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American Gothic: Revival

. . . these are the very hours during which solitude grows; for its growing is painful as the growing of boys . . .
—from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet

Dear Rilke, I am not young and I am not a poet. I slink around the city, disaster-footed, sure for danger, face unknown, I pull my hoodie up. I snick around, I slink around the city’s back. Short for danger. My motherless face bagged. I like a girl at Taco Bell but she knows only my voice. I wear my clothes like a blanket around the shipwreck of my body, the et cetera of my body. Like Dracula, I don’t exist. There is no such thing as a moonless night. There are only nights and nights in a blown together indigo accordion. I’m there at 2 a.m. to shut down Leilani’s, pilfer burritos and lumpia. I like to keep zippered all the way. I like the sound my skateboard makes on the asphalt. I think dreadlock is a funny way of putting it. I call my face a jihad. I, the lesser victor. I call my face a tattoo. One my father gave me—someone else’s face Frankensteined to mine. Inside my head, my father’s words,  notations, fatwas. My father stalks me like a footnote. Follows me—   when I see boards pasted with pictures of the missing, I look for my face. That is me, gone. It’s been much more than 24 hours. In society. Among citizens. I never take off my hood, because inside I’m all wolf. My reasons are still unknown.

Dear Rilke, I read your book. I read your book anyway.


Boy in a Box

In 1762, King Yongjo ordered his son Sado to step into a grain coffer and be sealed inside until death. Sado did it. They said he was crazy; they said he had strange habits and an obsession with garments, with silk; they said he killed servants and it was quite a mess; they said he was not a good son, not a good prince. It took eight days before he died in the rice box. They said.

Sado to himself

When I woke in the box, I was folded like a letter, doubled into my new robe. The silk sleeves pleased me. Paper can be folded only 8 times before the thickness presses back. I could bend once, but I could stay bent for 8 days. A spear of light poked me through the hinged slat and I saw my two fists so awkward, each stillborn, coiled, and dried. Sing: To market with these handsomely trimmed cuttlefish! I hear mother crying. When I woke, I was folded like a child. Not yet Confucian enough. I am a crumpled son, unruly. No part fit for crowning. No time to go back. There are days to spend. The next thing is to scoop that grain of barley into the boat of my nail, to practice my powers of two. Still adrift, dear father, dear father—one ear to the bench, the other uncovered.  An unwise position for a king.





















Sado v. rooster

I could not remember the lesson. Father asked and asked. My mind fell into the pond, all my answers swam like carp. My mind stumbled, dropped to the ground, all my answers breaking to pieces. He struck me with the ink block. How a father loves his son. (Dear Hyegyong, good wife, take note. How a royal does duty.) Afterward, when I called to my rooster to take the seed from my hand as he always does, he would not come. Oh but I made him. I opened his throat, pulled out all the lost answers one by one. I trailed them through the house to show father. Here they are, my answers, still warm. All the answers—take them. I draped them in his lap where they splayed like wet ribbons, like shined purses of skin. I knew someone had stolen them. I told you. The house is full of thieves, those hens.



As ash from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano continued to keep European airspace shut down . . . affecting millions . . . agencies and airlines clashed . . .
Some restricted airspace is now beginning to open up.
—from The Boston Globe, April 19, 2010

            Il miglior fabbro

I’ve been reading Ashbery
            getting lost
            in all the names
hanging in the dusk-charged air
in O’Hara
and Bishop
and Ashbery.
            You are worried, I can see. Also
Plath, Creeley,
Also Kerouac. And Blake.      And
And three-named poets
of the Midwest.        Of Asia
                        occasionally Basho.
            And Ashbery.             It occurs to me
I have been reading a lot of pages
            out of order, and repeating,
re-reading, and
still don’t know what
it’s all about.                 Tasking myself
                                    to get to the end, the last page,
                                    I kept following the unknown

                                    guide upriver through Situaciones,
the one
who spoke                     to me from the page’s
                                    corner: Go to page 16.
I flipped.                       There,
a study of                      you—subject
                                    pronouns, both similar to and different
                                    from their English


                                    Look more closely at
the word

“you.”                           Usted. .
You formal.                   You informal.

The difference                lies
                                    in the degree of formality conveyed by
the speaker.
                                    Go to 37. Now
                                    let’s translate
the model sentences:
                                    Mi libro es pequeño.
My book is small.
                                    El tuyo es grande.
Yours is large.
                                    Tu pluma es roja.
Your pen is red.
                                    El mío es verde.
Mine is green.
                                    These assume that
you                               you are talking
                                    to a friend, someone
you know well.
(Ustedes: large books, red pens.)
                                    Go to 22.
Definite and indefinite
                                    articles, gendered.
            Imagine a desk covered in pages.
            Take the page
                                    tome la página (43)
            a page
                                    una página  (3)
            any number of pages
            (51, 148, 92)
Pay attention to
masculine, feminine, singular,  plural.
            (93, 17, 157, 30) I did.


