Suji Kwock Kim's "The Korean Community Garden in Queens"

Thoughts on seeing life and paradise as one.

The Korean Community Garden in Queens

In the vacant lot nobody else wanted to rebuild,
dirt scumbled for years with syringes and dead
weed-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 survived,
like their gardeners, ripped from their native
plot. What is it that 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 and 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 burred 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

seems 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 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, see life and paradise as one.

from Notes from the Divided Country (LSU Press, 2002)

This is the final poem in Suji Kwock Kim’s collection Notes from the Divided Country, which, in contrast to today’s poem’s length, contains some remarkable short poems, like this lovely, zany one:

Drunk Metaphysics

after Ko Un

I’ve never been one soul.

Sixty trillion cells stagger

zigzag down the street,

laughing, trash-talking, quarreling,

singing-crying, living-dying.

Sixty trillion cells—all drunk!

Today’s poem is, on a craft level, an exercise in sustained attention. It resists any possible urge to depart from its speaker’s gaze, and instead it builds a relentless kind of momentum borne from witness. Even the questions that appear throughout the poem aren’t attempts to look away. Rather, they poke at the meaning that might be found as a result of noticing, and then the speaker looks back into the garden again. Notice the first question and the lines that follow:

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.

The question serves as a brief pause, a kind of wondering, and then is immediately followed by an even more intense kind of scrutiny. We move further inside the garden, into more names and more images. It is through such staying-power that the poem begins to linger itself into meaning, building the connective tissue between images — much like a root system underneath the ground. The poem stays in one place and reaches outward and inward and downward and upward. It’s a beautiful enactment of the way in which a poem can be a kind of garden. In Richard Powers’ novel, The Overstory, he writes:

If we could see green, we’d see a thing that keeps getting more interesting the closer we get. If we could see what green was doing, we’d never be lonely or bored. 

The poem does the same thing Powers gets at in that passage. It begins to see green, to be green, to build its meaning from green. It’s there in the language, the music of verbs and images. Fist to first with tulips. Gnarl of azaleas. Knuckles of ginger and mugwort. Green buds suck and bulge. There’s a rich density to these phrases — and so many more — that feels like green itself. Not just like looking into a forest or underbrush, but literally being within and among it. From such enactment of bounty, meaning begins to emerge. Or, if not meaning, something approaching truth. Notice this moment:

Planted by immigrants they survived,
like their gardeners, ripped from their native
plot. What is it that they want, driving and driving

toward a foreign sky? How not to mind the end
we’ll come to.

For all the images and descriptions of violence that populate the opening of Kim’s poem — “Spear-tips” that “spar and glint” — there emerges a reason: pure survival, a need to simply live. And not just live, but live with full knowledge of “the end / we’ll come to.” It’s violence repurposed. The way, sometimes, pushing and shoving can be a kind of joy — a mosh pit of sorts (which, in my limited experience, have been simultaneously the most violent and gentle places I’ve ever found myself a part of). The violence of this poem is a part of these plants “strangely” becoming themselves, being at once “various” and intertwined in their search for light. Forever snarled and selved together. There’s real joy there.

I’m struck, too, by Kim’s line break above, separating native from plot, which draws the reader’s attention to the many meanings of the word plot. Plot calls to mind death, obviously, but also life in the form of narrative. Indeed, the word means both. It has its origins in map-making and planning, which makes sense if you think of narrative as a string of plotted waypoints on a map of time. As such, to divorce someone from their native plot — which is the consequence of every attempt of colonization — is to take away both life and death. You rip someone from their known plot of origin, which is full of the many possible plots and destinations and hopes that come with a culture, a family, and a place, and, at the same time, you rip them from their known or expected plot of death and place them within an unknown map, one that contains both life and death, but renders both unfamiliar. You force someone to live and die in another place.

I think I’ve found myself drawn to today’s poem, reading and re-reading it, because I’ve been reading Ben Ehrenreich’s Desert Notebooks, a curious and tangential and big-hearted book about time, the desert, death, and more. In it, he writes about one of the oldest living beings on the planet, a creosote bush known as King Clone. He writes:

After a few decades, the individual branches of any given creosote begin to lose their leaves and die, but new stems, clones of the original, sprout from the roots that extend around the plant in a circle underground. What appears to be a ring of separate bushes is hence a single organism and though any of its visible branches may only be ten or fifty or eighty years old, the plant may have been alive for millennia. The wider the circle, the older the creosote.

