My Mother’s Mother (Speaks)
For years, I forgot how to laugh,
and the mirror smiled back like a stranger.
My tongue swam like leaves in hot tea,
the silence burning at my mouth.
Homeless, I live with my daughter,
the smallest one, hard as the earth.
The one always running away:
from her marriage, her country, her home.
Run away? I inquired. From what?
Your pain has been nothing to mine.
One day, in a fight with her husband,
she flings the curved moon of a dish.
I stare at the starburst of shards
and remember my childhood home.
That day, the sky turned white as milk.
Korea, a snowglobe, all shaken.
Stripped flakes. Crumpled notes. Paper manna,
falling down from American planes.
They read: Run away as fast as you can,
before the bombing begins.
It is better to burn than to starve.
The neighbors all bury their feet.
The houses clench shut the glass panes
of their eyes, and we wait in the silence to die.
We were called the silent generation,
children of a forgotten war.
Can a war be forgotten before it is over?
Does the stench of blood ever run out?
All my life, I have prayed for an ending:
no more mountains of corpses
or flies, no more fists
from a violent husband.
But the ending I had
was the day the sky laughed
so hard that its white teeth fell out:
and the streets were all splintered
as I ran in the dark,
a child, from a village in flames.
Some Eyes are the Color of Rain
Rain presses thumbprints of ink on the streets,
a cleansing and careful caress.
I dream of cold men with shallow white lungs
who touch me as if I’m a stingray,
olive-hued wetness in glass. I shrink and awake
tasting fear. Nausea floods my chest, and I
cannot hear your words underwater.
At the end of the world, Antarctica glows
above graveyards of broken seafloor.
Dead continents buried in ice, in a mask
of ancient and flat iridescence.
If pearls could be grief, I would dazzle.
Hold my tongue and my blister of light;
I am caught between square waves
of hope. Between body and breath,
between horror and trust, I am cut
on the glass shelf to self. What if one day
the sun touched the blue brink of earth
and its skin opened into a sea. What if
one day I opened my lips of gray stone
and my tongue turned to pearl filigree.
Looted and lovely, lissome and lost.
What a dream, what a dream that would be.
Another pure gift of a seamless day.
I unwrap the smooth hours slowly.
They crackle in my lap like spring buds,
pristine and untouched by time.
Walking out I give thanks for warm tofu,
rising from a Pompeii-red broth.
From this table of uneaten hours
and the crust of discarded hopes,
what have I done to receive
these loaves of forgiveness again?
The mornings are soft as napkins,
they cleanse me into a young prayer.
Above me, the clouds snag along
all the sharp shards of sky,
spilling the scent of cooked rice.
I repeat the promise I break every day:
to remember, to hearken, to listen.
Smearing roses across my closed mouth,
I slip on a blue linen dress.
My back grows eloquent with buttons.
My callow soul opens in my chest,
a fledgling shaking off the rain.
Today, I am given a small, shining life
and I walk out again to find you.
An Interview with Esther Ra
by poetry editorial staff Julie Brooks Barbour and Lizziegh Enos
Border Crossing: In your poems, everyday images are detailed in surprising ways, such as “clouds snag along / all the sharp shards of sky” in the poem “Today.” Images like this are unexpected but also serve as a reminder to pay attention to single moments as we move through the hours of a day. Could you discuss further this particular use of imagery in your work?
Esther Ra: I want my poetry to be a small act of devotion to the gift of today. Poetry holds a lot of hope for me because of its ability to renew our wonder at the beauty and terror of small things: the graze of fingers against skin, the sunlight on a blade of grass, clouds drifting loosely across the sky. Poetry reminds us that the ordinary is extraordinary, and that this particular moment is always a miracle; from moments Eternity is made. In the poem “Today,” I reflected on the difficulty of doing exactly this. We easily close our eyes and ears to what is right before us. We love inadequate humans in such inadequate ways. Our best intentions catch on the sharp ends of reality, and the fragmented idealism of our imperfect sky hurts us with our own imperfection. We fail again and again. And yet. In “Today,” even the torn clouds bleed the fragrance of cooked rice, and every new day is another possibility. What can we do but accept the invitation and say–“Thank you. I’ll try again. Maybe today I will find my way a little closer to the truth.”
