“The body, made of the earth’s mud and breathed into, is the temple, and we need to learn to worship it as such… And the love for the body and for the earth are the same love.”
—Linda Hogan, “Department of the Interior”
Every day is language and I cannot unsee the poetry. I am the tilled soil, the space between substance, pockets of earth to be filled: with words. My poetry professor said maybe I’m writing so much these days because of longing. Indeed, I long: I see how big this small body can get. The days are long, always ending in a different place than the beginning. Last night, a friend sat on my bed talking about longing eyes, the kind that ask someone to kiss you. I know that gaze; I know how it feels coming from my two pebble eyes. The earth is my beloved, so I guess I’m staring at the concrete that way, or squinting at the sun that way, or looking at you that way if we happen to pass on the sidewalk.
When I write, everything comes back to the body. Body as in my body and soul and internality, body as in communities of artists, and body as the land that holds us—the land that humans have taken so much from and need to love. Writing is a means to engage with and tend to these bodies. How can I serve my language, liberate it from the white supremacy embedded in our literary education? In an essay on poetry that engages with the archive, Philip Metres confronts a creative maxim I’d heard but never took the time to question: “The modernist notion that ‘good artists borrow, but great artists steal’ cannot but sound like rationalizing exploitation and colonizing, given the modernist backdrop of European empire. So many disciplined, disappeared, and dismembered bodies.” I never wanted to take. Like my mom rolling rice in sesame oil for my lunch box, I came here to give. Like unbaked bread sitting in the dark, I came to grow. Like stomata, eyes, the moon—I wanted to open and close in time with everything else.
I am so used to performing: academia asks me to engage in methods that are restricted by patriarchy and ableism. I identify more as an artist than an academic; I favor creation over criticism and expression over analysis. In a transactional world of production and consumption, I seek the depth and contradiction of the creation process. When I expand what I see in my writing, I write of my own expansiveness. When I honor animals or the sea, I honor the animal I am, the sea of my body. I honor language because it makes us resilient and loving in a world dominated by loveless systems. How do we deal with the grief of a global pandemic and the climate crisis? How do we grapple with the toll of this loveless world? Poetry, primarily—I mean poetry as words, but also people and community—is the main thing I live for. I make offerings to language and feed myself at its altar.
Do we go a day without mourning? Do we deserve to? I eat, sleep, and laugh on the grounds of genocide and learn at an institution built by slave labor. My poetry emerges from the urgent questions of how to still love, how to trust? How to live? As a Korean American woman, I wrestle with the people and places that reject and/or appropriate this body. In her theory of ornamentalism, scholar Anne Cheng talks about the yellow woman’s body as a liminal space between human and object, body and machine, wilderness and civility. Interested in reclamation, I explore the liminality of my body—in desire, animality, autonomy. I am a passage. I am smaller and dumber than an orca. My words are one granule of rice, the smallest scale of sustenance. This is all I have right now. I am wringing it out of me, for you.
How to say this? Everything hurts right now. Everything is beautiful. This is the kind of head spinning that makes a fifteen-minute walk across campus feel like fifteen hours. Time dances strangely, so pain from childhood crashes into me when I’m sitting in the backyard and I just wanted to look at some trees. How to say this? I’m lonely in an exciting way. There is no membrane between my body and the earth; it’s the kinship of mud on mud.
Yet sisterhood fails because we keep abusing the earth; we are a species of genocide and domination. I would have done better for the world as a rock, a body of grounding, a body that erodes cooperatively with the tide. With bigots and state violence and a pandemic and species annihilation, the world’s axis leans toward death. Within this body, love is always ending in some way, and I try to honor love but don’t know if I can keep up with all I have to mourn.
Here are mud words from this mud body. Mud, of course, being anything it wants to be: shit, or chocolate cake, or a clay pot before it’s fired. Everything of the earth has a memory of life, and energy flows between the elements. Words, too, transfer energy and attention between themselves. They model community and cohesion, friction and movement. In my words and in my life, I don’t want to leave anything behind. We eat everything on the plate. We hollow out wine bottles. We gather scraps of unused clay and wet them to be shaped again. Immigrants and their children save bags and containers and scallion roots because we see the life in everything—to be repurposed, revived. We do not get comfortable with the sensation of wasteful power and disposal because we are not our colonizers.
In the last months of 2020, I quarantined in suburban Delaware with a close friend from high school. The town was forestry and we shared the backyard with deer, only leaving the neighborhood to go on hikes. We cooked all our meals—breakfast burritos, kimchi fried rice, homemade whipped cream with berries—and delivered food to elderly neighbors. Both young women of color and writers, we created community within ourselves, and in the quiet living, we found energy and love.
I keep coming back to that time, romanticizing it. You know I’m that way: When a softness appears, I cling to it. I make it a thousand softnesses. Maybe it’s childish or deceptive, but I think that’s one of the least dangerous things we can do with words: Play. Find safety again. All this to say, I’m small. I’m young, I’m yellow. I think it’s important that I’m happy. I’m not asking for language to immortalize us, but to save us from ourselves. I don’t want my body carved into a marble statue because all I have is borrowed. Hold this body of mud. Next time the rain comes, I want to be close to earth.