            I did it all. I am a good follower. I am
            good at turning pages.
                                    Señora said
at times I sound authentic.      Good,
            good. My accent.
                                    Muy bueno.
            Now I’ve lost it
                                    all except
                                    the conjugations.
I am. I mean.   As in

            for ser/estar.
            For things permanent or essential—
inherent to a person, one says—
                                    for things temporary, such as location
                                    or emotional condition—for if
the state you’re in is temporary.
            I’m not sure anymore,
            so I look it up
            online. I find
            it’s been asked before,
            a common question.
                                    “Soy? Estoy? Help!”
            An answer:
                                    “I’d say estar is a resultant state
                                    and ser is what describes you.
            We have abused the difference …the myth
            of permanent vs non permanent;
            although it is true sometimes,
            it causes confusion with:
                                    NY esta en EUA vs Yo soy estudiante.
NY being                       in the USA is
more permanent            than being a student.
            (You always leave the school eventually.)
                                    To be a student
                                    describes you, your characteristics,
and NY is                       in the USA as
a result of                      something


            The pages never took me any place.
Abused, confused
me, the myth.               Soy estudiante
more permanent. (It is true.) You
            always leave something, NY, a place, the difference.


I asked to be failed
that time. The TA
told me I should
write a new language
for Asian America.
Huh? I couldn’t
even learn Spanish.
I wanted to
            say go to hell
            remember soy/estoy
            be new,
            be the one
                                    ¡post-lingual matrix changer!
                                    ¿unfetter us from almonds!
                                    ¿unload all this fake jade!
I failed. English
is the only language
I know. 


The first thing they teach you
to say is
my name is—


I am practicing
the name, the correct way.
erupts              in Iceland.
No one can                    go to Europe;
no one can leave.
No one can pronounce the name,
the consonants flow too fast to swim in.

The thing that’s erupting    —like a taboo, a profanity—    is
                                                          hard to say.

The announcers skip straight to the image,
“The volcano’s dust . . . a cloud of glass
                                    shards in the atmosphere
large and dangerous enough
to take down a jumbo jet”
                         “dust so fine
it makes baby powder feel      like grit.” The announcers,
bravely along.
They discover it is easier

for the thing to become the name. Unluckily,
on top of the volcano, now The Volcano,
there is a glacier with the same name as The Volcano.
Now, The Glacier. (Or, The Icelandic Glacier for clarity.)

There seems to be no way around the name,
the very big name.

“The volcanic eruption beneath
The Glacier
has captured imaginations around the world, spawned . . .
                                                devoted Twitter
following under the name
#ashtag . . .
The Volcano                has drawn millions . . . The
. . .


They probably tell them:
keep talking, plod on through the dust, the freeze, the unsayable syllables,
amid factories and buildings, flow serenely though your tongue is ice.


In the photos,                          a sun
comes out of  
The Volcano.

His head         
                        belches sun.

Once, I was on my way up
a small mountain or a very large hill
(could’ve been
a volcano) following
behind the better climbers. I had to
stop. I saw this sign:

            When confronted by a mountain lion,
            do not turn away,
            do not run, do not scream, or crouch,
            do not cry,
            do not play dead.
            Doing these makes you seem like prey.

            Instead, make yourself as big as possible, as large.

                                                That’s it.                      Open up your coat.

            Throw things. Rocks are one choice.

                                                Is there a volcano inside?
                                                Something unpronounceable,
            A stare-down may be in order.
            Speak in a low, firm voice.     Like a man.

Be a man.

Stand up and face him. 


            Also, there is slowly walking away,
            the way you came.

            Or, most around here carry a pen knife;
            lions have been killed this way.


The idea of being extraordinary*

was like the power lines, the ship’s hull’s
forward, forward

Thus my family gathered
my letters and at regular intervals
washed away all that was written

form was occasionally resorted to
for self-presentation. Relying on each other
my son and I
thus preserved ourselves

On the night of the seventeenth
he is reported to have dreamt
that a black dragon appeared
on the wall of the room in which Mother was staying.
This led them to expect
a boy

are not things that can be written down in detail
and so I will omit them
arrange chronological details to construct
the closest approximation
to the ideal

(Occasionally resort to
my letters)

The publishers expressed a wish that I
should furnish them with some account of the origin
of the story

Still I did nothing
I gave the world an elephant
to support it
I stood on a tortoise
The materials in place       invention,
suggested, out of void

life appeared
my lot
not confined to my own identity
I could people the hours, the shape
lost beneath the fated house,
the forehead of boys

Didn’t know what to do

(the poets, annoyed, relinquished their task)

He hurt his own precious body quite a lot
all this out of filial concern
His illness grew much worse

though I am only a woman, I have read
a considerable number of unofficial histories
of this dynasty
translated  I wrote
in a most common-place style
belonging to our house, the bleak sides

We are continually reminded of the story
of Columbus and his egg, Darwin’s vermicelli

born, fostered

Grief seemed to turn into that tumor

Things have not been dealt with straightforwardly
There are two versions of the incident that year

the pale student, the thing he had put together, a man
stretched out, some powerful engine, stands
glassy, unlucky

Behold, the white high Alps

It is hard to describe the depth of my loneliness
accumulating since childhood
there simply is no room
to allow even one loose word
both versions
are defamatory neither
is factually correct

I did not make myself (the heroine)
born of a vulgar mother

My husband however, was, from the first,
very anxious that I should prove myself worthy
of my parentage

In the final analysis, we were all unfilial.

*Text remixed from Mary Shelley’s introduction to Frankenstein and The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong, wife of Crown Prince Sado.  


Arlene Kim’s first collection of poetry, What have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes?, is out now from Milkweed Editions. She is a Korean-American writer who grew up on the east coast of the US and now lives on the west coast, where she writes poems, prose, and bits in between involving modern-day monsters, outcasts, time machines, comic books, filicide, skate parks, girls lifted from found texts, and boys who fold themselves inside boxes, among other things. She reads for the online poetry journal DMQ Review as an associate editor. And she feels very, very lucky.