Hello readers! Every week, the BOA staff shares one of our favorite poems from our over 300 collections of poetry. This week's selections are from Sky Country by Christine Kitano—on sale now in the BOA Bookstore!
The Korean word for heaven is ha-neul nara, a kenning that translates literally to "sky country." It was a word often used by potential immigrants to describe the United States.
My grandmother hoards gold dollar-coins, the heavy discs etched with Sacagawea's over-the-shoulder glance, an infant son tied in a blanket to her back. she doesn't know who Sacagawea is, or Lewis and Clark, or figures from most stories we read in elementary school. Instead, the Bible and Hollywood sculpt her history. Over dinner she'll re-enact the events in The Ten Commandments: she raises her arms, as if in victory, to summon the Pillar of Fire and split the Red Sea, her small hands pushing apart two walls of water so that Charlton Heston can arrive safely on the bank. "Yes," she'll nod, soup dripping from her chin. "That's exactly how it happened."
My Korean is weak. I understand only pieces of what she says. But from her cycle of stories, familiar nouns and images emerge. 1953: Pregnant with my mother, my grandmother flees south, my aunt strapped to her back. (At this point, my aunt will point to her bowed legs, the calves that curve outward below the knees, as evidence of this journey.) There is always a boat, a river, and a fire. My grandmother runs toward one and away from another but someone, perhaps my grandfather, grabs her hand to pull her back. I don't know why. There are men, Korean men and American men. She tells them her name, or that she's pregnant, but I never understand how or if they respond. Often, the stories end with her turning around to find her husband has vanished.
Heaven. Sky Country. In America, the streets overflow with milk and honey.
For stealing day-old donuts, my mother is fired from her first American job, cleaning offices in a downtown Los Angeles high-rise.
Still, this is America. America is good, she says. You don't know how good you have it here.
I return to Los Angeles for New Year's. My grandmother asks where I live now and tries to pronounce the words: New York. Is it hot or cold there, she asks. Is there Korean food? Is there a church? She asks if New York is where President Bush lives, then what will happen if America loses the war. Would I raise the Iraqi flag, give up English for Arabic? I want to tell her it's not that kind of war, but I don't have the words. She cackles. "You don't know," she says.
My grandmother speaks Korean but, a child of colonial Korea, reads and writes in Japanese. Now, of course, she conducts her life in English. She worries what I'll do with an English degree, not because of the "adjunct situation" or the overall decline of the humanities, but because she knows countries are not the concrete, black-outlined shapes that seem so permanent when we open our textbooks. She knows how history can wipe away a person's language. She's been the real civilian I can only try to imagine when I read articles in the newspaper over hot coffee.
It's my grandmother who ran, four months pregnant, five-year-old daughter clasped to her back. It's she who pleaded and begged, who prayed that a soldier would listen when she screamed her name. It's her home that was severed by an arbitrary line, her family, like a brittle branch, snapped down the middle.
After the traditional dinner of dumpling soup, my grandmother calls me over, unzips the small pocket on her backpack. She takes out a wrinkled manila envelope. Inside are one hundred gold dollar-coins. She's been collectiong all year, trading for them at the Mexican grocery and the Hollywood Park racetrack. I thank her, but tell her not to go through all the trouble, that they aren't worth more than paper money. She shrugs. "You don't know," she says.