A Practice of Care

October 20, 2020

POTS: A Practice of Care



Helena de Groot: This is Poetry Off the Shelf, I’m Helena de Groot. Today, A Practice of Care. When E.J. Koh was 15, her parents moved back to Korea without her. Her father had gotten an interesting job offer, and her mother would join him so she could be reunited with the family she’d left behind 17 years earlier, when she followed her husband to the United States. Koh and her brother, who was four years older, moved from their family home in Fremont, California to Davis. And both of them tried as they could to get on with their lives. But without her parents, nothing was the same. Koh started skipping school, skipping meals, and spent much of her time in a daze, unsure how to navigate this new reality.


Years later, she found a box with 49 of the many letters her mother had sent her from Seoul. They became the start of her memoir, not just about her own trauma, but also about the trauma her family had carried for generations—her parents, grandparents, even her great-grandparents.


When I talked to her about this memoir, The Magical Language of Others, as well as her poetry collection, A Lesser Love, the first thing I wanted to know was how she remembered that initial conversation when her parents decided to go back.  


E.J. Koh: What’s interesting is I ... every time our family gets together to talk about that moment, it comes out a little differently. And I think it’s talked about a little differently from each person. For my father, it was very much something he didn’t have to do but wanted to do for my mother so that she could reunite with her family, who she had been apart from for 17 years, and she missed her family. I think another part of the story is, my brother at the time, he wanted my father to follow his own ambitions. I think my brother wanted to support my father in that way and said, you know, we don’t know what you can do if you don’t try for it. And another layer to this is in sort of many Eastern cultural circles, it’s quite common to separate the family in order to support the family and hope for sort of greater financial stability. And in sort of Western cultural circles, that idea is frowned upon. The idea to leave your children behind. So these were some of the layers encircling the decision at the time.


Helena de Groot: And can you tell me how you remember that?


E.J. Koh: I remember … I remember that they asked me if I would come. I know my mother kept asking. But I think what was on her mind was how would I fare going to another country and starting over. I mean, you get hints of it in the book, but I had a really hard time even adjusting here. It took me many years to pick up the English language. Even up to the point they were leaving, I was having trouble with school, and trouble with anxiety in social places. And so the idea of bringing me to Korea is just that, you know, it would be difficult. They just couldn’t see me there.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: And, you know, I think there’s also the opinion that comes later on is, you know, were you at the age in which you can make an actual decision for yourself on the subject, you know? To be even asked that and to be able to contemplate what it would mean for me.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: So, I didn’t know. I didn’t know what was to come from making that decision.


Helena de Groot: Right.


E.J. Koh: And you know, my parents were born and raised in Korea. And I was born and raised here. We have different expectations of each other and we both have different ideas of what a family is. I think part of the anxiety and tension was, once they’d left, to them it was still a family, and to me, it took away from me what a family was supposed to be. And we weren’t able to see each other and understand one another.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: Yeah, it was difficult and it was difficult for my brother too to be so young and … you know, we’d play house and that’s what we did. We played house for years and nobody knew. You know, the teachers didn’t know. And I’m sure some of them could sense that something was different and off. But it was a survival, really, for us.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. And were there things that you did to maintain a semblance of normalcy? I’m just wondering about, you know, did you cook? Did you watch the same old shows that you used to watch on TV? Do you know what you did to sort of provide continuity as if nothing ever happened?


E.J. Koh: You know, I remember ... and my memories of these years are so vivid. I remember waking up … I think it’s one of the first days that me and my brother were there alone. And I remember waking up and the interesting thing is all my things are the same. So it’s the same bed and it’s the same desk I had at our family house. It’s the same ... almost the same layout, you know, we had a closet mirror and then I had a window. But it wasn’t the family house. It was this new house. I remember waking up and feeling that shift very strongly, that all my things are here and yet I’m nowhere near where I used to be. You know, I remember large chunks of time with just nothing to do. I didn’t have friends in this new place and I didn’t understand where I was or what would happen. And so, I would just sort of walk around the house. I would pace around. I would find places to sit down and I would stare off. But being in the new house became an intimate place for me and a reminder of their absence, I would say, and me holding onto the memories of what it was like to be together. I find that interesting, because in my work, I return to houses quite frequently, the inside of rooms, the personality of homes, like the bathroom or the way the closet is. These things always stay with me. I think they’re symbolic of that time.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. And do you remember—because you said that the house, even in its layout and then the furniture, was like the old house. Do you remember the first time that your brother or you made some change so that it wasn’t that anymore?


