Jennifer Kwon Dobbs

Yi Sang’s Room

b. Kim Haegyeong | Seochon, Seoul 1910-33

At this table
I pose as an illiterate draftsman

Tax collectors
commissioned me for an imperial museum
but I design my name

as a false frame
though marked by bureaucrats
as an industrious example

There on rafters of bone
I inscribe an orange
butterfly for the virtuous

wives sickened
by their husbands’ semen
pumped to Battleship Island

to motor coal cars
The messages the men carve
I want to go home

Beloved I miss you
into the timbered shafts
shingle my roof against a red sun

and within its blaze I cut
lengths of air
for walls that a solitary prisoner

released from Seodaemun
can dream inside
Here I no longer fear

the tenure committee
who prefers red lacquered bowls
to story loss

or administrators
who nail ordinances to my porch
Motherless my words

may be dismissed as experiments
or disappear
under a courtyard lake

or divide a pillared darkness
into floating rooms
in which monks and poets eat

The bronze latch slips
and leaves blow through the gate
Now it’s possible

to speak in earnest of escape
Don’t let disaster catch you
immobile and bereft

Failure is also a posture against, against



반 갑 습 니 다

Itaewon, Seoul 2013

An hour into reunion, Appa and I match
pace 1-2-3-drink! and I want to sing
the only Korean song I know

from the Sariwon farmers developing
new fertilizers 반 갑 습 니 다
and the youth league who hand built

a freeway from Pyeongyang to the sea
반 갑 습 니 다. So when Appa teaches me
the hanja for our family’s name

advocates of the white phoenix, I ask him
아빠 노래를 좋아요? and he winks
Let’s go. 가자 down the street

past Hamilton Hotel and English-only
signs, down basement steps
to an ajumma’s red-lit noraebang.

He rents a room and in the swamp glow
of the video screen, he’s svelte,
tall, round-eyed. He punches in a code,

tilts the mic toward his lips, and he’s 23
Christmas furloughed from the army
and crooning to a woman

he just met about his fugitive heart.
On the TV, deer promenade
in willow grass as he lets loose

a high vibrato and swoops his left arm
above his head. I’m convinced
when he points to me I’m every woman

he gave himself to with this ballad,
and he’s every man I ran away from
grateful I got out intact.

When it’s my turn, I don’t hold back:
동포 여러분 형재 여러분
Dongpo yeorabun hyeongjae yeorabun

Fellow countrymen, fellow brothers
반 갑 습 니 다. 반 갑 습 니 다.
Bangapseumnida! Bangapseumnida!

Nice to meet you! Nice to meet you!
Nice to meet you. Nice
to meet you. Appa

listens on the couch as I belt out
drought, tar pails, pavement home.
My right fist beats time

against my chest. When I finish,
I wait. He sits and sits. From a telescope
distance he studies me and asks

Where did Sujin learn this song?



The Telling

“We were anxiously waiting for Koreans from the north. And just over the crest of the horizon, a light glowed. It was a group of people holding candles wading down the river.”
                                                                                                   — Christine Ahn

In your dream, the fathers come from four directions

gowned in dawn. They carry the broken

sons from the grassy banks and descend

to submerge waist high in the center where the law

cannot force them to forget or to remember

the joy of the cool water, how the riverbed

pillows their scabbed feet, the pleasure of belonging

to no nation. They congregate as one peace

made from the male parts

disarmed and unarmored, and as the currents wash over

their tenderest flesh shocked by the gentle sway, as a softening

wells inside their groins and chests, they surrender

to how good it feels to surrender.

And you depart upriver, a Korean woman testing the surreal

death worlds others invent about our northern relatives

whom they’ve never met, or who infiltrate the north disguised

as teachers weaponizing their gifts to smuggle out the true

story that is always the same story

clicking shut inside an unceasing war

horse thrashed into a blind courier.

But you, who can see and hear, attend to the dream

that shows its hands, that fragile moment between

you and Park Dongji. We want to be seen as human.

Tell them we are human, she said. Tell them the dream

of the grandmother who stirs a brass pot over campfire

and ladles a dark substance into the children’s pails

to carry over a mountain. Tell them the women of many nations

quilted cloth from many nations in Gaesong. Tell of their song

We are one. We are one. Tell them she,

whose hands shrapnel severed, steadied the bright fabric

as the women sewed even though South Koreans phoned in

threats of arrest and acid thrown on the women’s faces

if they crossed the DMZ

of the southerners’ imaginations. Tell them

there is only the telling that can create a home

no matter how unseen or preposterous

that originates as a murky sludge, an elemental soup

on the tongue and cared for over a hearth

that could nourish us again

if we tell ourselves, sister and brother,

together we want to live.


Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is the author of Paper Pavilion, recipient of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize and the New England Poetry Club’s Sheila Motton Book Award; Notes from a Missing Person (Essay Press 2015); and Song of a Mirror, finalist for the Tupelo Snowbound Chapbook Award. Her work has appeared recently in Blackbird, Columbia: A Journal of Art and Literature, Crazyhorse, Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, and Poetry International. She has received grants from the Daesan Foundation, Intermedia Arts, and Minnesota State Arts Board. Currently, Jennifer is Associate Professor of English and program director of Race and Ethnic Studies at St. Olaf College where she teaches creative writing and Asian American literature. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.