If My Tongue Refuses to Remain in My Mouth

  • onDecember 10, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byKim Sun-Woo
If My Tongue Refuses to Remain in My Mouth
Tr. Won-Chung Kim


The Old Pass at Daekwan-ryeong

At the beginning of January, I climb
the old pass at Daekwan-ryeong, under a blizzard watch.
Through memory’s fault lines ice flowers shoot up
in many shapes and colors

I cut a bundle of flowers from the boughs of a pine
and stuff them in my mouth—firewater.

Pungent steam rises
and my breath stops, like boiled alveoli. Slowly,
my throat warms, and the tears stored in my stomach,
gall bladder, and intestines rise up in an instant.
To get really hot is
to arrive at the freezing point.
The frozen red fruit of the dogwood
Drops on my instep, thud.

When I go crazy missing something
and doubt seizes me—have I loved well enough?—
I walk alone toward the ice flower-covered old pass at Daekwan-ryeong
which no one likes to climb.

Brushing my lips against the hot trunk of the winter birch
as if for the first time,
I whisper, “Will you come, too?”




Bee Nirvana

As if it had traveled through a long winding tunnel,
the bee fell into the pot containing a weeping fig
by the small window in my room.
Its parted wings grasped the empty sky,
and the atmosphere began to bustle.

(“Honey, the pomegranate flowers are open . . . .” Mother was hanging laundry.)

While I smoked a cigarette, leisurely,
the sky was seized and freed over a hundred times.
Painful, yes, and it occurred to me
that now it was time to end it all.
With my ring finger I dug a grave under the weeping fig
and buried the bee; white clouds
quietly passed and gathered a thousand times.

(“Honey, the pomegranate flowers are falling . . . .” Mother was sweeping the yard.)

No, perhaps it wasn’t pain!
For the first time in its life,
Under the weeping fig, by the small window in my room,
the bee seemed to meet pollen
from centuries ago, which scattered in the sunlight or the air,
and enjoy the heavy breathing of sexual communion.
I let spill a handful of dust grabbed furtively.

(“Honey, look at these pomegranates. They look like your gums when you were born.”)



Her Salt Ponds

Last night, when the first snowflakes fell, I saw the laundry woman crying. She often cries under the clothes hanging from the eaves, or in front of the rabbit hutch at the pet shop next door.

When she cries under clothes that might have covered other bodies, she only cries a little. And as she cries she takes them down with a long stick and shakes them. The clothes swing perilously, and soon her tears stop.

Crouching before the rabbit hutch, she cries for a while, holding a red plastic dipper, brushing her teeth for a long time, crying until the red-eyed rabbit turns its face away.

The next morning I pass her salt ponds in silence. She folds her left hand like a stake over her right, which grips the iron handle. Lifting her shoulder, she puts all her energy into the ironing board.

Two blank black salt ponds gaze at her praying hands. Nor will she turn the water-wheel for a while.



Radish Flowers

In this house
lies something as big as the house.

When I opened the door after a long absence
something felt strange: someone had been here.
But when I opened the closet and looked into the sink:
nothing different. My mind sank,
I flopped onto my bed. Catching my breath, I saw

radish flowers.
Buds had sprouted like deer horns
from the bit of radish I had saved to put in a bowl.

You must have made love!
The air that couldn’t pass you by
stayed with you.
Contained in the corner of the empty house,
the radish flowers fight
the wound.



If My Tongue Refuses to Remain in My Mouth

I am in the process of killing him.

Camellia, an eelworm that has sucked blood to the full, falls in drops. He’s busy picking and eating wriggling red worms. I push the scalpel deeper, his chest finally opens, and camellias clutching their necks gush out. Bloodless skeletons follow clitter-clatter. A baby skeleton holding its mother’s neck smiles sweetly. A crippled skeleton offers rotten remnant apples. They are completely rotten. He opens his eyes wide, pushes back into his bowels what spilled out . . . . Every day I figure out how to kill him. He has grown so fat his skin no longer fits, and every day he visits my room holding a piece of skin. Though I sew new flesh onto his skin (this is how I make my living now), his body rapidly grows huge. I don’t know where he peels off and brings new skin, it always smells like fresh blood . . . . Tonight I will kill him. He wants my last inner skin. Singing a sweet lullaby, he will peel off the skin of my loins. Tomorrow he’ll bring pink artificial skin and sew it onto my body by himself, singing a rhythmical work song. I’ll get a bonus, maybe an armful of red camellias too . . . .

I killed him again. And no court in the world will convict me, because my servile tongue is confined in his mouth.




Let’s pray for what flows.
(That condensed desire!)

I flow into you
and our steps, as if promised, turn bright.
Drops of water keep bouncing.
Now let’s just stand upside down.

What flows,
what flows down into you,
only if it can flow along the ridges of my body
and become rapids in a deep gorge,
only if it can wash off the extravagant blood.
(That transparent interior of desire!)

Now let’s stop for the time being:
A flame burns in the gap of this stopping.
I will flow into you, losing myself.
(Spring—flower bundle of that knife blade—saturate!)




If My Tongue Refuses to Remain in My Mouth
(Autumn Hill Books, 2018), pp. 13, 16-17, 21, 26, 56, 88.

Copyright © 2000 by Kim Sun-woo.
Translation copyright © 2018 by Won-Chung Kim, Christopher Merrill.
Reprinted with permission from Autumn Hill Books.

Author's Profile

Kim Sun-woo (b. 1970) is the author of five poetry collections, most recently A Nocturne (2016); four novels, most recently A Prayer: Yoseok and Wonhyo (2015); and several essay collections. She has received the Hyundae Literary Award and the Cheon Sang-byeong Poetry Award. Her books in translation include the collections If My Tongue Refuses to Remain in My Mouth (2018) in English and Unter Pfirsichblüten eingeschlafen (2009) in German.