E.J. Koh: I think my brother, in his very best intentions, he came home one day with a puppy, with a Siberian Husky puppy. And we just had never had a dog before. And so my brother wanted me to see that there was a freedom here now that our parents were across the world, that we can start to do things that maybe were never allowed before. I would say I’m partly or mostly allergic to dogs.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)

E.J. Koh: I have a dog now, anyway, so I don’t ... it doesn’t bother me one bit. But still, you know, our parents wouldn’t let us have any pets. But I had a bird. I had a pet parakeet named Miko. And then my brother brought home Aeson, the Husky puppy that we took care of. And he got us a new TV and we would play video games and we would eat tacos whenever we wanted, and try to make our own sense of what a family could be if it’s just us.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: So there were great highs with that. And there were bouts of lows, because I think in the end, we were both kids and we both wanted so much and we were both so lonely on our own. And that loneliness wasn’t something we could share together.


Helena de Groot: You didn’t talk to your brother about your feelings?


E.J. Koh: No. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


E.J. Koh: I don’t know why I answered that so quickly. Our family, in general, we weren’t talking about it that way. I think what we expressed was our sort of aggression and our complaints and our annoyance. And even some violence as a failure of communication, right.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: And so we were childlike in that way. And we would get into fights. And it was a terrible mess some of the time.


Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm. There’s a letter … the first in your book. A letter that your mother wrote from Seoul. And I was wondering if you could read that. It starts on page one of your memoir.


E.J. Koh: I’m happy to do that.




[confirm text against original]


Dear Eun Ji.


Hello, hello, hello, my Eun Ji.


You said you’re doing well? We phoned yesterday, remember? Mommy got a little angry, but not at you. Mommy didn’t take good care of things and had thoughts like, “I’ve put you guys up in a very dirty place.” If you lived with Mommy, you wouldn’t raise a dog and Eun Ji wouldn’t be alone at the house in Davis every day, right? Then, without asking, you guys bought a TV. Of course, you could’ve done that, but. Anyway, everything is fine. It’s fine. After some time passed, I realized, “They could’ve done that.” Still, if Aeson goes in and out of your room, the thought of my Eun Ji’s body, clothes, his dog hair sticking to everything, even now it makes my heart ache. You can understand, right? Oh, my friend Gwi Won’s daughter Jung Yeon (finally) got hired at KBS television studios. Starting next year, she will be an announcer and come on TV. Gwi Won was so hysterical she called me crying. Didn’t it turn out well? For a year and a half, you don’t know how many times Jung Yeon tested. It’s a big, big deal. I’ll have to thank God. Gwi Won had only been getting bad news as of late.

God is fair, you know. My Eun Ji is tired and lonely now, but you’ll get good news too. You will go to the college you want, then graduate from college, get a job, and from here on, you’ll only get lots and lots of good news. Especially in college, a good boyfriend will appear. Mommy’s excited just thinking about it. Right?

My pretty Eun Ji. You know to live all you can and always boldly, right? Eun Ji must be happy so Mommy can be happy. When I finish this letter, I’ll pray too. “God, always be with my Eun Ji and Chang Hyun. Please help my Eun Ji go to the college she wants.” Like this, you know. I’ll write again tomorrow. Bye. Be happy.




* * *


Helena de Groot: Thank you. So this is a translation, right? A translation that you made.


E.J. Koh: Mm-hmm.


Helena de Groot: The original letter is also printed in a book in Korean with certain words in English that in the translation you italicize. But what stands out to me so much is the tone of her language. “Mommy got a little angry, but not at you.” Like this kind of third person talking about herself, like you would do to a very small child. And I’m wondering why she used that language, and how that made you feel.


E.J. Koh: My mother uses kiddie diction as she writes in Korean because she knew that my Korean was limited at the time. So she writes as simply as she can. And then she uses Mommy in the third person— and I thought mommy was the best translation, because she almost infantilizes the relationship.


Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm.


