Co-Editor Tammy Lai-Ming Ho‘s note: Bo Schwabacher’s poem “Flat Nose” was published in the June 2016 issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. We are delighted to learn about the publication of Bo’s debut poetry collection Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs (Tinderbox Editions) and we are very pleased to present below an exclusive essay by Bo about writing the book, being a South Korean adoptee, her South Korean roots, searching for her mother, and finding herself to be less afraid. In her essay, Bo also introduces us to the words of other poets: ‘I often think of South Korean poets’ voices as a bunch of stars forming something recognisable like a constellation.’ This is a poet who reads others’ lines contemplatively, keenly, appreciatively—exactly the way her own poetry inspires you to read. We are additionally honoured to feature five poems from Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs. The book is available for purchase here.
I often think of South Korean poets’ voices as a bunch of stars forming something recognisable like a constellation. While writing my first collection of poems, which took place over the course of more than ten years, I was taken with Suji Kwock Kim’s Notes from the Divided Country. The visual appeal of her poetry is irresistible. I love “RICE, or Song of Orientalamentations” which begins with “Now.” and ends with “Make / me. / Feel. / Fill / me. / Never. / Fail / me, /thing.” In this poem, Kim presents an undivided attention focused on the significance of each word, punctuation mark and spacing. As I wrote my poetry, I felt myself connecting with the voices of other poets and gradually being transformed by the writing process.
While writing Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs, I was also searching for my birth mother and learned that she died at the age of 28. I decided to return to my birthplace. I walked the streets my birth mother walked, imagining her life, her death and her sorrow. At night, in a hotel room by the sea in Yweonggwang, I could swear that I heard her screaming.
Sun Yung Shin, a Korean adoptee, in her poem “Exactly Like You” from the collection Unbearable Splendor, says: “It is now known that a fetus dreams”. She goes on to say, “No access to stories about our fetal life, or to the body of the mother who was the creator, protector, and nurturer of that our life”, which resonates with my own experiences and difficulties as a South Korean adoptee of knowing who I am. So much is unknown to me—the Korean language, my family history and my life in the womb.
I came across another astounding collection of poetry, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs’s Paper Pavilion, upon my return from that journey to my birthplace, and even now, the imagery feels alive, rooted in the body, and speaks to me. I was particularly struck by “Aria for Slag & Embers”. “I hang on to see / my father in the center of an imploded star, / flipping on the T.V. & skipping past reruns.” Drawn in by lines such as “painted by sparks, slag burning off, / his shadow thrown everywhere”, I am fascinated by the repeated imagery of stars and tobacco. “…He is shirtless, pink. / His tobacco embers cool.” In “Paperclips”, Dobbs explores birth records and abandonment and says: “Against the broken down Ford, my father smokes cheap cherry tobacco. His telescope points toward the North Star as if to navigate a prairie sea.” I confess that I don’t think about my birth father as often as I think of my omma. But I still think and write about him, such as in my poem “Junnam Province, My Birthplace”, where I contemplate the significance of my birth records and how my birth father saw me as “unfavourable.”
I also have written about my abusive relationship with my adoptive father, which I see as hopefully fading into the past. In my collection, I include poems that explore how it felt to be sexualised by my adoptive father. Returning to my body and staying with my body’s memories to write poetry is hard as a trauma survivor. I find that “coming into presence” has helped. Also, feeling encouraged by other female poets has been extremely meaningful. There is something particularly healing too about female poets encouraging each other to honestly speak about their experiences, which gives me a sense of safety and is a gift. It is difficult for me to speak openly about my experiences with trauma, abuse and healing. To have the support of such talented poets and women, such as Sun Yung Shin and Su Hwang, means so much to me. Their presence at my book launch was incredible, especially because I am a South Korean adoptee and I admire and respect their poetry.
