Joan Kwon Glass, author of How to Make Pancakes For a Dead Boy (Harbor Editions, 2022,) was a finalist for the 2021 Lumiere Review Writing Contest & serves as Poet Laureate (2021-2025) for the city of Milford, Connecticut. She is a biracial Korean American who holds a B.A. & M.A.T. from Smith College, is Poetry Co-Editor for West Trestle Review & Poetry Reader for Rogue Agent. Her poems have recently been published or are forthcoming in Korean Quarterly, Kissing Dynamite, trampset, Rust & Moth, Rattle, Mom Egg, SWWIM, Honey Literary, Lumiere Review, Lantern Review, Literary Mama, Barnstorm & others and her work has been featured on Wednesday Night Poetry, T.S. Press Every Day Poems, and Saturday Series: Poetry as it Ought to be. Since 2018, Joan has been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize. She tweets @joanpglass.
DEAR GHOSTS OF
JEJU UPRISING, 1948
It’s been forty years since you died resisting Korea’s division.
I am spending the summer of '88 here on the island with my grandmother
where tobacco-chewing 아저씨 sell red bean popsicles and melon ice cream
beneath hagyul trees and hiking enthusiasts climb Mount Hallasan.
I wander the beaches where since the Dark Ages pearl divers
have held their breath and submerged themselves in the Pacific,
retrieved what they found to sell or eat to keep their families alive.
When I grow tired of 오징어, abalone and rice
my grandmother finds a place that sells American food
and I gorge on pizza and plain hamburgers, tiny cans of Sprite
which Koreans always sip with a straw,
but I pour down my throat like an American.
From our room at the Hyatt I drift to sleep each night
as my grandmother says her Christian prayers aloud in the bed next to me,
as the lily-scented warm wind outside my open window
perfumes my dreams of silver boats floating near the horizon.
I know only a few phrases in Korean:
that hurts/ may I please have strawberries/ I don’t understand.
My grandmother knows only hello and goodbye, yes and no.
One day I teach her to say fish but because in Korean there is no letter “f,”
it sounds like peesh. When I giggle at her she says it again
and we go on like that for a while, me trying to teach her
and she saying pish, peesh, pish, both of us laughing
until our eyes brim with saltwater.
Today, a guide leads tourists by Doteul cave.
In 1948 you hid here for sixty days, decided you’d had enough of war,
mostly farmers caught between sides, determined
to no longer belong to anyone but each other.
Ghosts of Jeju: if you could speak and I could understand you,
what would you say? Would you say hello, say it hurts, say pish
over and over until the boats cross the horizon, until I dream myself
into the cave where your moon-white bones stand together still,
in our still-divided country, wailing, roaring NO in every language.
HYMN TO CHURCH BASEMENTS
This world loves a grand cathedral:
its righteousness and pulpit,
purported sanctuary of redemption,
holy spire & stilled saints,
history of fire & painted glass.
Pews where congregants pray & worship,
troubled by questions they hope someone
has answers to.
They wait on their knees to be forgiven.
But where are the songs of praise
for church basements?
That lower level, that rock bottom room
sunken & reverent with flickering lights,
water-stained ceilings & coffee-stained carpets,
its full moon of chairs that appear
every night at 8:00 because a crackhead
made a commitment?
People don’t kneel in church basements.
Instead, we squat against walls
& stand arms crossed in doorways.
We sit slouched & messy, look each other in the eyes
say, I am an addict and I don’t want to die
& oh God, is this not a kind of miracle?
I prefer my angels banged up & salty,
chubby from eating cookies instead of shooting dope.
They pull splinters from their wings,
hug the newcomer too tightly,
shake their heads at me when I don’t raise my hand to share.
No matter how tough I try to look, no matter how long it takes,
they say keep coming back kid.
Tonight, the addict who overdosed last month,
the one who had to be revived with Narcan,
is making the coffee.
Who decides what is sacred?
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF DOPE
Remember that book Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs?
The one that imagines a world made of food?
Envision instead a world built for addicts:
houses framed with pills instead of sill, joists, and studs.
