Three Poems by Kim Kyung Ju (Translated by Jake Levine)

Kim Kyung Ju

Hear the Mackerel Cry

In a deep place grown flesh is filled to the brim.

If you see the mackerel grill, at first, the mackerel’s lips burst. Ahhhh . . . and pop. Sprinkling from the mouth, black fictions flow freely. Like the one bullet in a thousand that weeps in the flame, the ocean pours slowly from the body. On fire, the spine bulges. The spine melts.

We sit around the purple piece of fish we sliced, and that is what we eat. Nothing spared. Not even a bone. After all is cleared, the smell of fish hugs our lips and we fall asleep. Near the sheets I lay my head. Outside the sheets purple lips begin to smack.

While striking the floor with her fin, Mom straightens her spine. Mom, please stop dribbling. I can’t close my eyes when I think of your spit. Turning on your side, purple bedsores pop. Mom, all the more strange, after the tongue sank it won’t come back. While I sprinkle Mom’s body with water, the tongue finds a word that had a swim through the heart. When life shows me its tail, I cut the body off.

Sunk into the deep, Mom quietly spits purple air. The mackerel is weeping.


Even Now Mom Wears Her Flower Pattern Underwear

I went down to my hometown
and while hanging laundry I discovered the truth—
even now, Mom wears her flower pattern underwear.
Snow falls in the market on the cart
where as a kid I stood next to Mom
juridiciously selecting our family’s underwear.
Like a gigantic ass, the sky unfurled, and into it
the voice burnt in the megaphone selling panties flew away.
Inside the sky Mom tried to rub a pair of clouds
from the panties onto her cheek.
The fingers reddened the lining of the flowers into a blur
of the girl my mother still wants to be.
Today that disappeared pattern rouged my face.
As Mom proved in her time, life is lived moment by moment
by putting on panties and beginning again.
No matter how many people touch them
the panties stay fresh.
Despite all the touching
the flowers never rot.
The snowflakes burst from eyes get close
to the panties blooming one by one on the line
and blur their flowers.
From the inside of wrinkled buds, drip drip, water spills.
A pair of shy, old panties inside the drawer—
their whole life spent beside snowball sized mothballs
and sunlight, fresh, rare and clean, cozily coagulating
with the smell of flesh turned blue.


If a bird bites the hair off someone and flies away
at night, that person dreams of flying.
—from Natural History, a book of classic Chinese literature

To cut my long hair
To cut my long hair I leave at night. I jot down in my notebook “there is no place to cut my hair at night.” So I want to talk about the slow life of the Green Papua snail that lives in the Bismarck Archipelago. Like clouds that float like bubbles of beer, the night is bewitched by its origins. Life flows here from faraway. It wasn’t the thunder squeezed from the sky thousands of years ago, but the darkest eye of a tree in the forest that came to visit me.

The place where the beer was ambushed
In order to buy beer, we ambushed the room. Like guerillas we laughed. Like guerillas we bled from the nose. However, like guerillas at the site of an ambush, because we couldn’t die, we rose to buy beer. Someone said in front of the window, “I wish to be absolved from the charge of life.”

Because we should be talking about “the story of biting lips,” a guy wearing black wayfarers folded black paper cranes and placed them on the table. To save the music from sinking inside its own soul, while shivering a little like firewood, again we begin this blue and soggy song. Somewhere in the middle there is “an island we have never been to” that flew toward music. Also, hanging on a Korean persimmon tree like the Chili of some Chilean guy, was a blue ankle. A young man with the lips of a snail secretly hugged the statue of a girl reading a book and took her to his house.

From the water, a string of hair that was pulled out
Dudes, yer all on the same team. For sure, you guys chat it up every night. Are you looking for the basin where you last washed her hair? I’m sorry to tell you, this is not that joint. Just take a peep in the mirror. Look kid, you’ve got your cigarette in your mouth the wrong way. “Sometimes on vacation, when yer all alone, you’ve got to flip the cross sideways on the wall. You’ve got to sharpen the lonely knife.” You guys are really all the same. Because the mouths of the birds in my cage don’t squawk, again, you’ll be here all night.

The last puff of the lime green cigarette
Inevitably I love you today. Because there is no one I love. Today I love you. Because of you, because my eyes are reproducing, inevitably today I love you. Today, inevitably since it’s you that I love, behind me a dreadful silence will appear. And yet, I love you. So today is inevitable. Inevitably, today since I love you, maybe my soul will be punished, and yet I dream of an impossible soul like a priest who can’t bury the body because he loves the corpse. Because I’m haunted by an apparition, I have no one to love, so inevitably I love you today. Today the wind that has been alive for thousands of years grabs a strand of my hair and flies far away. However, there is no one I love so, inevitably, today I love you.

From all of this, from the end of the lime green cigarette, smoke.  

The diver with a guitar slung on his back
In order to get courage, from the window I quietly move toward my bed. “It’s raining, but if you are wandering beside the window, then you are making love,” is what I wrote down one time in my notebook. I was scared once sooooooooooooooo my mouth became majorly twisted. I mean, do I really need to leave the house to cut my hair? Even though the wind is blowing like archaeopteryx, first bird known to man, ca-caw ca-caw, on the floor I spread my wings. I type. The divers in the middle of the river, with their guitars slung over their shoulders, begin to shout their songs again. The smell of music like bubbles rising to the surface of the river. Without exception. On days like today, it doesn’t matter where the beaks of birds pick up strings of hair—it’s only over my head where they lay.

Kim Kyung Ju is a Seoul-based poet, dramatist, and performance artist. His plays have been produced abroad in several countries and his poetry and essays are widely anthologized in South Korea. He has written and translated over a dozen books of poetry, essays, and plays, and has been the recipient of many prizes and awards, including the Korean government’s Today’s Young Artist Prize and the Kim Su-yong Contemporary Poetry Award. His first book of poetry, I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In This World, sold over ten thousand copies and is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed books of poetry to come out in South Korea in the new millennium.

Jake Levine is a poet, scholar, and translator from Tucson, Arizona.


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