in the shadows of our mothers

Then I remembered: Mama wasn’t gone
        but safe, in her bed, turning in sleep.

                        It was I who went away –

-- from “Nocturne,” Jennifer Givhan, in Landscape with Headless Mama

I read a few poems at "Poets Resist," an event organized by a friend of mine. I said how I have not considered myself to be a political poet – by which I mean to address political themes directly in my own work – but recognize in a real way that the personal is indeed political.

As a transnational adoptee, as the product of economic, social, and yes, political conditions, I recognize that my existence, here in this country, is the embodiment of political realities. Would I be here, if not for American military involvement on the Korean peninsula? This is not, in itself, a moral judgment. This is an observation of fact.


Mexican-American poet Jennifer Givhan has written a book that is haunted by mothers. We cannot escape them, our own mothers, the long shadows they cast. Her book is about the persistence, the insistence of love, even in the face of its maddening and spectacular failures. Miscarriage, divorce, abuse. Mental illness. Adoption. Death. All forms of grief and loss suffuse these poems. Lines and images are sad and raw. At times playful, at times heartbreaking. And yet, inexplicably, one wants more.


I read a poem about my own mother last night. About how I visited her in the hospital, near the end. She gave me the passbook to her savings account. It was not much, she told me, but it was for me. I was twenty years old. It seemed tragic to me that two thousand dollars was all one might have at the end of one’s life. My callousness surfaced fast as a means to distance myself from this woman I should have known better, should have let myself know. What should I have felt at that moment? Surely more than what I did. Surely, I am misrepresenting the whole thing.

Nor can I escape the shadow of motherland. I put the poems through mechanical translation – into Korean and back to English again, as if some bit of Korean-ness might remain, might infiltrate, might illuminate the words and phrases themselves.


In the end, was it me? Was I the one who left? Was it something in me that surfaced, made attachment untenable? Children believe this. That they have the power to cause their own disasters. Perhaps not that first time, but every time since then? Past the point of childhood? Leaving, always leaving, before one can be left?