he said: try simply saying what you mean

ends in repetition

To be direct: The fantasy is to be discovered, reunited, made whole. From the willow basket floating among the reeds. To discover lineage, a kind of completion.

Of Theresa Cha’s Dictee, Timothy Yu writes, “The great theme of the book is in fact, the paralysis caused by historical and mythical thinking.”

“…an embrace of writing itself as the master discourse that moves out into agency from the stasis of history.”

If history is static, why do I insist on returning? To put it directly: Why do I keep getting it all wrong?

(He said: If you are writing about a journey, then look, you are getting in your own way.”)

Yu suggests that Dictee locates “home” in writing itself, its experiments, its abstractions. Writes itself into agency.

Cha says:


It is an empty theatre.


Why resurrect it all now. From the Past. History, the old wound. The past emotions all over again. To confess to relive the same folly. To name it now so as not to repeat history in oblivion. To extract each fragment from the word from the image another word another image the reply that will not repeat history in oblivion.

Being forgotten is a kind of death.

I dream remembering. Of being remembered into life. Resurrected through memory, being held there.

A mother returns after separation; a child returns home from a journey. Living in re-union.

I write the things I remember but the truth is I remember little. The blue-roofed school in the country. Men on park benches sleeping off the soju of the night before, there on the sidewalks of the dense, hot city.

They wanted to give us a sense of history, to learn the traditional methods of pouring tea. To dress in hanbok. To learn the traditional folk songs and sing them with our foreign tongues.

We took photos at Mt. Sorak and in the gardens. We drank soju around wooden tables. Sang songs. Propped each other up as we stumbled back to dorm room beds in the night.

Toward what agency might I be writing? From what stasis of history am I turning?

Yu: “But for Cha, myth and history collude in creating stasis and in robbing the individual of her singularity – even as they provide our only means of knowing not only our pasts but ourselves. Neither can provide change; each ends in repetition.”

Repeated stories represent no movement, no progress.   

What is needed: “the reply that will not repeat history in oblivion.”

part moan, part sigh

Let me be direct: I went back to try to awaken something in me that I had believed to be dormant.

By walking the streets of Seoul and inhaling the scent of the air after rain; by kneeling on the packed brown earth of the countryside; by waking to the fine gray mist that hovered over Mount Sorak: I might rise, shrug off decades of troubled, indecipherable dreaming and be touched, as if by divinity, with sudden and profound recognition. I might say: Now, I know who I am!

I walked. I ate, I drank. I tossed at night in my narrow bed. I breathed the stifling, wet air.

We took language lessons, learned to count to ten. To greet each other by name. To bid each other farewell. We watched children play the traditional games with sticks and wide ribbons.

We visited a school. At the entrance, rows and rows of shoes. Fans blowing in the hallways, small comfort in the wet heat. As we stood there, watching the students file past, L. collapsed. Slid to the ground with an exhalation of breath, part moan, part sigh. I volunteered to sit with her on the air-conditioned bus. She rested her head on my lap and slept while the rest finished their tour.

At the audio museum, I let T. take my hand for a moment and bring it to his cheek, as if the place itself triggered the memory of a gesture he was now trying to replicate.

J. said: This city smells like home. Like something that I recognize. And I nodded, said yes, yes. But to me it did not.

Did I return home unchanged? Is it even possible?

(The teacher, years later, says: “Your poem is too terrified to tell the story.”)

Did he mean: the story of traveling six thousand miles across the earth to feel nothing? To recognize nothing? For nothing to have been loosed in me?

Let me again try to be direct: It is as if, when I left for the first time, as a child, I excised from my body any part of myself that ever knew that place, that air, that earth. So that what remained was only scar tissue, to remind me: There was something here that you have lost.

feral, waiting

Let me be direct: to say I want you is to challenge fate. I came here, orphan girl, plastic sac in which I carried: extra pair of flowered tights, red wool hat, yellow sweater knitted by a kind, nameless woman in her suburban raised ranch for the church drive where they gathered up the tiny garments and sent them to Korea in trash bags wrapped with masking tape and so to say I want you is to ask for more than is allotted, to say open me, map of rivers is to reach beyond the walls of this sheltered space to which I have been carried, lifted from the swift river and set gently down too wet, too hungry to sleep (but what did they expect, taking in this abandoned child, feral, waiting, and ready to strike)