E.J. Koh: You know, I don’t think I ever stop being the age at which she left me throughout her letters. And I think there’s very few times where she says I’ve changed. And it takes many years for her to say something like that, because we’re not seeing each other very much. When we spoke on the phone, I think she slips into that as well. I think there is a sense of aegyo. It’s a Korean word for sort of ... you might say it’s a cute way of talking. It’s an affectionate way of talking. And you do usually do that with your loved ones or with a small child. And in this case, you know, I’ve remained that small child to her.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: What’s funny is that against that that kiddie language is juxtaposed with sometimes these really large words.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: And those are words that she finds in the English dictionary. And she uses the first dictionary definition and finds the word and puts it in. So she’ll say, we need to do this through “cooperation,” or she’ll use these longer Latinate words. And those are words she’s sort of spelling out in English. So there’s just like a wonderful thing going on with her letters, with the kiddie diction and then the formality, and then there’s drawings. So I wanted to be able to translate all these little nuances, and I remember when I first found these letters, when I moved to Seattle, Washington, they were just in a box with sort of tissue wrapped paper in it. And I just don’t know how I moved around all over the country, many times with this intact.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


E.J. Koh: And I opened it and I found the 49 letters that my mother wrote me. You know, it’s that international envelope is what always sort of makes my heart drop. You know, the red and blue. If you’ve ever gotten one of those. And I remember reading through them and some of them having ... like the ink was running a little, or the paper was crumpled up. And I think it just struck me because I was not only reading these letters as who I was at that moment, but I was reading the letters as artifacts, as being read by who I was when I was that young girl, because you would see these tear marks all over the page.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: You know, when you see a watermark, the paper creases just a little bit, and it’ll change the line. So it felt like coming across a time capsule and it felt like something that I needed to go back in time to understand. And that’s what the letters do for me. They hold so many different things across time.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, yeah. And how … of course it’s hard and I don’t know how you can answer this question, right, but like, how hard was it for you to read them? Like, did you have to follow with your finger? Did you have to use a dictionary? Can you just try and explain how it was to read them?


E.J. Koh: You know, I can speak Korean quite fluently because I grew up and we spoke Korean at home, and at church it was Korean, and many of my parents’ friends and my grandmother who raised me was speaking to me in mostly Korean. But it was the reading I learned, possibly through doing karaoke, or trying to make sense of things. But I had to hear it. So I could read it but I read it slowly and I would sound it out. So you would hear me read the letter out loud quietly to myself, sort of in the corner of the room. And I would be holding on to these letters so tightly ... they really were, it felt like, all I had left.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. Yeah. In your memoir, you don’t just tell the story of your own life, but you also weave in the life stories of your family members, and how those lives intersected with, yeah, the quite violent history of the 20th century in Korea. And I’m wondering why you decided to include those other lives and how you knew the stories. Like did you already know them or did you interview those family members? So how did that happen?


E.J. Koh: You know, my mother lost her mother at a really young age. She lost both her parents, in both tragic accidents when she was a teenager. And I wanted to understand my mother and to understand her, I had to understand her mother to an extent. I had to understand, you know, not my mother as her role. I had to understand her as a young girl. And I needed to see her as a daughter. And I needed to see the way, you know, death is a sort of distance. It’s another kind of separation. And that sort of separation forced on my mother at such a young age, how that could have affected her and how that was, you know, brought to the present moment between us now. And how the way we handle this now could really affect the sort of pain and trauma that was created then. I think I ... I wanted to go deeper to understand and to give my mother room and space.


Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm.


E.J. Koh: I think she deserves that, you know. I think if I wrote the memoir and I was just angry the whole time  (LAUGHS)—


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


E.J. Koh: —it would be very boring, I think.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: And it wouldn’t do much for my mother and it wouldn’t do much for me. I think the difficult thing is to try and see her. And so, I grew up with stories of my mother talking about her mother. I mean, my mother talks about her wonderful, beautiful, mythic mother, Boo. And every photo is exactly that way. We’re talking countryside Korea and my mother … my grandmother, but I say my mother’s mother, she’s wearing a blue, bright, neon body suit and heels with fantastic hair and sunglasses. Just so ... a diva, you know.


Helena de Groot: Uh-huh.


