One morning, we took a hike along a deep gulch behind the public library. I had brought the Korean volume of Dickinson poems with me. On a fallen log in the middle of the forest, I stumbled through the lines. My mother then read the poem aloud, smoothing over my mispronounced words: “산들은 눈에 띄지 않게 자라네.” My early attempt at translating this first line went something like “the mountains are not obvious to us”:
The Mountains—grow unnoticed—
I did not have Dickinson’s original poem with me. Before I could go home to check it, my mother said the mountains had grown and would continue to grow because the sun would rise—as the poem later noted—every morning. Just as the poem suggested inevitability, my mother’s voice seemed to surround my understanding of the poem. Her cadences pervaded the poem, accreting as influence to shape and shade meanings. She then picked up her walking stick, as if her work was done, as if she were now free to stroll farther into the forest.
My mother would often vacate a scene as soon as she vanquished my curiosity. This time, when she strutted off in her white down vest, a casual winner, I remembered the other occasions when she’d carelessly walked away from the messy feelings of need or longing I was just starting to understand.
Once, in Oklahoma, we’d taken a beading class together. It was just the kind of setting where her distinction was all but assured. She easily finished her needlework, and everyone else watched in awe as she left to take a stroll in the nearby garden. They respected her quickness, but I had a feeling of being left in her wake—her there; me, here, admiring her quick ability with a needle.
If she felt my sisters and I were ganging up on her, my mother might say something careless like, “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”
We often judged her. I, for instance, had been angry with my mother for a long time.
When my mother took sides in a fight among my sisters, I told her she acted like a sibling when she should have been a leader. These words hurt her, and later came out sloppily when she complained about me to her doting daughters—my sisters. I had gone too far; I always went after the weakest part of her personality.
For years, I struggled with my reputation as the owner of a rather ruthless eye (for weakness). As an undergraduate, I’d taken a poetry workshop with Ishmael Reed, who said I had a painter’s eye; my Korean literature professor that semester clarified that my view was merciless. Over time, I amended descriptions so they could be flattering rather than devastating. I wanted that painter’s eye, but not for cutting into people.
The summer I visited my parents in Seattle, my mother and I had reached an impasse. But we translated Dickinson, and that led to translating poems by Moon Chung-hee. My mind slipped into picturing the poet and my mother as friends or collaborators. She had been born just five years before Moon Chung-hee, but my mother, unlike the poet, was a disappointed artist.
I wasn’t trying to reinvent or criticize my mother by translating a poet of her generation. Even if I had been antagonistic by asking her to help me with the translations, my mother—true to her temperament—wouldn’t have minded. She had tolerated me for so long that she wouldn’t have expected anything other than to help me be myself.
That summer, she lent me a desk in her studio. It was covered with loose rolls of rice paper she used to practice calligraphy strokes. That she’d had to share a space with my father—and his endlessly acquired books and stacks of bills—had always gotten on her nerves. Whether it was my childhood home in Pennsylvania or the one my parents retired to, I always found a strange comfort in the room dedicated to my father’s books and my mother’s scattered art supplies. In this space, I’d always find half-used legal pads, note cards, and photos I hadn’t even known were taken during our childhoods.
In the latest incarnation of the room, my mother had gathered countless classical music CDs, and I knew she was quite serious about working on the translation together because she put on one of her favorites.
I said, “I can’t concentrate with that on.”
My mother quickly shut it off, saying, “Of course,” acknowledging our very serious endeavor.
The poems were easy reading for her, and she immediately told me what they meant. She encouraged me to make the poems “pretty”—just smooth the lines, she said, after giving me as many definitions and insights as possible into the types of ivy or vegetation that might have grown over a cemetery in one poem.
Her most critical intervention came when working with Moon’s poem “Earthworm and Plantain.”
Plantago (family name). Plantain (common genus). The common name for the plantain is “white man’s foot,” or even “white man’s footprint,” because it is regarded as a weed:
A foot squashes the squirm and more
My mother thought Moon must have meant the plantain was impossible to remove (from the palate? or from the backyard?), and said that what mattered was whether you could eat the leaves.
Although I had wanted her to be an agent of Korea—and to mine her history to verify allusions for my translations—my mother made associations, as if there were no such thing as an authentic name or place to recover by translating words with literal definitions. And my method of translation, a pursuit of accurate references and touchstones, began to feel like a false lead to some integrity that vanished just as I’d begun to chase it.
This necessary freedom—my mother telling me that I only be true to the poem I was translating–made me feel that my mother wasn’t my mother. Instead, we had a relationship forged by a lineage of language and shared a goal of recognizing a twilight—the neither here nor there of her past.
And in my past, which was intertwined with the romance of my mother returning to some homeland, I tracked a future. Someday she would not be there to tell me I was making any headway. In that case, I wanted to mother my mother, and die before she did:
The Mountains—grow unnoticed—
If she needed me more than I had needed her, she was saying that our lives were inextricable—not in sentiment but in the dirt-bound images of plantain and earthworm that together trace tenacity:
That my mother shrank within the earthworm I did not know
That my mother shrank within the plantain I did not know
. . .
The earthworm of my mother, plantain of my mother
Which silence dare follow as much as (cannot)
Sorrow tragically squirming blood vessel
In my understanding of “Earthworm and Plantain,” Moon animates the earthworm as “tragically squirming blood vessel” to specify land as the scene for last, mortal moments. Whether the earthworm composts bodily remains, or the blood vessel is severed from a larger body, Moon invokes a cemetery—in my mind, my grandfather’s grave.
One August, after my parents picked me up from summer school, we took a long ride outside Seoul’s city limits. Heavy rains had blurred the roads. Stones had washed down from a hillside and were jumbled, sideways, half-swallowed by mud:
The Mountains—grow unnoticed—
Our van stopped at the bottom of the steep hill, near a mound of graves that lay in long beds. Together they made a separate plateau.
The top of the white van at my grandfather’s grave, my mother’s white dress as she knelt at her father’s grave, and the slim button-front of my father’s white collared shirt, visible under a navy-blue blazer—well, the white strips made blank spaces like private, unreadable thoughts. My father held his hand to his mouth so that it could not emit any sound.
In another poem, Moon writes:
From the bed one sees the mountain base
Where people walk forward
As if dead
All roads do not lead to the Korean War. Rather (perhaps)all roads lead back to my mother’s affection for her father, and to her mourning. Once, at the Pittsburgh Opera House, she cried easily during Verdi’s Rigoletto. To explain her tears, she whispered over the fur collar of her vest, “A father’s love.” She wiped her nose elegantly on the back of her hand because we didn’t have tissues.
Perhaps the only story I know about the Korean War is my mother’s story. People assume that I will know a lot about the country, as if it weren’t my mother who was the country.
This is my mother’s story: At eleven, she lost her mother during the war.
I understand that poems can be shadows; light hits a cloud, so I record the shadow, even if the source of light is obscure. Poems in translation embrace shadows and displacement as a matter of course. A steady shadow world of perception, then, absent points of origin: My mother—from whom I am displaced—marks a cemetery, and yet designs an inevitable return to a country already lost to her (and me).