When Someone Stays Too Long

Lee Sung-Mi

Shut Lips

Her fragrance! Where does it come from?
I guess that a poppy lives inside her body.

As she seldom opens her mouth,
the petals that are being blown out
flutter slowly between her and me.

This, however, can be beautiful.
She shuts her lips for a long time
and so I stay by her side for as long.

The Secret

It happened in secret,
smelling like sugared toys.
A wound-up doll still chimes
long after it should have stopped.
There is a low drumming
behind our backs.

When everyone is asleep
in the night, the forest grows.
At dusk, a scarlet iris blooms.
From somewhere underground,
the smell of mushrooms rises.

As soon as words are spoken,
the opaque window cracks
and the magic show is over.
The door to the attic slides open
to reveal
a dust-sat inner space.

The Moon and the Stone

The stone that is getting cold
was found when I wandered through the dark woods
and put on the window sill.

The stone that is getting cold
has shone in the dark room
and brightened my brow when I gazed upon it.

Under its round light,
I have forgiven my darkness
and silence rolled into a tender ball.

Did a wild cat sleep with its head on the stone?
The stone that is getting cold
has raised the cat's dream into soap bubbles.

Purple rain falls
and the axe of a thunderbolt
cuts down trees in the forest;

meanwhile, my hand
is getting cold on the stone.

I soon come to wonder
about all the rest, the dark side
of a half-moon.

I write down

a fresh dead body of fish,
traces of water drops evaporating on a leaf,
a black body of a freight train
flushing steam,

the grey hair of old men and old women
entangled in the drainage vent,
bright heaps of snow
that lie on the rubbish truck,
the moon in a finger-sized pool
in a crack on the pavement brick.

I am making a list of favorite complexes.
As a worm squirming in
the toilet bowl of a hospital,

it is too late for anyone
aged thirty-five to die

and, in the coming fall,
gold leaves will fall silently as well. Therefore,

translated from the Korean by Gwee Li Sui

Read the original in Korean

Read translator’s note

Lee Sung-Mi is a Korean poet. Her poems have appeared in reputable Korean literary journals such as Literature and Society (문학과사회) and Modern Literature (현대문학). Her first book of poems, When Someone Stays Too Long (너무 오래 머물렀을 때), was published by Moonji Publishing in 2005. She also wrote Hyewha-dong La bohème (혜화동 라보엠), a free modern adaptation of Puccini's La bohème, which was performed by the Progressive Opera Studio in 2009.

Gwee Li Sui is a poet, a graphic artist, and a literary critic. He wrote Singapore's first full-length graphic novel, Myth of the Stone, in 1993 and published a volume of humorous verse, Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems?, in 1998. A familiar name in Singapore's literary scene, he has written essays on a range of cultural subjects and also edited Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature II (2009), Telltale: Eleven Stories (2010), and Man/Born/Free: Writings on the Human Spirit from Singapore (2011).

Lee Sung-Mi was born in 1967 in Seoul, and her early years were spent there. After graduating from Ewha Women's University in 1991, she worked in a publishing house for a period of time. She now lives in a rural part of Wonju where she practises bee-keeping.

Lee is a fiercely independent individual who is kind and gentle in manners, progressive in mind, and always careful in judgement. This quality can be felt in her rhythm and seen in how her poems are able to merge spiritual reflections on nature and acute observations of subtle ordinary emotions. Yet, there is also often a glimpse of some primordial darkness that has allowed her voice to play with ambiguity.

I first met Lee at the Toji Cultural Centre in the autumn of 2010. We were both among the season's slate of resident writers there, and my own stay came about through the sponsorship of the Toji Cultural Foundation. These transcreations were made during that time, and the four poems are from Lee's first collection, When Someone Stays Too Long (너무 오래 머물렀을 때), published in 2005.