A quarter of a year has passed since my last posting, and when I think of this, my stomach sinks. My excuse is that a lot has happened to me over the spring and summer, but now it’s time to get back on track and recommit to poetry.
One of the exciting things that has developed since April is the publication of my first book, Nothing Saved Us: Poems of the Korean War, which will be going to print in the next couple of days and is currently available for ordering at www.WINDRIDGEBOOKSOFVT.com.
The book is a collection of poems that I wrote after interviewing my father over the course of two years about his experiences as a Marine during the Korean War. On January 29, 1953, six months before Armistice, he was shot with machine gun fire in an ambush by Chinese troops. He was twenty years old at the time, yet the physical and psychological effects continue to take their toll, over sixty years later.
The second half of the book chronicles the life of a Korean woman civilian during and after the war. I wrote this part of the book as a long sequence of three-line stanzas, loosely based on the Korean poetry form, sijo. With this narrative, I wanted to give a different perspective of war from the American G.I.’s point of view. However, despite the vastly different experiences of the characters in the book, the results of their involvement are the same. That is, the effects of war do not end with armistice or peace treaties.
Nothing Saved Us
We perched high on a hill
like kings, sure, but more
like cattle on the killing floor,
watching North Koreans dig
their trenches in the slaughterhouse
of night until they tried
a grenade to gore us
at o-three-hundred hours.
We had settled round
an invisible circumference,
where a campfire might
have been under different
circumstances; but only
emptiness was sitting
there between us
when the shell dropped in.
After splitting, spitting
shards to nail us on
our guard, the word went down
the line: Frank –
you there? Becenti –
how bout you?
Thirteen of us,
and thirteen voices
laughing softly at our luck;
not one of us was hit,
by that branding centerpiece.
For fifty years, I’ve thought of it.
Excerpts, Part II, Nothing Saved Us
At the barley field, sits my hut; my baby’s first breath flutters
under a roof of grass between dirt and blood. Behind the house, narrow trails
for cows to follow bring enemy soldiers into my home, like theirs.
I seal them in, block the candlelight with blankets under flaring night
under a helicopter’s constant thrumming.The men ask to hold my son, but bugs
squirm in and out of their ragged shirts. Instead, I keep First Son at my breast.
I watch the men sleep on the floor. The smaller one has the same mouth
my husband had, lips full with a man’s energy, and thin enough
to reign his emotions in. I keep myself from touching him.
When I put on white, I carry his bones: flotsam from bullet holes and ash heaps.
White for his eyes that no longer see, white for teeth in a mouth that no longer speaks.
White is the moon’s durumagi wrapped about the shoulders in a naked night.
“A persona, from the Latin for mask, is a character taken on by a poet to speak in a first-person poem” is the definition of persona given in poetryarchive.org. I was surprised to find the word “mask” as the root, but I shouldn’t have been. When writing in the voice of another, one needs to put on the mask of that person, assume their identity and become them as close as humanly possible.
Assuming the mask allows you to begin to think like that person and use their diction, that is, their accent, inflection, intonation, and vocabulary. In the case of the persona poems in Nothing Saved Us, this was much easier to accomplish in the first half of the book where the poems are written from the persona of my father than in the second half where the poems are written in the persona of a Korean woman civilian. It wasn’t too difficult to capture my father’s diction, having lived with him for 18 years before I left for college and having talked to him on a regular basis for the last 34 years. The tricky part was going back to a time before I was born.
Assuming a mask of a character in a different time, and in the case of the Korean woman, a different place, demands research. The more the better, and if possible, a total immersion would be ideal. We are not able to go back in time, however, and I was not able to go to Korea, so I researched for countless hours about Korea and its history, culture, geography and read many memoirs of women who had lived through the war or who have mothers or grandmothers who had.
I also searched for other ways to connect to the persona of the Korean civilian. What element of this character could I immerse myself in? In reading the memoirs, I came to the conclusion that what mattered the most as this poem sequence developed was that the character was a woman. That was something I could understand and connect to. I am not saying that a man can’t write as a woman or a woman as a man – this has been done effectively countless times in literature, and I do it myself in the first half of the book – but being a woman was a role I could certainly assume in writing the second half of the book. I took the liberty of assuming that what was important to me here and now is important to women worldwide and over time: my loved ones including spouses,children, parents, traditions, the ability to smell, see, hear, touch, and taste, my living conditions, and survival. I’m not saying these aren’t important to men, but these were the ideas I returned to in order to think like a woman in the throes of war.
Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux explore persona poetry in their book, The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry. In it they explain, “…a persona poem can let you explore events and states of being more freely; masks allow us to shed our ordinary identities.” (122). ..Persona poems are shapeshifting, a chance to move beyond the boundaries of our personality, our particular circumstances. If we enter our imagination fully and deeply enough, we can experience our questions, our concerns and obsessions, with more empathy and insight. And whatever voices speak from that deep place will require attention.” (127).
In Tim Seibles lecture, “Reverse Ventriloquism,” which he gave in July, 2012 at Stonecoast Writing Program at the University of Maine, he shared, “We are the characters. We’re somewhere on the continuum and can slip in and out of characters, as evil as possible even…We need to not think of ourselves as ourselves, but we need to think of ourselves as others in ourselves.” He explained, “Persona poems are all about the fluidity of people.”
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