Catherine Kim

Epitaphs: Two Poems

ISSUE 98 | TEETH | JUL 2021

From the installation No star, No land, No word, No commitment by Mithu Sen. ‘Non-text’ was created from human hair.


I realize now I could have looked up the Korean on my phone, or asked the coroner if he spoke English, though at the time my instinct was to turn to my mother, as we’ve always done for each other to find the words that clung to the tips of our tongues in the mouth of the other. I didn’t ask her this question, as I couldn’t explain the urge that had overcome me, like I was a child again left alone in the house, looking to uncover the secret I was certain my father must have hidden somewhere in his domain, though what dragon keeps his wish-fulfilling jewel sheltered in his ribcage? Perhaps, bereft as I was of his last words, I thought I could find the heart of him in the organ itself, and that even in the embrace of another’s hands, he would reveal himself to me and so immortalize himself in memory. The details always fade, and only the unknowing is suspended in time, like dead cells clumped together in the corner of a glass eye. Later, I would learn that his heart had suffocated in his sleep, which I thought was a lovely poem itself, though the coroner found neither jewels nor dreams inside him.

부검을 볼 수 있을까요?
(Could I watch the autopsy?)

Hangul is sometimes praised as a “scientific” writing system, due to its consonant letters reflecting the shape and articulation of the speech organs used to pronounce them. Its vowels, however, are derived from Ancient Chinese philosophy, with its three basic shapes representing the flat earth, the sun and heavens, and the human as the mediator between heaven and Earth. The word for father in Korean is spelled 아버지, though my native tongue has long been stuck in childhood and cast in salt, so I spell his name like this: 아빠. The first syllable block 아 is simply the vowel sound /a/, which forms the shape of the human reaching out to grasp the sun, hoping to pluck the heavenly orb, paired with the null consonant ㅇ, which was once a different letter than the dorsal consonant /ŋ/, though in modern times the opening of the throat into the mouth is a silent circle. In this way, 아 is both the sound that emptied itself from my grandmother’s throat as she beheld the outline of her son under the shroud, and the shape of the cadaver itself when viewed from the side of the gurney, the consonant his empty head and neck, the vowel his falling into the sky, which is also the lines the scalpel would form over his torso during the autopsy. The second syllable block 빠 consists of the tense bilabial consonant /p͈/ paired with the same vowel sound. The letter ㅃ is a transfiguration of the lips, from their outline when they’re held together ㅁ to when they part to release a burst of air ㅂ, which is then doubled into its final shape. I do not remember if his jaws were clenched, or if I’d said farewell to his crooked teeth, though I know that his lips had captured the tint of impossible flowers, and when I asked the attendant to roll him out of the fridge so I could see his face again, they left a stain on his shroud like petals crumbled over cloth, which I later realized was dead skin torn from his mouth. In this way, 빠 is the last word when the testament is a kiss, which is the spirit rising from the body into the heavens, which is my mother’s lips on the glass that separates the gallery from the furnace as her beloved goes up in smoke. 빠 is pronounced /p͈a/, and so is nearly a false cognate for the informal Pa /pä/, and so together 아빠 might sound like a child’s lamentation for her father whenever she calls for him, which is forever my address for him, though I may spin the gears of his pocket watch until salt returns to flesh and the taste of his rot evaporates from my tongue.

(Listen to the author read this poem.)