City water, seeped in Xanax.
We bathe in it, cook with it, drink a gallon a day.
Birthday cakes with morphine frosting,
collections of crack pipes on shelves instead of snow globes,
trees with Fentanyl bark, eight ball orchards,
volcanoes brimming with hallucinogenic lava.
Roads, walls, and floors all lined with Suboxone wrappers,
cellars and wells and gutters, piled high with needles.
In winter, window sills dusted with dope instead of snow,
dope bursting from stamen instead of pollen as spring comes around.
We buy bags of dope at the garden store in June,
mix dope with our barbeque sauce, make salve for bee stings
with dope, and when fall comes, we dip s’mores in dope.
A rusty, hazy powder laces everything we touch,
weeps from the sky as our children play,
enshrouds tombstones and hospitals and cathedrals,
replaces the air we breathe.
It’s still not enough.
Someone starts a Go Fund Me, writes in the tagline:
donate your dope to help out your neighbor,
he just needs enough to feel alive.
STILL LIFE WITH EXTENDED RELEASE MORPHINE
When I ran out of Oxy I’d dig out the morphine
tucked behind the tampons and unopened bars of soap.
This was for emergencies only: moments of dread
when I knew I had only a few hours until symptoms
of withdrawal would begin:
sweating and chills, panic attack, restless legs.
These extended release pills didn’t really get you high
and you had to break apart the protective coating
the drug was encased in, put there by pharmaceutical companies
to prevent people from crushing it, to say they did
what they could to save people’s lives.
I held each capsule between my thumbs ad
forefingers, loosened its skin and twisted it open
until the beads dropped out and onto the counter.
Then I unwrapped my tweezers and nail scissors
and went to work severing and dissecting each bead
until the miniscule speck appeared.
With tweezers I’d lift them into a separate pile,
set aside just enough to keep me from detoxing,
then try to crush it all with a credit card.
Without making a sound, without losing any of it.
I sneezed once while still preparing it
and the morphine scattered into the sink,
in my hair, across the floor, behind the toilet.
I told my husband I had a stomach virus
and spent hours on the floor with my tweezers
picking them up until my eyes burned from the strain.
I thought of Horton Hears a Who, imagined voices
coming from the tiles, the toilet lid, the pipes.
I wish an artist had captured this scene:
me on my hands and knees, searching for dots
of morphine on a toilet seat. I’d hang it on the wall
so the next time my daughter asks why I still go to 12-step meetings
after so many years, I could point to the oil rendering, say
THIS is why.
SURVIVOR IS MOST STARTLED OF ALL
— After an AP article by the same name on 7/16/95 about the Sampoong Department Store collapse
Sampoong Department Store, Seoul, 1995.
Building collapsed due to faulty structure and negligence,
pressure to ride the economic high of the 80’s. 502 people perished.
The worst peacetime disaster in the nation’s history.
My aunt, the one who French-braided my hair every summer,
whose temper all the men in our family feared
the one who reminded me of a steel swan,
died that day while shopping for perfume and shoes.
Her body was never recovered.
People cannot survive 16 days without water
and yet someone did: Park, Sung-Hyon,
19-year old sales clerk, was rescued after lying deep
in the rubble facedown. After warning the rescue worker
that she’d wiggled out of her clothes, she demanded he look away
from her naked body. She asked for her mother,
then wanted to know: what happened to the others?
My cousins and I later scattered throughout America:
California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut.
Mee-Kyung whose mother died at Sampoong
had lost her father to cancer the year before.
She reached out to me from L.A. in the days
after my nephew took his life, what happened?
she wanted to know.
Sometimes I can still see my aunt standing behind me,
unusually tall for a Korean woman, bent over the top
of my head, pulling my hair back tight against my scalp.
Years later, in rehab, I wore my hair like that every day.
I wanted to answer Mee-Kyung but I also wanted to ask her:
does she ever wonder how we made it this far?
The article goes on to state of the miraculous survivor
who went on living unremarkably into the future:
of all those who were astonished by her survival
no one was more amazed than her.