E.J. Koh: And she was married to sort of this well-to-do gentleman who was my mother’s father. But at the time, it was quite common for husbands to take mistresses. This was just something that my mother accepted. But she couldn’t understand why her mother couldn’t accept that. So the story goes over her … sort of the arguments and fights that begin and then sort of boil over between her parents. And then her mother runs away, you know, leaves the family and the children behind to find her own independence in the city and to live away. But really, my mother tries to bring her mother back home. But when her mother finally does relent and come back, she passes away suddenly. And it was from an aneurysm, but at the time, you know, the village and the people around her and she herself believed she died from heartbreak. I mean this exact story I’ve heard probably thousands of times since I was really young. It was almost like a bedtime story. And it’s the thing that she replays over and over again, because I think there’s han. You know, it’s the Korean word for trauma, and almost unimaginable grief. But it’s also a national characteristic of the Korean people. And so, it’s a pain that is generational. It’s passed down. It’s ... it’s a collective suffering, I think. So my mother is going over and over the same stories, and my mother must have always wanted to close the distance that was never closed, which is a sort of Han. It’s the gap in which something can never be closed, can never be resolved or repaired. And that’s the gap in where she lives with the memories of her mother. Now, very soon after that, my mother’s father passed away tragically. His car fell down into a creek. And my mother was left with her siblings. And so, when she left them to come to the States, I think she was thinking about them the whole while. And for more than a decade before the chance to go back to Korea came.


Helena de Groot: Right. It’s so interesting what you say right now, because … and this is what was so striking about your memoir, too, is that ... the shock that opens your book, you know, like that your parents would leave you behind, you know. As soon as you start telling these three stories, it makes so much sense, you know? Like you start seeing it from their perspective and, as you say, there are all these good reasons for your mother to want to go back. Yeah. I don’t really know how to ask you this, but I’m just wondering how you did that. Like, was that a long process? Like was your first draft much angrier, you know? (LAUGHS) How did that go? Like, how did you come so close to understanding them?


E.J. Koh: Oh your question is beautiful and intricate, and I’m afraid it’s too simple of an answer, but it’s poetry.


Helena de Groot: Mm.


E.J. Koh: My first poetry teacher taught me the word “magnanimity.” And I remember him bringing up the word to critique some of my poems. And I hadn’t—I had never heard of this word before. And considering that I didn’t even know what a poem was just until that very week. But when I came across poetry and that word, magnanimity, it’s the word that overtook my life, because I remember I ... I hated my first class. But something about it stuck in my mind. And I must have written 40 poems my first week. I came back and I showed it to the teacher. And he said, you know, you have this wonderful way of starting poems and you fill out the poem and you can write so many. But your problem is that you have a hard time ending poems.


Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm.


E.J. Koh: It’s hard for you to find the turn. And he said it’s because, when you write poems about your mother, by the end of the poem, you have to forgive your mother, or the poem has to forgive you for not. And that practice of every time writing a poem and having to get to the turn, it was a practice of care, it was a practice of magnanimity. And it was constantly writing ahead of myself. So it’s starting the poem as who I am right then and ending it as who I could be, as who I might want to be. And that practice over years is something that I took not just for the sake of writing poems, I brought it out into my relationships. I practiced it every day in the way I think to myself, this sort of compassion and care and expansion and the ability to hold opposing ideas or sentiments simultaneously, you know. I said, you know, I really need to grow the space of my heart. It is this tiny, dark little thing. And han is often described that way as this stone inside you that hardens and solidifies. And it contracts. But to sort of release han is to widen it and to let it go and to sort of let it expand and become a softer, unhardened thing. So I would say, through poetry, poetry at least guided me to be able to write a memoir like this. I was thinking very much in the mind of a poem.




Helena de Groot: Earlier, you already said that rooms are important to you. And so I’d love for you to describe that room, if I can call it that, that that first poetry class was in. And then also, I want to know, you said that you really disliked that class, that first class.


E.J. Koh: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: So can you tell me what the room was like, why you disliked it?


E.J. Koh: Do you want me to read the paragraph about that room?


Helena de Groot: Sure.


E.J. Koh:




I sat myself in the front row of our classroom inside a trailer or a shipping container docked at the edge of Aldridge Park. I had showered for the first time in two weeks and put on a giant hoodie over jeans as if going to dance practice. Outside, students loitered on the ramp in the sunlight. Inside, there were mold spores in the carpet. The tiled ceiling had a layer of moisture. The thermostat was broken. The steel jams on the doors looked as if they would lock us in. On the windows, there were moth wings, missing moths, cockroach legs, missing a cockroach. What I thought was a snake skin was a long spool of cobwebs under the chalkboard. Crayons had been crushed underfoot.


