[ Poem in response to m.d.h., white poet who used a Chinese pseudonym to get published in Best American Poetry. ]
choi jeong min
for my parents, Choi Inyeong & Nam Songeun
in the first grade i asked my mother permission
to go by frances at school. at seven years old
i already knew the exhaustion of hearing my name
butchered by hammerhead tongues. already knew
to let my salty gook name drag behind me
in the sand, safely out of sight. in fourth grade
i wanted to be a writer & worried
about how to escape my surname – choi
is nothing if not korean, if not garlic breath,
if not seaweed & sesame & food stamps
during the lean years – could i go by f.j.c.? could i be
paper thin & raceless? dust jacket & coffee stain,
boneless rumor smoldering behind the curtain
& speaking through an ink-stained puppet?
my father ran through all his possible rechristenings –
ian, issac, ivan – and we laughed at each one,
knowing his accent would always give him away.
you can hear the pride in my mother’s voice
when she answers the phone this is grace, & it is
some kind of strange grace she’s spun herself,
some lightning made of chainmail. grace is not
her pseudonym, though everyone in my family is a poet.
these are the shields for the names we speak in the dark
to remember our darkness. savage death rites
we still practice in the new world. myths we whisper
to each other to keep warm. my korean name
is the star my mother cooks into the jjigae
to follow home when i am lost, which is always
in this gray country, this violent foster home
whose streets are paved with shame, this factory yard
riddled with bullies ready to steal your skin
& sell it back to your mother for profit,
land where they stuff our throats with soil
& accuse us of gluttony when we learn to swallow it.
i confess. i am greedy. i think i deserve to be seen
for what i am: a boundless, burning wick.
a stone house. i confess: if someone has looked
at my crooked spine and called it elmwood,
i’ve accepted. if someone has loved me more
for my gook name, for my saint name,
for my good vocabulary & bad joints,
i’ve welcomed them into this house.
i’ve cooked them each a meal with a star singing
at the bottom of the bowl, a secret ingredient
to follow home when we are lost:
sunflower oil, blood sausage, a name
given by your dead grandfather who eventually
forgot everything he’d touched. i promise:
i’ll never stop stealing back what’s mine.
i promise: i won’t forget again.