“If the poems end up being a bust, I’ll probably turn it into a Hollywood script and make a million bucks.”—Cathy Park Hong answers questions about her poems in the April 2010 issue of Poetry. At Jacket2, Erica Kaufman is “fascinated by the impact that ‘experimental’ writing (particularly poetry) has in any classroom”, and recommends using work by Cathy Park Hong and Leslie Scalapino, among others.
Piscine skin, unblinking eyes.
Sideshow invites foreigner with the animal hide.
Alveolar tt, sibilant ss, and glottal hh
Words with an atavistic tail. History’s thorax considerably
cracked. The Hottentot click called undeveloped.
Mother and father obsessed with hygiene:
as if to rid themselves of their old third world smell.
—Cathy Park Hong, Translating Mo’um
blowfish arranged on a saucer. Russian roulette. angelic slivers.
ginseng. cut antlers allotted in bags dogs on a spit, a Dutch girl
winking holds a bowl of shellfish.
white cloth, drunkenness. a different language leaks out—the idea of throat, an orifice, a cord—
you say it turns you on when I speak Korean.
The gold paste of afterbirth, no red—
Household phrases —pae-go-p’a (I am hungry)—ch’i-wa (Clean up)—kae sekki (Son of a dog)
I breathe those words in your ear, which make you climax; afterwards you ask me for their translations. I tell you it’s a secret.
gijek niin tigit rril—the recitation of the alphabet; guttural diphthong, gorgeous.
What are the objects that turn me on: words— han-gul: the language first used by female entertainers, poets, prostitutes.
The sight of shoes around telephone wires, pulleyed by their laces, the blunt word cock. Little pink tutus in FAO Schwarz,when I was four they used to dress me as a boy,
white noise, whitewashed. the whir of ventilation in the library.
Even quarantined amongst books, I tried to kiss you once.
Strips of white cotton, the color of the commoner, the color of virtue,the color that can be sullied—
my hand pressed against your diaphragm, corralling your pitch,
a pinch of rain caught between mouths,
analgesic, tea. poachers drawing blood—
strips of white cotton I use to bind your wrist to post, tightenough to swell vein, allow sweat—
sweat to sully the white of your sibilant body,
the shrug of my tongue, the shrug of command, sssshhht.
Cathy Park Hong
Fable of the Last Untouched Town
We are the only hole in a world of light.
No lamps grid our streets, no cars flash their headlights.
When sun sets, we have no choice
but to resign ourselves.
There are those who dread the night, who grow mad
with boredom during the long winter months
when the shrieking wind and dark cut
the wilted day at noon.
I prefer night. We are more invisible then.
He and I take our strolls at night,
traveling far out to the abandoned spas where old tourists
used to come and ablute themselves
to relieve their bones.
We speculate what has happened to them.
We heard wild rumors.
People live to 150. They grow hearts
out of cells.
All those hours we talk.
Sitting in the wide, cracked basins that used to hold
the prized green water,
(it was nothing but dyed faucet water)
now littered with the slimy leaves of gingko.
In this town, we are impervious to discomfort
such as the cold that crackles our blanket
and beards the loudspeakers with ice, freezing
the monthly bloody rags women dry for the night.
We are strong, not afraid to betray.
For instance, we rush our old.
I wrap my mother in blankets:
It’s time now Mother.
I’m not ready.
Oh but your mind is going, your tongue
is loosening you will start to talk we planned this.
I’m not ready to go.
My brother carries her up the mountain of junipers.
I make a nest for her.
I dread that we will see other kin abandoned there
I already see her tongue
dotted with frostbite yet we leave her
as she calls and calls.
As we trudge back down, our breaths wild
we chant songs of our king.
Then the man who I used to go for walks with
I suppose I loved him or once, once
Mothers, fathers, friends, lovers.
No fairy stories to ease children’s ears.
We are to say: Enemies of the state.
No sorrows and songs, no
he’s gone far away to somewhere magical.
Our people are dancing a ring around a tower
and he is the tower. He is the tree.
I have dreams. A blade cold
as ice-nettled milk steaming inside a neck.
I am afraid that they could read my dreams.
I volunteer to collect night soil.
Mountains of frozen shit.
I shovel them into buckets and spread them
over the yellow fields and out of waste,
comes food for the only God
A storm raged for a week and our town was erased
by hills of snow.
