“At the Border, Late Summer” by Esther Ra

Esther Ra


We swam upstream through a shining swarm
of stone-faced, squat Seoul cars.
It had been a remarkably short summer
and men fainted in streets from the heat.

My mother tensed slightly as we drove by the border,
black words stringing sentences without end.
A cacophony, strident with strung-out lives:
we listened, our lips tightened with sadness.

Somewhere behind those jigsawed shards
of fissured, time-snagged spikes,
my best friend stumbles through a forest,
swearing, assigned to the DMZ.

In his unit, they uproot the toothache trees
of a wounded and greenfleshed mouth.
Surveillance cameras blink slowly to life
as boughs thunder down to the ground.

As sweat trickles rivers down his strident neck
and the hollows of his swinging arms,
he tells me through static on his unit’s phone,
Run away from this shit while you can.

I ask Mother if she’d live in America,
and she says that she would if she could.
In this country I love, who knows when we’ll die?
One bomb could wipe out our home city.

I think of the plane that will fly me tomorrow
from my torn and terribly dear home.
With a pang, my hand finds its way
back to my mother’s: we clasp hands
deeply, in deep silence.

And in the distance, the secular
thorns of our country’s dark crown
press closely into a raw sky.

And in the distance, the gold-bellied
orioles sing as they would
if the world saw its ending tomorrow.

from Poets Respond


Esther Ra: “This poem emerged from a tense summer in which I spent long hours talking on the phone with my close male friends, most of whom were serving in the army for South Korea’s mandatory military service. It was also the first time in memory that my mother confessed that she was afraid of the Korean War. This poem is a response to North Korea’s recent demand that the US declare an end to the Korean War, amid expectations of Mike Pompeo’s fourth visit to the North. While I yearn for peace, the ongoing conflict, undercurrent of paranoia, and unending tragedy that remains in Korea remind me that the war is far from over.” (web)

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