E.J. Koh: This trailer, you know, it ... I remember it so fondly now. And I say all those things lovingly. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


E.J. Koh: It is the strangest place to begin poetry in, and it also seems perfect, in a way.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: What happened was, I was seeing my school counselor. And I was in a really troubling situation where I had one requirement that I didn’t meet. And if I could just meet that requirement, I could graduate. And that requirement was mathematics. And I told her I can’t do anything with math.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: And she sort of leveled with me and said, “Well, let’s think about this, right. What is mathematics?” And she said it was the language of God. She says, so what can possibly replace the language of God? And we came to the language of man. And she said, you’re gonna take an introduction to poetry class to fulfill your mathematics requirement.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


E.J. Koh: And that really was the beginning of me being ... I mean, I was a dancer in the way that I was, you know, I was in a competitive hip hop dance crew and I was competing across the state. And this was very much a part of my life … or so I thought, you know. It was the last place where I could be recognized.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: And so I, I walked into this poetry class just completely irreverent of all the things that were waiting for me in there.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: But the first poem the teacher … he was an MFA student UCI, his name’s Greg McClure. And the first poem he taught us was what his teacher at the time wrote. It’s by James McMichael and the poem’s is called “The Vegetables.” And I just remember, we were reading it, and it made no sense, but it made sense. And it was English, but it wasn’t English. I was still having trouble with English and with speaking and writing. But somehow, this arrangement of English that wasn’t English made more sense to me than any other individual language.


Helena de Groot: Mm.


E.J. Koh: And being in that classroom and talking about vegetables, but while talking about vegetables, we’re talking about, you know, the poet’s mother’s death. And to be talking about that through vegetables, (LAUGHS) something in that class, in that discussion, struck me. And I remember Greg letting me know that it seems very much like I was a part of poetry and that I had something here. And I just didn’t believe him, right. And I was also quite rebellious. And an awful student. (LAUGHS) And not so kind to my teachers. Not so very generous.


Helena de Groot: Uh-huh.


E.J. Koh: And so I left, and I didn’t plan on coming back, but I did. And then I came back almost like a valve opened within me and I couldn’t stop writing poems. I just couldn’t.


Helena de Groot: It’s so interesting to me, because the way that you described this poem as being about vegetables, but then also being about death. Yeah, that that was the closest that you’d ever gotten to language making sense to you. You know? Okay, I have to try and phrase this question better, because, I felt like throughout your memoir that there was—even though you’re a writer and you’re a poet, that one of the through—oh, my god, I have such difficulty with this sound—that one of the through threads in your memoir is a certain ... if I can call it mistrust of language. It starts very early on, you know, when you’re a little kid up until the age of four and a half, you don’t speak at all, and the doctor thinks you’re mute.


E.J. Koh: Mm-hmm.


Helena de Groot: But it continues later on, too. I mean, you receive all these letters from your mother, but you never write her back.


E.J. Koh: Mm-hmm.


Helena de Groot: And then when you learn Japanese and you go to Japan and you immerse yourself in this new language, instead of that becoming a new way to express yourself, it becomes a new way to isolate yourself, you know, you say that somewhere in the book. And so, with all of this mistrust of language, I’m wondering what poetry allows you to do that makes language make sense to you.


E.J. Koh: I think that’s a beautiful question and you said it perfectly. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


E.J. Koh: It’s almost like you’ve read the book and you’ve read its shadow. When I was growing up in our household, my grandmother had to hide her Japanese. She was in the habit of doing that when she was in Korea, but when we were in the States, it seemed very much a secret. And so, I mean, even before speaking, I remember sensing that there’s something different about my grandmother. And feeling her anxiety of using this other language, and it’s the language she didn’t want me to know. And the only time she spoke Japanese was at the sushi counter when we went to the supermarket.


Helena de Groot: Uh-huh.


E.J. Koh: And I think I must be the only person that heard her, because we were together all the time since my parents were working. At home, at the same time, we’re speaking Korean, and that’s the one that I wanted to immerse myself in because it’s the language that my family uses. It’s the one that brings me closest to my mother and father. But it was also the one they wanted to guard me from because they wanted me to learn English. English was the language of survival. That was the language in which I might be able to do well outside of our family if I attached myself to English. What’s so fascinating is, you mention the passage of when I’m in Japan. And by then I’m learning Japanese, I know some Korean and English. And what happens is I realize that learning a language can open you, but it can also close you. It can teach you how to guard yourself against others like a spy. Because I could be in a room, which happened in Japan, and there would be people speaking in Korean. And if I just spoke in Japanese, they wouldn’t know that I was Korean.


Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm.


