It's Saturday, March 28, and today's message comes from the award-winning poet and author E. J. Koh.
"Hi, Seattle. How are you holding up?" Koh says in her message. "I am grateful to read you a poem, and it's for you."
If you want to follow along, the text of the poem is at the end of this post.
"It's my love letter to you," Koh says. "It's called 'Happy.'"
Her poems, translations, and stories have appeared in Academy of American Poets, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. Recipient of Prairie Schooner’s Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing, she accepted fellowships from the American Literary Translators Association, Kundiman, MacDowell Colony, and others. Koh earned her MFA at Columbia University in New York for Creative Writing and Literary Translation. She is completing her PhD in English Language and Literature at the University of Washington in Seattle.
As Rich Smith wrote in a perceptive and enlivening piece about Koh recently:
Her last name, Koh said, suggests she descends from one of the founding families of the Jeju-do Islands, home of the haenyeo, a hearty class of mermaids, basically—women who dive into the shark-infested ocean to gather food to eat and sell. They hold their breath in the icy waters for more than three minutes, according to Koh's research, as they dig under rocks for octopus and urchin.
Koh sees her own literary practice as an extension of that tradition, a deep dive into the darkest nooks and crannies of her traumas in an attempt to find any nourishment she can bring to the surface. And not just for herself, of course, but for her readers.
Now, as promised, here is the text of the poem she reads in the video above:
The sound of a poem—it starts with the footsteps
of an ant over the log we sit on. We hold up steaming mugs
and we commit our anxieties to the air, for these anxieties
to become air, warmer and fresher as they rise away.
The prologue prolongs the holy word—light.
There is light eschewed from our bodies—in all places,
a source of its own, highlighting our features with pale
observable lightness as it does to breasts and breath.
The middle begins with rocks falling off a cliff-face
into the water. This is the argument against time that passes
through our bodies, sinks to the bottom of what used to be,
raging at the seconds, sweeter and more stale as they leave us.
Crisis is shaped like an owl pellet we open together,
the tiny bones, beaks, and fur. There is a little tooth, a puff
of feather. The further we peel back the translucent layers,
the more heaven is dimmed by our bright and curious joy.
The solar system is a clock. It turns as we pull
the tulle, leave the linen, divide the diamond, christen
the chrysanthemum, circle the Sound—as we, ourselves,
pull back into solace. We are witnesses of each other.
Afterword, we are unconcealed. Soon there is no
difference between words, and then things. We are beginning.
We are elliptical. You asked me across the aisle of the market,
eating your croquette, “How can you make a poem happy?”
Thank you so much for your message and for writing this beautiful poem, E. J. Thank you for this love letter to all of us.
Have a happy, hopeful Saturday, everyone.
Also in this series: