After You’re Gone / DAY SIX

Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon

copyright ©2016 by Kim Hyesoon / 2018 by Don Mee Choi

After you’ve gone don’t go, don’t
After you’ve come don’t come, don’t

When you depart, they close your eyes, put your hands together and cry
        don’t go, don’t go
But when you say open the door, open the door, they say don’t come, don’t

They glue a paper doll onto a bamboo stick and say don’t come, don’t come
They throw your clothes into the fire and say don’t come, don’t come

That’s why you’re footless

yet all you do is fly
unable to land

You’re visible even when you hide
You know everything even without a brain

You feel so cold
even without a body

That’s why this morning the nightgown hiding under the bed
is sobbing quietly to itself

Water collects in your coffin
You’ve already left the coffin

Your head’s imprint on the moon pillow
Your body’s imprint on the cloud blanket

So after you’ve gone don’t go, don’t
So after you’ve come don’t come, don’t

Notes on the Poem

Our current series of Poem of the Week choices come from the seven works on the recently announced 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. This selection comes from the mournful and hypnotic Autobiography of Death by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon. The bulk of Autobiography of Death is a sequence of 49 poems, matched to the period of 49 days a spirit roams after death before it proceeds to reincarnation. Variations of the 49-day period are articulated in different faiths. In the Tibetan tradition, mentioned in this article about the Dalai Lama offering a prayer service for the deaths of Tibetan protesters in 2008:
"Prayers conducted by the living can assist the dead through this journey and can help to guide them toward a good rebirth, and so it is a period that is always marked by special rites."
In Kim's sequence of poems, so sensitively and determinedly translated by Choi, there is much to equate them with ritual and invocation. The prayer-like aspects of this particular selection from early in the 49-poem sequence / 49-day observance include the incantatory opening and closing stanzas and the rites suggested by the second and third stanzas. A particular anguish bursts through in these lines: "You feel so cold even without a body" and paired with this: "Water collects in your coffin You've already left the coffin" makes direct reference to a contemporary Korean catastrophe, the 2014 sinking of the Sewol Ferry, in which over 300 people died, many of them young high school students. What Went Wrong in the Sewol Ferry Disaster is a heartwrenching 30-minute New Yorker documentary on the tragedy, capturing strikingly what haunts many of the poems in Autobiography of Death.

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