Suji Kwock Kim
Once I was nothing: once we were one.
In the unborn world we heard the years hurtling past,
whirring like gears in a giant factory—time time time—
We heard human breathing,
thoughts coming and going like bamboo leaves hissing in wind,
doubts swarming like reconnaissance planes over forests of sleep,
we heard words murmured in love.
We felt naked bodies climb each other,
as if they could ride each other to a country that can’t be named.
We felt bedsprings creak, felt the rough sailcloth of sheets dampen,
felt wet skin hold them together and apart.
What borders did they cross? What more did they want?
Bittersweet the sweat we tasted, the swollen lips we touched, the chafe of separate loins:
bittersweet the wine of one flesh they drank and drank.
They called us over oceans of dream-salt,
their voices moving over the face of the waters like searchlights from a guardtower.
We hid, and refused to come out.
Their cries followed like police dogs snarling from a leash.
We ran through benzene rain, flew through clouds of jet-fuel.
We swam through hydrogen spume, scudded among stars numberless as sands.
We didn’t want to be born we didn’t want.
Blindly their hands groped for us like dragnets trawling for corpses,
blindly their hands hauled me like grappling hooks from the waves,
the foaming scalps of ghost-children laughing, seaweed-hiar dripping,
the driftwood of other children who might have been.
Out of chromosomes and dust,
cells of hope, cells of history,
out of refugees running from mortar shells, immigrants driving to power plants in Jersey,
out of meadowsweet and oil, the chaff of unlived lives blowing endlessly,
out of wishes known and unknown they reeled me in.
I entered the labyrinth of mother’s body.
I wandered through nerve-forests branching in every direction,
towering trees fired by feeling, crackling and smoldering.
I rowed though vein-rivers.
I splashed in lymph-creeks between islands of glands.
I leaped rib to rib, rung to rung on the spine,
I swung from the ropes of entrails.
I played on organs, leaped through a fog of sweet oxygen in the lungs.
I clambered over tectonic plates of the skull, scrambling not to fall
down the chasms between, the mind-mountains where I could see no bottom.
I peered through sockets at the brain brewing in cliffs of bone
like a gigantic volcano, with its magma of memories, magma of tomorrows,
I could have played there forever, watching, wondering at the vast expanses inside,
wondering at the great chambers in the heart.
What machine made me move into the womb-cave, made me
a grave of flesh, now the engine of beginning driving forwards,
cells dividing, cells dividing:
now neurons sizzling, dendrites buzzing,
now arteries tunneling tissue like tubes hooked to an IV;
now organs pumping, hammers of hunger and thirst pounding,
now sinews cleaving, tendons lashing meat to bone:
meanwhile my skeleton welding, scalp cementing like mortar,
meanwhile my face soldered on, hardening like a mask of molten steel,
meanwhile my blood churning like a furnace of wanting,
meanwhile my heart ticking like a bomb—is-was, is-was:
then cold metal tongs clamped my forehad and temples,
then forceps plucked me from mother’s body like fruit torn from a tree:
then I heard a cry of pain—mine? not mine?—
then a scalpel’s snip snip against the umbilical cord, like razors scraping a leather strop:
soon I felt sticky with blood and matted fur, surgical lights blinding,
soon I felt tears burning my skin—Why are you crying? Why am I?—
I didn’t know who or what I was, only that I was,
each question answered by the echo of my voice alone: I, I, I.
-from Notes from the Divided Country
BIO: Suji Kwock Kim was educated at Yale University, the University of Iowa, Stanford University, and the University of California-Berkeley. As a former Fulbright Scholar, she studied at Seoul National University and Yonsei University, where her great-grandfather had been professor and dean of the graduate school and cofounder of the Korean Language Society (조선어학회), which was organized in resistance to the Japanese occupation. She is the author of the poetry collections Disorient (forthcoming) and Notes from the Divided Country (2003), which won the Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, and was a finalist for the Griffin Prize. She cowrote Private Property, a multimedia play performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
She is the recipient of fellowships from the Whiting Foundation, the NEA, Fulbright/IIE, Blakemore Foundation for Asian Studies, Korea Foundation, and Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, the Nation, the New Republic, and the Paris Review; and has been performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus and recorded on National Public Radio.