Poems » john donne » haenyo song harvest


We cull the island's most spectacular fields.

Cheju's long grasses have always belonged to the women.
Like our inland sisters who crouch in flocks
along the roadsides, cutting and tying
tall stalks into bundles,
we too wrap our heads in white towels, and bend to trim
the jagged underwater lawns.

We envy the sun's long arms, its deep reach.
Crystals of light collect on the sea floor,
settle like sugar in a glass of water, dusting
the greedy seaweed fronds. When stirred by our fins,
light disperses, dissolves. It clings to our bodies.
We swim, pollinating the watery garden.

Other crops move in the wet meadow: we hunt
mobile vegetables -- cucumbers with fingers,
flowers with feet!
The urchin flees, millimetres per minute,
on its single toothed paw. The sola retreats
into its white turban, tries to pass for one of us.
The conch shies from the hand, curls into itself
as a bud cringes before it is picked.


Eighty-nine fires lit on Halla.

Nagasaki, Hiroshima: dropped
casually as pebbles into a pond,
but the ripples lashed our shores for years.

Spread on their dissection table,
Korea was a little rabbit
on a stranger's map,
dangling in China's paw or snagged
in the hind paw of Russia

if they had cared to look:
they performed their secret operation
blindfolded, in a far-away room,
the paper decision to sever its head
as easy as unpinning
a drawn donkey's tail.

Everyone forgets islands
but the armies.
Cheju, both their rabbit's foot
and a dropping at its heel.
Our own country
gnawing us off at the ankle
to escape.


What the sea gave back freely moved us first:

He bobbed up, his pale back
a bullet-pitted coral,
shreds of skin around the wounds
like the red blooms of anemone's flower.

His mute body told the whole story,
the exact cost of silence --
two blunt stumps announced his lost thumbs;
his tongue, waterlogged and swollen with secrets,
tumbled from the cave of his mouth,
dumbstruck as the long-hidden survivor
who emerges from the dark shelter, and stumbles
into the sober, devastated day.

My own child in the basket
beside the water, among the fishbaskets
and waterjugs. A boy disguised
as part of our harvest.

The stories from Orari, from Bucholi,
of black stones soaked in red.
Suddenly, blood oranges.

Hatred is a crafty child,
who finds even in a farmer's field
torture's toybox:
who needs weapons when at hand
is onion's green-tailed whip,
the rape-efficient orange root,
and the killstone of white radish.

Every war has its gory theatre
it forces the land to watch.
Cruelty laughing at the same joke
over and over.


The stories from Gyoraeri.
From Oradong.

Eventually we all marry those
who killed our parents,
and call it peace.
This is how I know the North
is not lost to us forever.


Land's memory
is so much longer
than water's.

Graves rise from clearings on the orum,
the small hills helmet the dead.
When rapeflowers grow bright
on the little mounds, they sleep
curled like children beneath a yellow blanket.

The trees remind me of fear:
hack them to stumps; still, deep roots
stay tangled underground.

The sun says nothing, recedes
as if its radiant face would offend.
We walk in the timid light
that filters through the gauze of cloud
bandaging the island, afraid
to scar the soil with our shadows.


I am full of lessons I cannot share:

How wild grass cleans the mist
from goggles, how to hook the sicklecord
at the elbow, not the neck.

How to find feather stars and sea lilies.
The flounce of scallops, sea slugs' ruffled skirts,
the split gourd shape of cuttlefish.

How the concave of the abalone,
its hard slick of colour, is like the skin
of gasoline on water, a liquid prism.

The depth of crab and shrimp. The myth
of sand dollars, the bottle mouths of sea squirts.
Polyps. Molluscs.

How we learned to respect
their reluctance to leave, the bravado of shells.
How we learned to love
the sea's slow resistance.