There are no streetlights between the old slaughterhouse and the edge of town. The road that links them feels longer than its few hundred barren meters, proceeding above a rocky slope that ends in channel water—the former landing place of blood and entrails, arriving by chute while dogfish gathered. Six nights per week, a young woman makes her way along this route, tiny phone-light in hand, walking toward the main village on the Greek island of Hydra. Her name is Marina. I’ve known her since she was a child.
Thomas Aquinas prescribed fervent prayer,
and I do pray, but, oddly, a bird has been
my best medicine when I find myself shrunken
and absent, as I do each year as the anniversary
of my son’s death approaches. And so I turn again
to this: a dipper I watched in Zion’s Virgin River.
The flatteries of the surf conspire to make
a stammering innuendo in the reeds.
The sun, splintered by the spume’s refractions,
sinks toward the west where it will disappear
in a violet streak above the evening dunes,
like mind considering the defeat of mind.
A cormorant in the distance breaks the surface
to wrestle a mullet from the sullen depths
farther below which no light penetrates.
The city overwhelmed us. We’d moved to it from a smaller part of the country, fairly rural, though it’s true that even rural parts of the country had by that time much in common with urban centers. In our small town there was a Walmart and high-speed internet and a bar that boasted craft beers from across the region. An intimate and well-known musical venue often featured prominent artists, and, as the woman I lived with always found loudness distasteful, I would attend these shows alone. Being at one, the gathered fans swaying together, made it easy for me to feel like there could be nowhere better. But also, circling the edges of the town, fields ran hundreds of miles in all directions, lush with the green stalks of corn and soy undulating over a landscape that, in winter, shriveled and turned dead, brown, and brittled.
We were happy children. Fear didn’t stop us from doing what we wanted whenever we wanted. The clock had no place in our daily lives, as long as we were armed by play and by the secret weapon of Allah y-saʿdak, that Iraqi phrase that we used as a password to keep the soldiers at bay.
But when it came to rescuing me from the claws of a heart sickness that sent me to the hospital, twenty-nine years after the invasion, the password didn’t work. In truth, I don’t know what struck me. It seemed that my heart could no longer contain the force of all the memories of the days of the invasion, when I was a nine-year-old who spent most of his time playing football or riding a bicycle. The stream of images pushed my heart rate to over 160 irregular beats per minute. As doctors struggled to figure out the reason, I myself was certain of it.
Cho Ji Hoon’s “Sorrow of Phoenix” appeared eleven months before the Pearl Harbor attack in the literary magazine Moonjang in 1940. This poem, along with “Old Fashioned Dress” and “Monk Dance,” published a year earlier, are considered to be among his major works. Born in 1920, Cho Ji Hoon grew up under Japan’s oppressive colonial rule after the demise of Chosun Dynasty in 1910 and has said that the foundation of his poetry was his attachment to what was vanishing from his native culture. He longed for the beauty of traditional Korea.