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Our Lady

Every time I describe a carcass
Of an animal, specifically its rib-cage lying open
Beneath the smoke-cleared sky, I am thinking
Of a burnt cathedral, which
Has nothing to do with actual death. There was
A girl, second generation Korean-American;
We lived in the same dorm our
Freshmen year, when we all
Said freshmen without questioning it. The dorm was
At least a century old, once occupied
By T.S. Eliot. I didn’t care then. Red beams
From stained-glass windows
Woke me in the morning. It was 2008, or 9,
I am not sure, when the gate burned.
The Great Southern Gate, Korean name
Namdaemun (AKA Sungnyemun
Meaning Highest Virtue), main entrance
Into the Old Capital, surrounded by glitz-and-glamor
And topless towers of the 21st Century night, on fire
After some 600 years of wars and humiliations
I wasn’t present for. Last moments
Streamed live from Seoul (And yes,
My friends, you still say Soul). The scene seemed
To belong in disaster flicks, a structure—
Often seen in badly produced TV shows
Trying very hard
To recreate the imagined glory of
An un-reclaimable past
Using it as a background prop—helplessly
Disappearing. The girl living above my ceiling,
The second gen, I sought her out
And told her what was going on,
Dutifully crestfallen. She was puzzled.
I said, how would you feel if it was
The Statue of Liberty. Well, wouldn’t that be
Terrible, she said as a New Yorker. Was it a terrorist,
She asked. It is 2019 now. They rebuilt
The gate with new stones. I have passed by it
And it looks pretty fake.
When Notre Dame was going down yesterday
I thought of the girl
Who kept asking me to sing K-pop songs
Together with her and I
Didn’t know any.

 

Ahshinayo

Do you know? In late 1990s,
There was a fad of making music videos
In Seoul like they were short films. Not like a short
With a spoken dialogue, but like a trailer
For a movie that tells you the whole plot
Of its movie. Only difference being,
Those music videos were themselves
The things they advertised.
Ahshinayo was the most expansive production
Of this kind; its lyric
Translates like this: Do you know
How much I loved you then.
“Why did you not say anything?” You ask.
My heart aches, and I can’t answer.
You don’t have to know everything,
Just remember this moment. Remember us, and me.
The song was so popular
That even I could sing it with my eyes
Closed. And I remember how
Music and its lyric were set
To an epic fragmentary short about a Korean marine
In Vietnam War, and his falling in love
With a Vietnamese girl. His platoon
While trying to ambush their enemy
Use the girl as a guide through local terrain
But get ambushed by Viet-Cong instead
And are massacred. He and the girl die in gutter
With him screaming, “Why is this happening?”
(Or was he just screaming) again
And again clutching
Her lifeless body. It ends with a coda
About some 5,000 Korean men who lost
Their lives in Vietnam. I learned later
How South Korean kill-death ratio was 24 to 1
And how they viewed
Their participation in the conflict as paying back
The blood-debt to Americans who fought for freedom
From communism
In yet another war before.
And how for every 1 My Lai
There were 43+ done by Korean mercenaries.
And I know the song very well.
I didn’t have to look up the lyric
To translate it.

Jack Saebyok Jung is a graduate of Iowa Writers’ Workshop where he was a Truman Capote Fellow, and now teaches creative writing for the undergraduates at the University of Iowa. He was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States. He received his BA in English from Harvard and MA in Korean language and literature from Seoul National University. His translation of Yi Sang’s poetry and prose will be published by Wave Books in 2020. That collection will also include other Yi Sang translations by Don Mee Choi, Sawako Nakayasu, and Joyelle McSweeney.

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