Han River Poems

(1) Some years before his death, my father took the scenic route        along the Han River on the drive back
into the city. Having only then discovered his lineage, he                offered me the name he might have
given me in another life, in which the names of his relatives          weren’t struck out by the stroke of the
38th parallel, and his history not elided in the memory hole of          his family’s grief, in this suspended
peacetime. (2) I asked him if he           could change the             gendered syllable block, how that might re-
shape the meaning, as if a river could be captured      in          the transformation of a vowel sound, and so
stuck him there, between the tiger and the water. (3)                                           Some years after, I crossed
the Han River on the flight from Incheon to my connection        in Chicago. From the window seat, I
overlaid the river with the memory of his neck as it               appeared with his body on the slab.    (4) The
Han River is formed by the confluence of the                  Bukhan River and the Namhan River. It winds
through Seoul before it merges with the Imjin           River, where in 1951, in the first thrust of the Chinese
Spring Offensive, the PVA attempted a                       breakthrough of the UN line to recapture the capital. It
then flows into an estuary out to the Yellow Sea.                 (5) In Hangul, the tributaries of the Han River
are homophones with the acronyms for North Korea 북한      and South Korea 남한. (6) This is merely a
coincidence, as the hanja for the Han River uses the                    character 漢 (Chinese) instead of 韓
(Korea), with the former being the transliteration of    the        native Korean word for great, large, or wide.
(7) 한 is also the Korean word for resentment, and uses the        character 恨, which also means hatred,
pity, or regret. As a modern concept, 한 arose during the              Japanese occupation of Korea from
stereotypes of Korean culture, and developed into a post-          colonial identity from the turmoil of the 20th
century. (8) Among its many meanings, 한 is associated        with the separation of families during the
Korean War. (9) 한 is also my mother’s maiden                name, which she kept throughout her marriage to
him, though this is largely irrelevant. (10) How          does coincidence become synchronicity? The Han
River is where North and South converge. It          flows from East to West, the way old smoke might rise
from the lungs to haunt the throat, or how          he might follow the arch of her unadorned finger with the
point of his thumb, or how the tip of the      scalpel might have travelled over his neck, with his body
parallel to the divide. (11) There are            twenty-seven bridges that cross the Han River over the Seoul
Capital Area, though when I saw         him last, his sutures were overlaid in white cloth. (12) At the river’s
                                                      mouth, the upper jaw is shaped by the teeth of the Demilitarized Zone.

(Listen to the author read this poem.)

These poems are from a longer sequence, which might be summarized as a retrospective on my father’s unexpected passing and what happens when mourning becomes another failure of kinship. Around the time of his death I had been writing more about the body as a site of contest and transformation, and had I been a touch more shameless I might have asked, in my halting grasp of Korean, if I could take notes on the autopsy. Instead, my memory returns to the final viewing of the body, after it had been dressed in ceremonial clothes in preparation for its cremation. My eyes were drawn to a cut on its chin, peeking out of the bandages wrapped around its head, which was suggestive of the incisions hidden by the cloth. Perhaps I was looking for “the heart of him in the organ itself.” Or maybe I was entranced by the easy metaphor between this effort to cover up the grotesque to present an illusion of repose, and the revisionism of my family’s grief, one part De mortuis nil nisi bonum, another the transfiguration of my father into someone worth mourning. I wanted to make sense of this new memory hole, as if, once I measured its depth, I could fill it to the brim. Perhaps if I filled it with language. Or if I slipped my hands beneath the cloth and traced the incision on his neck, I might reveal the contraption within, and by replicating the shapes of his native tongue in my mouth, I could solidify the illusion with enough repetition, the way a ghost might be summoned by a ritual.

In “Transliterations,” the focus on language is an attention to the uncanny mechanics of the speech organs, and the way people might inhabit each other in the imitation or the capture of another’s mouth. In this way, the transmission of language is like a kiss (“to find the words that clung to the tips of our tongues in the mouth of the other”), as is the taste of flowers, and language loss is as formidable an impediment to this intimacy as a viewing window, or a shroud.

In “Han River Poems,” I wanted the river to run through the poem, to separate the words from each other by the water’s passage through it. I overlaid a map of the Han River with the text of the poem, with the image rotated counterclockwise so that the confluence of the Bukhan and Namhan was to the top, and the flow of the Han to its tributaries to the ocean would follow the flow of the text. This required some reconfiguration, as I did not want to fragment the words themselves, meaning some gaps ended up being larger than they should be. As I followed the river down the poem, the text transformed, the spacing shifting the words across the page and overflowing into new lines. The text cuts off before the Han merges with the Imjin, as I was unsure how to include the confluence and the estuary without also leaving space for the Yellow Sea emerging from the bottom right of the page. The text is, as always, an imperfect fit.

I've asked the editors not to correct the formatting of “Han River Poems” as it appears on mobile browsers. The structure cannot contain itself, and words might overflow like rivers do, just as the text remains an imperfect fit—though taken together, I think there's something worth preserving in this inadvertent transformation.

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