CEILI

He liked nothing more than slipping out the back of the Ritz Carlton and heading down Nonhyeon-ro, more alley than street, past the small bulgogi restaurant, and winding his way to Gangnam-daero 106, finally arriving on the great avenue, Gangnam-daero. It was buzzing with life at all hours, but in the early evening the Virgin Megastore was quieter. He’d slip in, ignoring the rock blaring on the first floor, the insane K-Pop on two and finally, passing through classical, arriving at the international section tucked away in a third floor corner. He’d rummage for Celtic CDs, certain he’d find things he never could get at home, for while Korea was so greatly influenced by America, Virgin, a good U.K. company, brought its CDs from England and sold them at surprisingly low prices. A bit of the ould sod in Korea, and hey, kimchi was once green right?

SEOUL

The Han river, gray to green
hinting at mud, but roiled
this day, is a keloid scar
across the torso of Seoul,
its suture bridges struggling
to hold the halves together.

Soon it will be dark, the Han
then a no-man’s land, separating
the two Seouls, each certain
it is its own whole, neither
looking north to an always
foreboding step-sibling.

SUNDAY NIGHT

It is almost midnight.
If this was Seoul, the Hilton,
I could walk down the hill
to Namdaeman Market
and wander around the shops
the smell of the city, of pigs heads
simmering in giant caldrons,
fish lying on beds of melting ice
and look at silk and stainless
flatware, watches and celendon
casting its faint green glow
in the fluorescent night,
but it is Virginia and there is
only a 7-Eleven four miles
down the road where I can
pick up a Diet Pepsi
and Hostess Blueberry pie
and stand at the counter
where the County Sheriff
stands talking to the owner
while browsing the Penthouse
magazine kept behind the counter
for long spring nights when
there is little traffic along route 7.

First published in The Iconoclast, Vol. 47 (1998)

INDEPENDENCE DAY

It is Independence Day in Seoul
and I am sitting in my room
in the Ritz Carlton looking
out over closed shops, traffic
moving along the streets
watching CNN and AFKN.
The shops of Namdaemun
are closed, you can walk
the small alleys as vendors
hawk jeans with mis-sewn
Guess labels and T-shirts
from the University of Michigan.
Pietros is crowded
with Koreans waiting on plates
of spaghetti with clams
and shoyu sauce.
A group of police
in starched gray uniforms
nods as we pass, then stare
at thin plumes of black smoke
rising into charcoal clouds
northwest over Yonsei University,
they lift their riot shields
and long black batons
and briskly walk onto the bus
to quell the traitors
for whom unification
must be more than a dream.
Lotte World is silent
in the summer heat.

SEOUL OF A NEW MACHINE

I

Apartment buildings
sprout, neat orderly,
so many headstones
in a cemetery marking
the gravesite of
ancient rural culture.

II

A slow morning
in Itaewon,
for you special deal
finest leather,
best quality gems,
but I prefer
precipitously plunging
prices of Rollex’s
last chance, $6.

III

Apartment building faces
studded with small
satellite dishes
perched carefully
on tiny balconies,
aimed skyward
breaking impenetrable
borders, offering shows
not yet sucked
clean of life,
What’s the frequency
Kenneth?

IV

In the Duty Free Shop
at Walker Hill
clothing and cosmetics
are quoted in dollars,
alcohol in yen.

RIVERSIDE

The great bronze kings
of the Chosun Dynasty
look down from Mount Namsan
over the city, valleys
of small homes, neatly
tiled roofs over
ramshackle walls,
with small gardens
clustered atop
amid clothes drying racks
and cars careening
along narrow streets.
The old woman
wraps the pink towel
around on her scalp
like some garish bun
and lifts the packages
carefully bound
balanced on her head
and trudges slowly down
the cobbled street
to Namdaemun market.
In It’aewon, the man
bent, creaking, lifts
the handle of the old cart
and begins a slow shuffle
up the alley straining
against time and gravity.
They look down from
the mountain at the
great South Gate
and their hanboks
weigh heavier
with the fall of night
while the Han
flows on uncaring.

LATE NIGHT, RITZ CARLTON, SEOUL

A seemingly endless stream
of young Thai men pour
out of room 314
like so many clowns
tumbling out of a miniature
Volkswagen Beetle in the center ring.
They laugh, chattering, lacking
only oversized shoes
to complete the image.
They stand by the elevator
in a contagion of giggles.
After half an hour
they return, toting
cases of Hite and Cass
armed and ready
for another night
dreaming of Bangkok.

ALL MANNER OF THINGS

Outside Itaewon she leans
perpetually forward as though
straining against the gales of life.
Her cane beats a tattoo
on the pavement, as she
drives her bent frame to the bus.
Nearing the door a young man
bustles by, receiving her cane
across his shin for his indiscretion.

Assuming her seat, as though
a throne, she leans her scepter
between her knees, and receives
the supplication of the young man
who approaches with a limp
to honor his elders and seek
absolution from a momentary lapse.
The old man, in hanbok, smiles,
the bus begins its imperceptible crawl
toward the Han, a small raft
lost in the rush hour sea.

AN AFTERNOON SPENT

We sit around a small table
in the YAK Coffee and Beer
on the edge of Namdaemun
listening to loud pop songs
on tinny speakers.
The Hite Beer bottles sweat
dripping on the Formica table
down our backs
the dankness of the subway
clinging to us, bathed
in the smoke from the couples
hunched over coffee, giggling
conspirators plotting the overthrow
of ancient ideas, of hanboks
hung in closets, rice cookers
and kimchi ever present.
We walk past the pig’s heads
arrayed next to slowly rotting fish
and all manner of peppers
and breath deeply
of the bouquet of Seoul.

SEOUL MUSIC

The hardest part of getting old
isn’t the near constant aches and pains
but the senses that slip away,
replaced by an ever deeper truth.
She says to really play the blues
on piano you must have Seoul
and listening to her, you agree,
although you aren’t sure if hers
is Gangnam-gu or Jung-gu, but
the distinction is a fine one,
and she plays with a heart and voice
that you could only hope to find
in Insa-dong, recalling history
and hardship in each note, each run.
It is only later you realize
she said soul, but hers was
forged in Seoul, so it is really
a difference without meaning.