Jennifer Kwon Dobbs

 

 

(USA)

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Fox

 

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?

 

 

 

This—

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

scatter

 

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

flared

 

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.

 

Whether

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,

 

Wilson

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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