Back to Issue Thirty-Two

Bonsung-a :: Impatient Balsam

2020 Gregory Djanikian Scholar in Poetry

Monsoon in Busan, garden balsams
plump with rain. My cousin and I gather them greedily,
and we arrive to her house, our arms fragrant and shining.
She crushes the flowers, whole with silky stem, and we take
turns wrapping the paste around the curve of our childish fingers.
The weight of moist petals presses against our virgin nailbeds,
stains the plates into a glistening orange-red. I look for meaning
in everything, and here: the belief in true love
if the color lasts until first snow.

Lake Michigan at the coda of a polar vortex. At the edge,
I can’t distinguish snow from foam, but I’m sure the ice would
taste sweet with its coral glow. My cuticles flake under the gloves—
my nails thirst. I think of all the promises that have yet
to be made. I remain a stranger to many myths, but not this.



Madrugada :: Small Hours

2020 Gregory Djanikian Scholar in Poetry

6:03 a.m. and dusty sunlight percolates through air, canopy of oak, window and yellow curtain, into
my livingroom. It must have been a day like this:

The birth of a word.

The word an offering,
            hatching within a fertile mind.

The instance a small god
            many have beheld at least once:

                        A large jellyfish with the body of an unraveling clementine, passing through—

The house billows. Luminous cells ripple across the walls, and even the grey couch gleams, flecks of
morning made crescent with the shadow of leaf.




Previously appeared in Frontier Poetry.
2020 Gregory Djanikian Scholar in Poetry

    Because there’s pleasure
in secrecy, I kneel in silence before
    a kitchen cabinet. I pull out
the large can of sesame oil
    inhabiting this corner of the house.
I open the cap, bring my nose closer
    to the musk opening. The rim glistens
copper, the smell of an unfamiliar soil,
    a country I was born to but did not
grow up with. I breathe it in. I breathe out:
    Gosohada— this is still a word
I cannot translate until it evaporates.


    At times, my mother tells me about
my father, sets afloat hushed fairytales
    into the waters of my nights. She explains
my father is a lidded well: a closed circle
    of arms, thumbs leaning on each other.
How as the eighth son, no one expected him
    to survive the winter. How he lives holding
a birth date that migrates with the moon.


    Can you love what you don’t know?
I glance at the edge of a mirror,
    a crystal caught in my cornea. Maybe 
the unknown is but a hard mirage
    of what’s known, a dubious carbon copy
of the seer’s mind. My curiosity draws me
    to this displaced image, selects from it;
my parents’ nostalgia expands it, infinitely,
    like a prism. I want to learn, love
what I don’t know, continue to yearn. 

    A homeland of mountains 
with low, uneven shoulders.
    In the distance their outlines 
are plumed as if made from torn paper.
    A homeland of electric forests,
persimmons, and expired peppermint
    candies in the shape of diamonds. 
This land was never promised to me.
    But my memory has palms
that face up to invoke, not own.


    You have your father’s face,
an aunt told me once. A camel’s long eyelashes
    and dark stars for eyes. I admit my father has 
passed onto me many of his idiosyncrasies:
    the closing of hands behind the back, 
the bottling of desire until it bursts
    into a thousand iridescent needles of glass. 
But when I visit his old house in Chungju,
    I don’t call it home. I choose
to glimpse a pair of cosmos flowers resting
    their heads against half-finished steps,
caress their purple ears and ask
    if they’ll remember me from time to time.
I return to myself— broken and full.




2020 Gregory Djanikian Scholar in Poetry

            Where does an echo start
            when the mouth is also eco?

To praise how
the tongue warms the body,

                        how it is infinite
                        in its brokenness,

      I sought for cordilleras,
      found moths and bone

mountains, language 
wandering like a gwishin:

            ghost of thick eyelashes
            dripping with bitter honey.

                        Lord, let her pull me
                        daily into emerald

lagunas. Let my voice be
lacunae unhushed.




Ae Hee Lee was born in South Korea, raised in Peru, and now resides in the U.S. She received her MFA from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming at Poetry, Narrative, Pleiades, Denver Quarterly, and the Journal among others.

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