Afar, our one story chambered apartments
look like concrete harmonicas. It’s easy for snow to swallow us.
But after the storm, a gigantic glacier appeared inside
the king’s most cherished open-air stadium.
It took up the whole arena.
Our leader launched a campaign.
Defunct factories suddenly produced heat lamps
and they strung a ceiling of scalding tubed bulbs over the stadium,
but the glacier only glistened.
So he demanded legions of laborers to come
chip away at this offensive glacier.
I was drafted to help.
When I arrived, I was awed, I was so awed, I began to cry
but when someone questioned my tears,
I said I was crying for our king and cursed
the imperialist-plotted ice.
The sheer sapphire cliffstone towered so high,
the whole ocean seemed frozen inside it.
Under its shellacked panes of ice were marblings of color
I’d long forgotten: tangerine, topaz,
canary and rose.
Like fluorescing cuttlefish,
the colors pulsed, swirled and bloomed
into contracting rings. The ice breathed.
We slowly chipped away with our picks.
As soon as we gathered a pile,
the wind burst in and scattered the powdery snow far
into the air like spores.
One laborer accidentally swallowed ice
and it caused him to hallucinate, blither in another language.
He was immediately exterminated.
We were forced to wear masks.
One day, I decided to steal some.
I pocketed one grain.
The snow glowed bluely in my hovel.
My little lamp.
Then one night I don’t know why I swallowed it.
And this is what I saw.
—Cathy Park Hong, Engine Empire
Get Away from It All
Go, go, I breathe the air
flossed with silence
moving me to melt
into any form what
choice when they
finish your thought
did you mean numerous no
when minds flood into minds
yet one creed molds
this town of giant convenience
a white church
of blond wooden pews burning
a dark pile of something
enough these terrors,
clarity, empathy, please
drop me onto a quiet coast
dotted with sandpipers
the horizon hyphenates
are they UN forces no
they are nudist bathers.
They have beached.
Dashed with amorous wet,
they call out like walruses,
these loafing rebels against
I see too much
yet go, go into the unknown,
smell the salt, rancid
scent of water, seagull,
blades of grass and listen,
the one with the sodden beard says
you are not guilty to me.
—Cathy Park Hong, Engine Empire
Inside the House
Cathy Park Hong
I’m no frail eel, no damsel steal,
My costume’s a bathrobe, secure as hazmat
one look at me, I’m addictive as transfat
you can’t touch my towel-rack.
My batcave’s this needlepark,
But it’s being converted to luxury condos,
so I’m gonna sing you my vendetta rondeaus.
“Her poetry sears with a diamond-cut certainty: “Did you think I was talking about my life?/I was trying to drive a tradition up against the wall” or “A woman in the shape of a monster/a monster in the shape of a woman/the skies are full of them.” She does not hesitate even when she reaches the unknowable. Intention burns in every line of her poems. But it doesn’t mean that her words are reducible or inflexible in her anger. There is certainty in her uncertainty, resolve in her ambivalence.”—From Cathy Park Hong’s “Memories and Thoughts on Adrienne Rich”
On Splitting | Cathy Park Hong
Wind does not whip, it caresses. Or it whips when a mail order song
crescendoes in the background. The blowsy sails. The fat, fat sky.
We blow air bubbles. Once they touch the dry outer skin of your lips, they
pop: a pocket of unsaid gas.
The taste of body, the drumming on lard. A kind of love that has become
Mother and Father on the hilt of a sugary cake. An avalanche but a minor
one that tastes confectionary. Photographs of Mother the bride. A stiff
smile that does not like dairy.
A Korean wedding. There is a sign for blushing: two perfect red circles
pasted on the bride’s cheeks. Or it’s a sign for passion, good luck, or maybe
it’s to hide the pallor.
The girl takes the knife, the boy takes it from her, the girl takes the knife,
the boy takes it from her, the girl takes the knife, the boy takes it from her,
the girl takes the knife, the boy takes it from her.
The stage is set for the woman with the killer whale eyes. She announces,
‘there is no love, only longing.’
My mother said, “If you eat lying down , you’ll grow hair on your crotch.”
To find passion, I should have written a lyric poem. A poem that would
roll off the tongue like icing, curdles curds , whey, icing, a cube of ice.
