy who won't die in ice. You study your disappearing expression.
I don't know it at all. To be wiping the cupboard's glass door with a towel, how long and difficult it must feel. Do I keep failing because I've trapped my age or because I've thrown away my ability to say no? I wanted to be imperishable, patterned all over.
You walk toward the chimneys. What did you lose while trapped in ice? White clouds, white patterns, white hair, white teeth. … You mumble weakly and slip out between the chimneys. [End Page 117]
Slowly, very slowly, like an old person, I deposit a white spore. Now, the boy has come alive and will be returning home, though this pale boy will only ever be alive, though it'll only ever amount to a glass heart. [End Page 118]
From the moment the hours had begun to bend they'd stopped. I buried my face in the mud, not knowing what to eat. The dish is jam-packed. Angels dropped it, they say, but it contained the hours of being a man, being a woman. Like a beast who only has knees, I crawled inside. I couldn't come back if I wanted to. Those who go to work every day and disappear from the streets, those working-class eople. I read a passage that said time is what dangles at the end of eternity and threw up. Does an arc reach for the inside of a halted day? Though I wanted to go back home, I couldn't move. Outside the window, angels scraped their wings. Their propensity to rise was getting in their way. Their feathers spread like snow. Resting their narrow shoulders on the sill, they sang. What's most like a soul is what's inhumane. What does it mean to resemble the world? In the galley, the pot was seething. [End Page 119]
Jae Won Chung was born in Seoul, grew up in Philadelphia, received his graduate training in New York, and currently resides in Boulder, where he teaches Korean literature, film, and popular culture. His translations have appeared in Azalea, Washington Square Review, and Asia Literary Review. His fiction has appeared in Apogee Journal.
* Antonio Canaletto