George Bogin Memorial Award - 2011
Suji Kwock Kim
Rebecca Morgan Frank
AT THE IMPERIAL PALACE
su(not-P'yongyang, North Korea)
1. The Emperor's Housekeeper
It's dirty work, keeping the imperial palace clean.
For a small man, the Emperor has large appetites.
So someone has to clear away the gnawed ox-bones,
cracked crab-claws, half-sucked shark-fins, spit-out tripe:
sweep up the broken liquor bottles they call dead soldiers,
push-broom the charred cigar-stubs and ash into the trash.
Someone has to launder the Emperor's soiled clothes,
jumpsuits made of the national polyester called vynalon:
strip the sheets when he wakes from his royal hangover,
wash away the body fluids no one wants to know about —
the sick-sweat, torn hair, broken fingernails from the latest
pleasure-party to get out of hand, though not the last.
Someone has to bury the dead girl who isn't lying here,
who never existed: who could not have imagined
the end she came to.
Rip out the rugs,
whitewash the walls, as if calcite could make them clean,
scour the floors before the stains soak into splinter and grain,
bleach every board of the blood that is not there.
2. The Emperor's Janitor
Outside there are guards, and guards to guard against the guards.
A slammed door, some muffled screams, a silence that is not silent.
Someone is "re-educating" someone again.
Keep cleaning. Don't let anyone see you
see them see you seeing them, don't get shot. They're just following orders.
We're all just following orders.
I've been turning a blind eye since I was born, I'll be turning a blind eye until I drop dead—
I'm not the first man to do this and I won't be the last.
Our country is full of janitors.
But I'll be relieved when they take the body away, far from the palace,
out of earshot, smell-shot, mind-shot, dream-shot —
Let it be done quickly, let me forget the screams of the slaughtered,
while until my dying day I'll clench my rag of life,
wiping down the splattered walls, ripping out the rugs,
whitewashing the doors that lead nowhere
except corridors of terror, corridors of horror,
scouring the floors, bleaching away the blood that is not there
until ammonia peels the skin from my hands.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil on Suji Kwok Kim
These poems are part-nightmare, part history book written in ammonia and blood. I couldn't forget these lyrics of murder and of escape and songs of "croakers and cuttlefish" treading the path between oppression and grace. The poet gives us utterly memorable persona poems from North Korea's Imperial Palace filled with shards of "half-sucked shark-fins [and] spit-out tripe..." built solidly with an architecture of stanzas I can't find a way to dismantle, and a brutal musicality and prophecy I can't stop hearing.