NEA Literature Fellowships

Sue Kwock Kim

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(2001 - Poetry)

Monologue for an Onion

I don't mean to make you cry.
I mean nothing, but this has not kept you
From peeling away my body, layer by layer,

The tears clouding your eyes as the table fills
With husks, cut flesh, all the debris of pursuit.
Poor deluded human: you seek my heart.

Hunt all you want. Beneath each skin of mine
Lies another skin: I am pure onion-- pure union
Of outside and in, surface and secret core.

Look at you, cutting and weeping. Idiot.
Is this the way you go through life, your mind
A stopless knife, driven by your fantasy of truth,

Of lasting union-- slashing away skin after skin
From things, ruin and tears your only signs
Of progress? Enough is enough.

You must not grieve that the world is glimpsed
Through veils. How else can it be seen?
How will you rip away the veil of the eye, the veil

That you are, you who want to grasp the heart
Of things, who want to know where meaning
Lies. Taste what you hold in your hands: onion juice,

Yellow peels, my stinging shreds. You are the one
In pieces. Whatever you meant to love, in meaning to
You changed yourself: you are not who you are,

Your soul cut moment to moment by a blade
Of fresh desire, the soil strewn with abandoned skins.
And at your inmost circle, what? A core that is

Not one. Poor fool, you are divided at the heart,
Lost in its maze of chambers, blood, and love,
A heart that will one day beat you to death.


There is no need to keep
humiliating me: even you must feel
these stubble-fields are slashed enough,
crags glinting blackly like sockets
burned bare, blood-glitter of mud,
wind galloping across the torn, steaming soils.
But you cannot know
what terror is, to be trapped inside the dirt
without a voice, thirsty roots
thrusting toward air, shoving aside
rock-rung and gorse--; nor can you feel
this ecstasy of the earth,
the wild ore tearing through
its throat of stone, erupting from soil-silence
like the moment my voice first
hurls me, astonished and stinging, into the acid light.

*Hwajon is Korean for "fire-field." During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-45), rural homelessness rose drastically and many peasants were forced into vagrancy, resorting to slash-and-burn farming in the mountains.

Real Audio"Monologue for an Onion" read by the author

Sue Kwock Kim's work has appeared in Poetry, Paris Review, The Nation, The New Republic, Yale Review, Salmagundi, Threepenny Review, Ploughshares, New England Review, Southwest Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Harvard Review and other journals. She is a former Fulbright Scholar, and received The Nation/"Discovery" Award as well as grants from the Korea Foundation, the Blakemore Foundation for Asian Studies, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the New York Foundation for the Arts and Washington State Artist Trust. Private Property, a multimedia play she co-wrote, was produced at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and featured on BBC-TV. Currently she is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Author's Statement

I'm deeply grateful to the NEA for this fellowship. It's a great honor, not to mention a much-needed source of financial support. I hope the NEA continues to support the many other writers out there who work hard and deserve recognition.

I'm planning to use the fellowship to do research in Asia, necessary to the completion of my first book, Notes from the Divided Country. Among other things, it explores my family's life in North and South Korea during the last century, particularly the War (1950-1953) and the Japanese occupation (1910-1945). Although the Korean War has been called the Forgotten War, it's a historical narrative relatively well-known in the West, while the Japanese colonization of Korea is not. During the "forced-assimilation" years (naisen ittai) in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Japanese government mobilized Koreans into slave-labor camps and banned all forms of cultural or political expression considered nationalistic, including the Korean language itself. I hope to honor my family's memory the only way I know how: by imagining and giving voice, however subjectively, to what they lived through and witnessed.