The first Korean man I liked shared a plate of squid with me. I called him
brother because I was much younger than he. Chewing on a flank, he told
me he’d slept with five women and fallen in love with one.
I grew a petri dish of princes, all replicating and jostling each other for my
Afterwards, we kissed in the dark enclaves of a stuffy TV room. Our
tongues were not sure of each other and our breaths stank of salted squid. It
was not what I fantasized.
I am here to lick your shoes, your hairy shins, your eventual cock.
My parents never kissed in public. Except once. An obligation on the
cheek before my father left.
The word most often said during lovemaking: ttagawu. This could mean
itchy or spicy.The same word used when wearing a wool sweater that irri-
tates, or easing into a tub of scalding water.
I would have preferred a sealed letter, even a terse message taped to the
refrigerator. Rather than the talk, the askwardness of it, the restraint. A let-
ter daggers her heart — dagger. The histrionics of dagger.
Adolescent obsessions: Greek mythology, heavy metal rock stars, documen-
tation of freaks (Mexican midget, triplets, albino sword swallowers), iron-
on T-shirts, breasts, he who gave you your first bong hit and kiss.
Along the soldered road, he lies motionless. I arrive and crouch down. Kiss
his rigor mortis lips and he rises. This is a holy scripture or a movie.
We barely knew each other yet he confessed to me until his face clattered
off like a hubcap.
Restraint turns passion into shame. Or worse, martyrs. My mother comes
from a country of martyrs, a fetish of martyrs, a crateful of martyrs.
This is not a precious jade bracelet. It is plastic, given to me by my Italian
friend who bought it for 50 cents.
The girl takes the knife.
I don’t know the Korean word for sex. I ask Mother, Father, a couple of
aunts. What’s the word? They feign ignorance. I aks a friend living in Seoul.
Even she doesn’t know. “There are many words that refer to it. Just not one
Along the soldered road, there is a man sleeping. I pause, wanting to kiss
him. But I am apprehensive that he would awake, become offended or
confused. I shut the book or I open the book, earmark the page, shut the
Cathy Park Hong, "Ballad in A"
A Kansan plays cards, calls Marshall
a crawdad, that barb lands that rascal a slap;
that Kansan jackass scats,
camps back at caballada ranch.
Hangs kack, ax, and camp hat.
Kansan’s nag mad and rants can’t bask,
can’t bacchanal and garland a lass,
can’t at last brag can crack Law’s balls,
Kansan’s cantata ranga at that ramada ranch,
Mañana, Kansan snarls, I’ll have an armada
and thwart Law’s brawn,
slam Law a damn mass war path.
Marshall’s a marksman, maps Kansan’s track,
calm as a shaman, sharp as a hawk,
Says: That dastard Kansan’s had
and gnaws lamb fatback.
At dawn, Marshall stalks that ranch,
packs a gat and blasts Kansan’s ass
and Kansan gasps, blasts back.
A flag flaps at half-mast.
I can no longer blush. Half-face towards the starchy scape.
Birds limn the spindle trees, their Listerine-hued eyes dart
as they trill mechanical dirges tabulating not again, not
again / I can no longer blush. The flat arctic sky
boundlessly jogs to another hemisphere / She grows!
Or her pectoral grows or all her pectorals grow / A drop of body
oil the size of a water balloon splooshes down on a man as a graceless
anointing, atomizing into tears / How delicate the sounds are from
her height! Glottal roses wink out of their throats: their voices
tine/ Now I am blushing / Swamp moss draped over the arcades / Oh
she’ll topple. She’s making for the welkin / swamps massage
the plywood foundations of our houses / And speaking of / she shoots
up not like a beanstalk but a city erected quick-time / and speaking
of, I blush blood / Roiling up past 200 ft, dizzy from all that phosphagen / I
be damned where she gits all that nylon, the size of wedding tents!/ She
flexes for her audience / Naugahide. Fuel injection. A sawed-off
shotgun will do you nothing just the rat-a-tat-tat / Rabelaisian
bullhonkies hunker and tinker tents around her / Roiling,
flexing / are louts without a law to bless them / a shadow
overcast / a footstep is a swamp in which gators pop up like whack-
a-mole carnival games / what are they saying? do they marvel?/ I am
hemorrhaging flames! / she aims with her thumb.
— Cathy Park Hong