E.J. Koh: It works the other way around. If I’m somewhere and there’s many Americans and I don’t speak English, they would have no idea that I’m an American. It opened my eyes to, you know, language is so powerful, but it also has this other aspect, and the way I’m using it is a way to isolate myself. When I came to poetry, it’s interesting because, before that was dance. And I really thought dance at the time was a place I can speak, but it wasn’t that for me either. That’s not to say other dancers don’t have that. I think many dancers have found in dance for them a way to speak. But when I was dancing, I was so concerned almost in a grammatical way of correct dancing, of how to look clean.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: You know, especially if you’re in a dance crew, you call it blocking. You know, there’s formations. It’s a more formal version of dance. And so I was attaching myself to it that way. But when I came to poetry, it wasn’t like that. I didn’t need to be clean and I wasn’t sort of supposed to block with everybody else. I think Cathy Park Hong talks about this in Minor Feelings, and I really relate to it; it’s the idea of, those who’ve inherited bad English. I think sometimes I don’t know the plural of a word, even if I was born and raised here, just because I didn’t use it as much, and it didn’t come as natural for me. But somehow, poetry is okay if you have bad English.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: Poetry doesn’t demand the sort of correctness and it doesn’t demand sort of the rigidity ... it’s the opposite, right. There’s a fluidity to it. And there’s a flexibility with trying to say the thing that you felt impossible to say. And trying to, like the poem and like with magnanimity, do things that I didn’t think was possible for me to do. I think poetry really brought in the magical element of what I was looking for.




Helena de Groot: There’s one poem that really seems to encapsulate so many of the things that you’ve been talking about, and it’s the poem on page 14, “To My Mother Kneeling in a Cactus Garden.”


E.J. Koh: Oh, this … I think this was one of the first poems that I wrote in New York, when I left Southern California and took out an egregious loan, student loan, (LAUGHS).


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


E.J. Koh: And moved to New York City and worked in Union Square, and just didn’t sleep and wrote poems on the subway.


Helena de Groot: Mm.


E.J. Koh: You know, I wrote it just like this. It came out like this. You know, there wasn’t an editing and there wasn’t another version of it. So it seemed like, oh, this might have been in me for much longer than I thought.


Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm.


E.J. Koh: But it’s called “To My Mother Kneeling In A Cactus Garden.”




For a month I tried to think of what to say.

How many times you’ve swept a kitchen knife

across your neckline and said, This is how

you end a marriage. How many more wicks you light

for God. I could tell by your eyes you’ve never


seen him. What would you call the feeling

of abandon and caution and relief that keeps me

tethered to you? Let me be the husband

you prayed for, the son you wanted, or mother

who held you. I’ll build your new patio swing


and fold your coffee linens, wash your hardened

feet in warm water. To me, you have become a prison

of its own light. I’ll grow greens and the parsley

you love and wrap them into cold sandwiches.

I will place them where you can reach with ease.


* * *


Helena de Groot: Thank you.


E.J. Koh: I’m so interested to hear about your interaction and engagement with this poem after reading the memoir.


Helena de Groot: Well, the first thing that I noticed is that all of the emotions in the poem seem to find their expression in gestures. “How many times you’ve swept a kitchen knife / across your neckline and said, This is how / you end a marriage”? It’s such a stark image, you know, to sweep a kitchen knife across your neckline. I mean, it tells a whole story, you know, that you then don’t have to tell anymore. I thought that was remarkable. The same thing with the candles being lit at church. “How many more wicks you light / for God. I could tell by your eyes you’ve never / seen him.” It’s so powerful, I think, you know, because we know this look. Someone who really wants to believe, but you can tell that it’s a one-way street, you know? They’ve been thinking about God and they’ve never heard God think about them. I mean, it’s so powerful, it gutted me. Yeah, just the way that you put that in gestures so tiny. And then when the poem takes this turn towards love, right? Like, “Let me be the husband / you prayed for, the son you wanted, or mother / who held you.” Then comes this whole list of gestures, you know, “I’ll build your new patio swing / and fold your coffee linens, wash your hardened / feet in warm water.” Like, these are the gestures of a loving, you know, be it husband, mother, son, you know? “I’ll grow greens and the parsley / you love and wrap them into cold sandwiches. / I will place them where you can reach with ease.” I mean, it gives me shivers just reading it again. You know? (LAUGHS)


E.J. Koh: I know ... to begin with the kitchen knife and to end with reaching for sandwiches in ease. It’s quite a leap. (LAUGHS) I don’t know why I walked that tightrope, it feels like looking over it again after a few years and … I guess that’s what, you know, really drove me, I’d sort of gone mad into poetry, throwing myself at it and then this is … yeah.


