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Notes from the Divided Country

September 15, 2022

This is the final poem in Suji Kwock Kim’s collection Notes from the Divided Country

Suji Kwock Kim won the 2002 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets for her first book of poetry, Notes from the Divided Country, selected by Yusef Komunyakaa. 

The Korean Community Garden in Queens
by Suji/Sue Kwock Kim


In the vacant lot nobody else bothered to rebuild,
dirt scumbled for years with syringes and dead
week-husks, tire-shreds and smashed beer bottles,
the first green shoots of spring spike through—

bullbrier, redroot, pokeweed, sowthistle,
an uprising of grasses whose only weapons are themselves.
Blades slit through scurf. Spear-tips spit dust
as if thrust from the other side. They spar and glint.

How far will they climb, grappling for light?
Inside I see coils of fern-bracken called kosari,
bellflower cuts named toraji in the old country.
Knuckles of ginger and mugwort dig upward,

shoving through mulched soil until they break
the surface. Planted by immigrants they survive,
like their gardeners, ripped from their native
plot. What is it they want, driving and driving

toward a foreign sky? How not to mind the end
we’ll come to. I imagine the garden underground,
where gingko and ailanthus grub cement rubble.
They tunnel slag for foothold. Wring crumbs of rot

for water. Of shadows, seeds foresung as Tree
of Heaven & Silver Apricot in ancient Mandarin,
their roots tangle now with plum or weeping willow,
their branches mingling with tamarack or oak.

I love how nothing in these furrows grows unsnarled,
nothing stays unscathed. How last year’s fallen stalks,
withered to pith, cleave to this year’s crocus bulbs,
each infant knot blurred with bits of garbage or tar.

Fist to fist with tulips, iris, selving and unselving
glads, they work their metamorphoses in loam
pocked with rust-flints, splinters of rodent-skull—
a ground so mixed, so various that everything

is born of what it’s not. Who wouldn’t want
to flower like this? How strangely they become
themselves, this gnarl of azaleas and roses of Sharon,
native to both countries, blooming as if drunk

with blossoming. Green buds suck and bulge.
Stem-nubs thicken. Sepals swell and crack their cauls.
Lately every time I walk down this street to look
through the fence, I’m surprised by something new.

Yesterday hydrangea and chrysanthemums burst
their calyxes, corolla-skins blistering into welts.
Today jonquils slit blue shoots from their sheaths.
Tomorrow day-lilies and wild-asters will flame petals,

each incandescent color unlike: sulfur, blood, ice,
coral, fire-gold, violet the hue of shaman robes—
every flower with its unique glint or slant, faithful
to each particular. All things lit by what they neighbor

but are not, each tint flaring without a human soul,
without human rage at its passing. In the summer
there will be scallions, mung-beans, black sesame,
muskmelons, to be harvested into buckets and sold

at market. How do they live without wanting to live
forever? May I, and their gardeners in the old world,
who kill for warring dreams and warring heavens,
who stop at nothing, say life and paradise are one

In 2002 her poems were set to music by the Mayako Kubo and the Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus, which premiered in Berlin and Tokyo in 2007.

Historical Background Information to the Poem

Evergreen Community Garden Queens– is a five-acre community garden in a predominantly Korean neighborhood in Flushing, Queens, with nearly 300 garden plots.

Evergreen Community Garden Queens – before the elderly Korean immigrants took over the park in 1982, it was a forgotten and overgrown site of a 19th-century railroad amid a scramble of middle-class row houses.

“For many of these seniors, gardens and senior centers become very, very precious.” – Ms. Yoon

“The act of cultivating and growing something, like squash or cucumbers, it reminds them of their homeland, it’s a lifeline. It’s critical to their emotional and mental health.” – Ms. Yoon

“The fight over the garden touches on these generational and cultural issues” – Kyung Yoon, executive director of the Korean American Community Foundation

Home to one of the largest concentrations of Koreans in the country, Flushing contains more than half of the city’s poor Korean-Americans, according to the Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit New York-based policy think tank. The center also says that 94% of Korean seniors in Flushing struggle with English.

Born: 1969 in the United States Suji Kwock Kim was educated at Yale College; Notes from the Divided Country was published in 2003. Her work has been performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus, recorded for NPR, BBC Radio, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Free Genoa and Radio Free Amsterdam, and translated into Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, Croatian, Korean, Japanese, Bengali and Arabic.

The consciousness of the power and pain that comes with language is ever present in her discourse, where the barrier between body and word is often uncertain. Her work is relevant in both academic and artistic circles. She is also co-author of Private Property a multimedia show that has been featured in BBC-TV.

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