Rosanna Young Oh

Hard Labor

           April 2020

The bald truth was that my father first saw
the coronavirus as a blessing.
The grocery had never been busier.

On the phone,
he listed the debts he paid off.
He ate raw elephant garlic
by the bulb, the premium kind
he swore by.

Let me ship a case
to your studio in Astoria—

as though the enemy
were a vampire in plain sight,
and he dared it to a feeding.

           The old lesson: you can’t save
           a father who refuses to be saved.

           His hospitalization, a vacation—
           he has no choice now but to rest.

My VP offers, Anything you need.
Remember: PR, not ER.

I confirm I know she means it.

In my gracious refusal,
I recognize my appetite for more work.

I help sell solutions to salespeople
who sell drugs to doctors
who sell them to patients.
I tell myself I am making a difference.

Between correcting documents,
I call the hospital. The staff
answer my questions as though
they’re being watched.

It must be something in my tone.
A white-hot exactingness.

A dashboard tracks the infected
with a map pinned with a scarlet constellation
of which my father is part.

Like a star, he has cooled into an idea.
I cannot recall his body or trace
the shape of his suffering.

What I need is certainty:

How many liters of nasal cannula?
What percent oxygenation saturation?

           Someone always has to mind the store.

           For four hours straight on a Saturday
           I stand clacking at the register,
           the tips of my latex gloves black
           from rubbing coins and dollar bills.

           The younger me would have bragged
           about my competence.
           Look, Appa, I am a machine!

           The shelves are the barest they've ever been.

           Death has made spendthrifts of us all—
           even the truffle oils have sold out.

In the news, famous Americans
discuss the origin of the virus,
which is non-American.

A senator quotes Whitman
with characteristic emotion
to appeal to our collective Americanness:

I am large, I contain multitudes.

To the customers at the store,
I respond, I am not Chinese
with the same confidence
as when I inform them,
This melon is from California.
This peach is American.

           On his desk:

           a landline cord yanked from its wall,

           a jelly jar of tea polluted with garlic bits.

The nurse warns that he has stopped
making sense. Could it be
COVID’s final trick?

Don’t cry, my father says in Korean,
a gentle order.

So, this is where forgiveness begins,
just as the Buddhist parable promises–
the young mother who,

after failing to find a single house untouched by death
and surrendering her dead boy to the forest,

appears before the Buddha,
her grief finally calmed, with upraised palms
free of mustard seeds,

like my naked hands now,
paling to light in the sun,
the pines and cumulus pixelating in this neural world I am awakening to–

           Father has returned, marked
           with the humility and innocence of someone
           spared by a miracle.

           What happened to me?
           I can hear his breath on the phone,
           like a book fanning apart
           on its spine for the first time.

           In my retelling,
           he is a man, not a god.
           I am his daughter.

           I beg him,
           Appa, you can save yourself.

           And he listens.



Scene with Watermelon from Hokusai

I say
that the missing

watermelon half
is human.

The skeins
of pinkish rinds

coiling down
from the rope

suggest flesh
in summer—

the kind in which the air
looks like it’s boiling

above the asphalt.
And the cleaver

lying in wait:
why place it there at all,

if not to propose

so as
to give structure

to the bone-yellow

of infinity,
the longing without end?


NOTE: This poem alludes to Drying Watermelon Rind by Katsushika Hokusai




Argument over Dinner

           Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)

I am replaying the final scene in the garden
where Cyrano argues with Roxane on the fountain steps
above the multitude of receding nuns,
their wimples floating
like silver boats in the darkness.

He seems more courageous than I remember.
“Non, non, mon cher amour, je ne vous aimais pas,”
he whispers, turning his wild eyes to meet her knowing ones.

How wondrously tragic such juxtapositions are:
the passionate self-effacement,
the belated happiness,
the inarticulate poet repeating, “Mon Dieu, mon Dieu.”

Suddenly the flutes start trembling,
the screen fills with violet static.
Cyrano’s dead now, leaving Roxane,
I assume, to live on.

I do not want the movie to end,
to refrigerate the forgotten dinner (his favorite),
then to fold the laundry,
then to go to bed.

Outside, a woman is arguing on the staircase,
going on about how the baby depresses her,
the bills that her boyfriend hasn’t paid.

She sounds like she is losing. She is on the defensive,
telling him that she feels alone and yet she cannot leave him,
as though she would prefer the longing.



Washington Square Park at Dusk

I can't hold myself back.
The irised sky beyond the arch moves me to yearn
for that which is set apart from me. So, I give
myself wholly to this moment that I want
to believe is sacred. And golden, because it's summer.

I can't hold myself back.
I can't tell whether you were half real. Such is
the quality of dusk, this, that the dogwoods and fountain water
look almost plastic in its chiaroscuro.

The words of love you once spoke—were they imagined, too?
If someone were to ask where you are, I'd say
that I'm waiting for you, that you're nearby.



Rosanna Young Oh is a Korean American poet and essayist who was born in Daejeon, Korea, and grew up on Long Island. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Best New Poets, Harvard Review Online, Blackbird, and 32 Poems. A graduate of Yale, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she lives and writes in New York.