Jennifer Kwon Dobbs







A Small Guest

Alan Kurdî (2013-2015)


Seaweed followed the law

It released you to waves bussing

your small body


down, down dark currents

silver minnow tunnel. Your red

shirt swallowed


the Aegean, billowed

and swelled, but your shoes stayed on

By them the sea


knew your refuge dream

restored you to shore so your father

Abdullah could find


you, a guest of the sea

Without guests all houses would be a grave

the poet wrote


making a worm from mist

a bird from sand. What prayer

transforms this empty


castle guards watch

ignorant of the gift to shelter each other?

Who will help


close, open, close

your velcro laces for the journey

your father dares


for your sake? You a gift

loved with milk cake and honey. You

practice the names


to keep you safe—

not Mohammed, Jesus. Not Muslim

Christian. Hush—


don’t bother now

as tourists gather and multiply your image

on their tiny screens


You are not their orphan

of beach foam, Alan flag bearer, watching

from the lap of God






After torching

my ancestral fields for planting,

I drank makgeolli

while the cinders cracked


and tailed. She crept

along the smoky ridge,

her pelt musk amber.

She was always near


in the char licking her paw

shifting as I watched

her pink tongue fasten shapes

the moonlight cast


on my gray sleeve.

On guard I covered my heart

with my flask. She bared

her blackened teeth.




Birdsong for Ten Thousand Years

Koguryeo Tomb Murals, Northern Korea


The dying queen assembled birds that could talk like men—

parrots, roosters, cranes, mynahs aiding the lost


merchants, magpies carrying muddy twigs to a fissured

immortal terrace, kestrels, the white falcon


fearless of invading dogs. To guard against four directions

she consulted the phoenix, tiger, dragon, tortoise-snake.


Each tethered a cosmic map soaked with a blood tree

where the three-legged crow lodged his command.


Bride to this sunbird, the queen presided, her eye a moon

mirror for the constellations. Which bird did she prefer


for a song to establish her kingdom for ten thousand years,

her final wish a pearl embroidered dragon dress


in which to receive the fairies in the endless blue?





Master Sergeant Buckstead, Korea 195? | Northfield 2009


I too want to forget the image

properly buried in the Gangwon forest

reclaimed by grass


I tire of all this seeing

that’s not seeing a head turning

on a rifle’s mouth


turning puss-swollen

eyes chapped by wind

rustling mountain trees


the soldier’s red hair

As he raises his rifle toward the trees

the head spins


in four directions

shock the birds hear. The birds



and arch their dark backs

A cry snaps through their necks

as they lift up


as one to the sky

faraway from the forest while

the soldier stares


into the sun’s black eye

he can still describe as an old professor

He smiles


at that distance

His hands again cradle the rifle’s head

in the photograph


he’ll pass around

the lecture hall for his students to see

what he remembers of


mud, the enemy, thirst, this—

no one can identify or bring home

to bury


This is his image

the birds can’t read and can’t forget

a ricochet


wind from the sun

a wind driving them from that tree



in the sun’s center

like an unshuttered lens. Time captures

his hands


his regalia pose

exposed to a light that rends apart

like this—



Reading Keith Wilson’s “The Girl”


Yes, I’ve thought about tone

how white space stages


Korea 1953.

A girl silk-gowned,

small breasts, thin

indirect face.



Wilson carved away


the naval officers’

crisp white kits

in an Inchon officers club


himself a young sailor

curious, a boy


slung to the right.

Pinched and swollen


the hand-rolled joints dangled

between the men’s thighs


as they fingered and flicked

hot off each other

and at last, in the dark,



the lips parted

swallowed the cherry.


& how easily [he] came

marks of rank about him

so delicious


that later

in passion

in light not understood


he scratched out


the foreign words

coaxed from the men’s creased hems,


and for the crinkle of paper

passing hands, he wrote “The Girl.”


It had to be a girl.



Yi Sang’s Room

Kim Haegyeong | Seochon, Seoul 1910-33


At this table

I pose as an illiterate draftsman


Tax collectors

commissioned me for an imperial museum

but I design my name


as a false frame

though marked by bureaucrats

as an industrious example


There on rafters of bone

I inscribe an orange

butterfly for the virtuous


wives sickened

by their husbands’ semen

pumped to Battleship Island


to motor coal cars

The messages the men carve

I want to go home


Beloved I miss you

into the timbered shafts

shingle my roof against a red sun


and within its blaze I cut

lengths of air

for walls that a solitary prisoner


released from Seodaemun

can dream inside

Here I no longer fear


the tenure committee

who prefers red lacquered bowls

to story loss


or administrators

who nail ordinances to my porch

Motherless my words


may be dismissed as experiments

or disappear

under a courtyard lake


or divide a pillared darkness

into floating rooms

in which monks and poets eat


The bronze latch slips

and leaves blow through the gate

Now it’s possible


to speak in earnest of escape

Don’t let disaster catch you

immobile and bereft


Failure is also a posture against, against



They’re from Jennifer’s new collection Interrogation Room, which is a finalist for a national prize and forthcoming from White Pine in 2018.












Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is the author of Paper Pavilion, recipient of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize and the New England Poetry Club’s Sheila Motton Book Award; Notes from a Missing Person (Essay Press 2015); Song of a Mirror, finalist for the Tupelo Snowbound Chapbook Award; and Interrogation Room: Poems (forthcoming). Her work has appeared recently in Blackbird, Columbia: A Journal of Art and Literature, Crazyhorse, Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, and Poetry International. She has received grants from the Daesan Foundation, Intermedia Arts, and Minnesota State Arts Board. Currently, Jennifer is associate professor of English and program director of Race and Ethnic Studies at St. Olaf College where she teaches creative writing and Asian American literature. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.


Photo credit: Kyle Obermann

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