At the launch of Omma, I loved combining our voices and hearing more about how we see particular places, moments in time, angels and starlight. In her gorgeous, powerful, and brilliant book of poems, Bodega, Su Hwang, a South Korean poet born in Seoul, writes about the L.A. riots. She says, “angels fled the city swathed in glass / milled fine by hammerheaded fists” in her poem “Sestina of Koreatown Burning.” I keep returning to her poem “Latchkeys” and images of the narrator’s parents “who’d / stagger in from their hour-long / commute, their clothes reeking / of chemicals”. The narrator’s father is described as “heading straight/to the backyard to hit/a golf ball on a string/while mother silently made / dinner: rice, kimchi / Spam”. The poem closes with the mother and children listening “to a tiny white ball / greeting iron”. There is such clear seeing, natural intelligence, and vulnerability in Hwang’s poems. When I felt the support of these wildly talented women—Su Hwang, Sun Yung Shin, and Jennifer Kwon Dobbs—at my book launch, I was stunned and moved. I am inspired by women who want the best for one another, who want to see each other blaze through this world.
Writing Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs brought me closer to understanding my birth mother’s life, as short as it was, and how much she loved me. The writing process also helped me to break some taboos. By giving voice to my longing for my South Korean roots, my anger towards my birth mother, and my own hope for my personal freedom, I felt closer to love and further from the heavy weight of an unending indebtedness in the guise of South Korean adoptee “gratitude”. I am still not exactly sure what familial love is. I am hoping family-love can be straightforward, safe, nourishing and forgiving like a table of loved ones eating porridge dakjuk (닭죽), a song where the music matches the words, or a quiet night of looking at the sky together, however brief it may seem. I used to be afraid I was unlovable because if my omma couldn’t love me, who possibly could? But not so much anymore.
Junnam Province, My Birthplace
I dream that I need to get to Korea,
but the cabs will never come, only
a rental car held together with duct tape.
I wonder if my poems can be folded
into a tiny boat large enough
to carry me across the yellow sea
and deliver me to my birthmother—
a saleswoman who graduated high school,
who found my birth unfavorable,
who met my father at a pleasure garden—
a married man.
I teach two adopted Asian girls,
one from China, one from a country I can’t pronounce.
They know they miss their birthmothers.
I am only beginning to recognize my abandonment.
I am only beginning to fold
my birth records into paper airplanes.
The moon shifts with integral calculus
as does my understanding
of what it means to be loved.
A body on a swing is physics at play.
A heart on a string is a theory
of finite differentials. I was a B student at best,
and I’ve got acute astigmatism.
Love is an abstract space
based on Pythagorean triples: heart2 + lust2 = unresolved
daddy issues2. What is the volume of a childhood
where you heard I love you
but did not feel seen? What is the area of a house with leaks?
I meet my birthmother in August
when mugunghwa blossoms.
This is what I hope for at least.
The flower withstands rusts and smuts.
It is the end of August now
and I am waiting.
Will she want to meet me?
Is she alive?
Maybe it would be more auspicious
to meet in October, the end of the season,
two months after she had given birth.
She gave me to a taxi driver
and his family for safekeeping,
placed like a poem
looking for an audience,
a reader to say—I see you,
and I will hold you between my fingers
like a delicate, pulpwood treasure.
Rice Cake Idioms
The rice cake in the painting is what you want but can’t have
—less than 3% of adopted Koreans find their mothers.
I am a poor translator; here is an example of a windy boy:
my birthfather/your lover, boss, client, or even possibly rapist
was married. Your heartbreak is from splitting—
it’s 3:03am Seoul, South Korea/11:03am Flagstaff, Arizona.
Have you ever eaten rice cakes while lying down?
Did you have a fruit-dream about my gender?
Rest easy, mother. I have been overfed. I have been offered seconds,
you would love the sticky rice steamed in lotus leaves,
the sweet-jewels I eat in bed.
An Adopted Korean Girl’s Babies in a South Korean Babies’ Home
I will tie
up my hair
and stay sober
with the cries
of the babies
in Naju. The Pear Orchard for Tourists
is a temple
where I won’t feel bad
a red bean rice cake
in the pocket of
a leather jacket,
I walked away
into the Midwestern wind,
which we all do.
I drink and smoke and eat.
It’s the closest thing
to KORAIL (KTX).
“Gimjang” is the tradition
I don’t belong
or here or here,
but I will try to love you
with clenched sleeping fists.
Bo Schwabacher is a South Korean adoptee. Her poems have appeared in CutBank, diode, Redivider, Sweet Tree Review, The Offing, and others. Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs, published by Tinderbox Editions, is her debut collection of poems.