BC: “Self-Portrait without a Brassiere” hints toward what you mention here in trying to find a way “a little closer to the truth.” The imagery in this poem is striking—“red borders slice through my skin” and “I stoop when I walk like a question / curving in the cave of my mouth”—while also describing what it means for a body to not only be contained in a garment but by an idea of what that body should be. Could you talk more about this?
ER: Sometimes I think of bodies almost as countries. To touch another lovingly is also a crossing of borders; and yet, even when we are promised the most intimate knowledge of another, we find ourselves startled, stumbling, in foreign territory. To love someone is to learn a new language and culture–their language, their culture. Together we create an interworld. And so I remain wary of speaking hastily about others’ bodies: what they should or shouldn’t wear, whether they are “objectively” beautiful or not, and what parts of the body should be hidden or sexualized. In South Korea, there are very rigid ideas of what is a correct and beautiful body, especially for female bodies. As a Korean woman, I feel so much more seen in my home country than in America, more conscious of my physical existence in ways both good and bad, and I often feel demarcated by definitions that are not my own. I want to challenge that for my readers, regardless of where they are from. Through my poems, I want to ask the question curving in the cave of my mouth, which is: are you truly letting yourself wander/wonder in the dazzling beauty of a foreign body? Are you simply being a judgmental tourist of another’s outer landscape of skin and feature, or are you stopping to get lost in the geography of the invisible?
BC: The two-column form of “Self-Portrait without a Brassiere” allows for pauses between the speaker’s thoughts as the narrative and interwoven dialogues of the poem progress. While the columns might be used to separate conflicting definitions of the speaker’s body, they bring them together instead. How did you decide on the form for this poem?
ER: I find it interesting how blurry the lines between binaries can be in real life. I chose this poem’s two-column form to reflect the shape of two breasts—separate yet connected, dual yet one. I often feel caught between different definitions of myself: many contain a kernel of truth, most are necessarily inadequate. By assembling them into a poem, I can watch them come together like a jigsaw puzzle to form parts of who I am.
BC: “My Mother’s Mother (Speaks)” contains more of your stunning imagery: “My tongue swam like leaves in hot tea, / the silence burning at my mouth” and “The houses clench shut the glass panes / of their eyes, and we wait in the silence to die.” These details are given to us by a speaker narrating the horrors of a war that should not be forgotten but is also painful to revisit. Could you talk further about the use of the speaker in this poem, as well as the importance of remembering significant historical events of a country, even if those events are traumatic?
ER: Before this poem came a poem titled “My Mother’s Mother,” which revolved around the refrain “Grandmother stayed silent.” Although we may forget history, history does not forget us: its effects linger long after the event, producing painful silences and recreating wounds in the next generation. By remembering traumatic events such as the Korean War, we can gain more compassionate understanding of those who are affected by it, including ourselves. I struggled in writing this poem: is it disrespectful to my grandmother’s pain to explore a trauma she still cannot name? Is this a story I have no right to tell? On the other hand, it is a history that has affected me deeply, as I was raised by my grandmother as a child, and lived with her for many years. In the end, this poem is both my story and it isn’t. I write from the little I know to articulate everything I remain in the dark about. What is important is that we remember. That we recognize. That we hear the silenced (speak).
BC: Which poets have been most influential on your work?
ER: There is something in Anna Kamieńska’s poetry that always makes me stop and look at life all over again. She is one of the very few writers who can capture the deep tragedy and praiseful wonder of life at the same time. Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Nizar Qabbani… and Jung Ho-seung, a Korean poet who expresses loveliness and loneliness like no other. I am also excited to see that spoken word is gaining more literary recognition these days, as artists like Sarah Kay and Safia Elhillo have changed my words for the better. And—it made me cry, once, when my friend said that God was a poet. So much of the Bible is timeless poetry, and so is the book of nature, and every important event that has happened in my life. I have learned poetry from a passing dog that sat by me kindly in a time of great grief. I have learned poetry from the homeless man who gave such sincere and joyful thanks for a warm plate of breakfast. Everything in the world is a lesson in poetry. I am still trying to pay attention.
Esther Ra is the author of book of untranslatable things (Grayson Books, 2018), a research intern at the Saejowi Initiative for National Integration, and a visiting poet at CSUSB. She alternates between the United States and Seoul, South Korea, where her heart and writing often return.