Helena de Groot: I have one last question. I wanted to know what your relationship with your mother is like today.


E.J. Koh: My mother is so extraordinary. I call her, but sometimes she’s too busy to pick up the phone, because she loves to sort of travel, get up and go. She loves having fun. And … I don’t know, sometimes I feel like a parent, you know? “Call me when you get in.”


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: “Text me to tell me you’re okay.” If I call her, she wants to hang up so quickly, you know, it’s three minutes. She’s like, “Okay, I gotta go.” I’m like, “Did you eat?” You know?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: Did you ... are you okay? I think our relationship is wonderful, and it’s been created from all of our experiences that we’ve shared, and so we’re … in some way, we switch roles, we change roles. I also feel like she’s my friend. She has this incredible youth to her.


Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm.


E.J. Koh: And so fun, and she’s just a star. She loves to sing, she loves attention, she deserves that attention. And she’s very big. Her energy is enveloping and I always try to make sure that we’re connected in some way.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


E.J. Koh: And also to add to the thread of love, I know that I talk about han quite a bit, and that means I’m researching these stories and histories and interviewing people about trauma, and reading about it. Some of my colleagues ask like, “How can you do this all day? You read these horrific things and incidents all day long, for years. Doesn’t that ever get you down?” you know. And I think, what they don’t realize sometimes is, well, when you interview people about han and trauma, what we’re also talking about constantly is love. When you’re talking about the most horrific things in history and the things this family did to get through it, we’re always talking about love. That’s where the conversation goes almost every time. And I think, you know, jeong is the closest translation for the word “love.” It’s a bond, and it’s another national characteristic and one that I’m really attached to. Because we have han, but through Han, there’s also jeong. And the evidence of han means there’s also the presence of jeong. You just can’t have one without the other. And I think this adventure I’ve been on through the poetry book and memoir and just ... it’s always been between han and jeong in this balancing, seeing, holding, being with it all. Even the most terrible things. Saying yes to that, because that’s saying yes to life.




Helena de Groot: E.J. Koh is the author of the poetry collection A Lesser Love, which won the Pleiades Editors Prize for Poetry, and the memoir The Magical Language of Others. She also received The Virginia Faulkner Award and fellowships from the American Literary Translators Association, the Jack Straw Writers Program, Kundiman, the MacDowell Colony, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and the Vermont Studio Center. Koh is researching English Language and Literature for her PhD at the University of Washington, and she lives in Seattle, Washington with her partner and dog. To find out more, check out her website, The music in this episode is by Todd Sickafoose. I’m Helena de Groot, and this was Poetry Off the Shelf. Thank you for listening.



EJ Koh on distance, broken English, and writing poems that forgive.

More Episodes from Poetry Off the Shelf
Showing 1 to 20 of 443 Podcasts
  1. Tuesday, November 17, 2020

    Creatures of Giving

  2. Tuesday, November 3, 2020

    Start with One Thread

  3. Tuesday, October 6, 2020

    Better Broken Than Whole

  4. Tuesday, September 22, 2020

    No Place Like Home

  5. Tuesday, September 8, 2020

    Words in the Attic

  6. Tuesday, August 25, 2020

    Heroes History Forgets

  7. Tuesday, August 11, 2020

    I Love You, Wanda

  8. Tuesday, July 21, 2020

    The Bureau Under Your Bed

  9. Tuesday, July 7, 2020

    Empire State of Mind

  10. Wednesday, June 3, 2020

    The Fire This Time

  11. Tuesday, May 26, 2020

    I Come From Love

  12. Tuesday, May 12, 2020

    Phillis Reimagined

  13. Tuesday, April 14, 2020

    The Invention of the Self

  14. Tuesday, March 31, 2020

    Our New Reality

  15. Tuesday, March 17, 2020

    Poems You Can Touch

  16. Tuesday, March 3, 2020

    The Eternal Present

  17. Tuesday, February 18, 2020

    The Sovereign Poet

  18. Tuesday, February 4, 2020

    The Truth Sometimes Rhymes

  19. Tuesday, January 21, 2020

    Fragments from the Future

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. 4
    5. 5
    6. 6
  1. Next Page