Esther Ra

Dear America / Beautiful Country

When I first learned you could murder, I cried.
I wanted so badly to believe in you, in your
American dream, which placed shining words
on my tongue. Migak, sense of taste, sweet
as apples. Country, I thought, with a conscience.

In Korea, we called you Migook, beautiful country.
Meaning we saw you as buffalo, full of dark strength,
roaming prairies of vast possibility.
You fed us cigarettes and salt crackers during the war,
snapped chocolates as easily as limbs. We became
your bargirls and babies, eager for one glance from your eyes.

Your arms enveloped me, foster child
from an ancient and terrified land, and my past
learned to clutch at your sleeve. I loved you, America,
with your sky large enough to hold every race

and your story so brazenly young, everyone could tell
where it began to go wrong. Misook: your ignorance,
or mine. You swaggered that God was on your side.
And I clutched you like a hope. Like a rope. A rope

tight as a noose on some necks,
where freedom rubbed raw on wrong skin.
Yet you placed eloquence in my mouth,
gave me the tongue with which I condemn you.
I became full of life, other, daughter—

O my mother, allow me to speak:
from my migoo, my fragmented body,
let words flow like rivers of stone.
How long will you hide the bloodstains
on your cloak, build floorboards over
dead bodies? Migook, O America,
Be consistent with grace:
Your own children lie shot in the streets.

Migook, my America, do not shudder with pride,
but swell with the warm yeast of mercy.
Be bread in the pockets of the hungry,
and rise like fresh dough to your name.

(Han)nam / Korean Boy

“Korean boys will be Korean boys.”
—my male South Korean friend

“I suspect he has a Korean fuckboi hidden in him somewhere.”
—my friend, joking about her half-Korean boyfriend

A Korean boy is composed of a mother’s tears.
Sometimes, a mother’s bright fists.

A blow cracks across his face in the dark,
like lightning splitting a dry sky.

Korean boy learns that the sky is a bruise
under which fathers shrivel like snails.

Korean boy saunters the hallways
of school, picks up the jargon of wit.

He jingles a new vocabulary like coins,
tastes their taut texture in his teeth.

Crock pot for brain, wet rag for girls.
Penis a universal adjective.

Korean boy chucks a girl under her chin,
calls her a hog, buys her ice cream.

For every Korean boy who tells me how
he gets girls drunk to fuck them,

Another Korean boy runs out in the night
to watch over his friend when she’s wasted.

Korean boy knocks down noodles and beer,
conquers kingdoms in the space of his screen.

Korean boy plays soccer till dawn, tears
chicken wings like a wolf cub.

When flirting, Korean boy calls himself
a wolf on the prowl, threatening to eat the girls up.

Korean boy longs for a horizon called worthy,
stays adrift in saltwater for centuries.

Korean boy says that most stories of rape
are inventions to gain easy money.

Korean boy isn’t sure how to define rape.

Korean boy cups his fist and thrusts in his fingers
to introduce his lover to his friends.

Korean boy shimmies when he walks or talks
to the script of his private K-drama.

Korean boy hurls chairs at a cowering girl.
Somewhere else, he comforts her fears.

A Korean boy dies in the army.
Another is injured for life.

Korean boy fragments his youth for a country
that seldom remembers his name.

Korean boy returns with a body
sky-blue with beatings
and a mouth rot with anger for years.

Sometimes the dam in Korean boy’s throat
is floodwater damn near to bursting.

Korean boys fall from the sky like hailstones
and glass, no hands uplifted to catch them.

Somewhere, a broken gingko leaf
grazes Korean boy’s face.

For a moment, he raises his palm
in a gesture of wonder, only a boy,

only Korean, only a fatherless
child in the war,

unable to start or stop crying.

Author Portrait

Esther Ra is the author of book of untranslatable things (Grayson Books, 2018), which received the 2018 Grayson Books Chapbook Award. She alternates between Washington and Seoul, South Korea, where her heart and writing often return. She continues to search for pockets of beauty in the ordinary: light on glass objects, gingko leaves, an open-hearted smile, and the trembling song of the ocean.

View the website of Esther Ra