Later, he does the same work as Kim, and wonders about meaning:

This is perhaps a more useful way to think about the shape of time — not as a line or an arrow or a circle or a spiral, but something living, a circle that expands out of sight, invisible roots that grow and grow even as the parts we can see die off. “The world is always new,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin, “however old its roots.”

Here’s King Clone (fuck yeah):

This bush — 67 feet in diameter — is its own exercise in sustained collective-building and attention. I think, if I were my younger self, and you showed me a picture of this bush and told me it was one of the oldest beings on the planet, I would’ve said that’s it? And scoffed or something. Threw the photo on the ground. But now, not much older, but older enough, I find something remarkably beautiful in the way the plant in the picture above has been growing for 12,000 years, and the way 12,000 years of growth can look like that: the slow, sustained, intertwined effort of gently reaching outward together, from the same place. It reminds me of how, later in his book, Ehrenreich writes:

I think it was A. who told me that it can take one hundred years for lichens to cover a single inch of stone.

This is why I love Kim’s insistence to linger — or, if lichen could be a verb, to lichen — within this poem. I notice it when she writes:

Lately every time I walk down this street to look
through the fence, I’m surprised by something new.

There is a desire at the heart of this poem to do the same work of plants — to root oneself in the same place and allow oneself to be surprised, to witness, to learn, to watch, to love. It’s a reason why, on a craft level, this poem’s length is part of its beauty and wonderment. I could imagine some ungenerous reader asking why is this so long, why all of this detail, why not get to the point? To that, I’d answer: the not-getting-to-the-point is part of the point. The refusal to make a point is part of the point. The slowness. The accumulation of imagery, the way a garden at once overwhelms you like a song, until you linger long enough to discern each individual instrument. Part of the length of this poem is the way it shows how it often takes a kind of slowness to be surprised. The way surprise itself is so often just the ordinary seen in a new light, or at a new speed. And the way the ordinary, then, is not just the ordinary, but something beautiful. And, like most beautiful things, there’s a Ross Gay line for that: the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.

It is also the length of this poem that allows us as readers to experience the possibility of meeting the poem’s end with the kind of grace it deserves.

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, see life and paradise as one.

These final lines are remarkable in the way they transform the poem into a prayer. Part of the joy of this poem is feeling the humanness of it — that very desire to make meaning out of something, but not just any meaning, rather, some applicable meaning. Something transferrable, or reproduceable. But the poem resists that sort of meaning making — and again, I’m thinking of Ross Gay: the logics of delight interrupt the logics of capitalism — and instead forces itself to stay, to notice without killing, to ask without always answering. The result of this lingering is the final few lines, which take the form not of an answer, but of a simple, grace-filled ask — to see life and paradise as one.

What fucking joy in this. What love. What a beautiful way to describe a garden: an enactment of not just life, but also resistance. Resistance of expansion, resistance of colonization, resistance of escapism, resistance of speed, resistance of needless growth. And a garden enacts not just resistance, but also embrace. Embrace of strangeness. Embrace of being, yeah, just a little bit scathed. Embrace of mingling. Embrace of neighboring. Embrace of a little bit of chaos, and a lotta bit of light.

And maybe that, too, is why I feel so drawn to this poem as of late. It’s no surprise — or maybe it is — that the world embraces so much of what the garden in Kim’s poem resists, and resists so much of what the garden embraces. I feel a deep sorrow saying such a thing. A profound one, actually. Because it feels obvious to point out, and because, since it is obvious, it feels too earnest, and since it is earnest, it feels like I’ll find myself years or decades older, feeling a little crazy for saying such a thing while the world continues to embrace what it embraces. At some point, I imagine, the circumstances of the world — or of a life — make it such that the choice to value individualism over collectivism feels almost necessary for one’s sanity. It’s a mean trick of modern life, of capitalism, of so much that values what is not a garden. There’s too much hypocrisy to point out, and to spend a life pointing out hypocrisy is to spend a life existing in a world where everything feels, so often, like too much.

To see life and paradise as one is a profound way to say that this is it. That this is all we have. That this place is not particularly Edenic, or eternal. That it’s filled with both delight and loss. What do you do when you know something or someone is going away? You visit one last time, don’t you? And you stay as long as you can. You stay even if it feels hard. More people come, too. And you hold hands, or talk together. You notice the lines on someone’s face, or the way a building stands against the sky. You notice so much. You tell a story about that one time. And another. And another. And you linger. You linger there for what feels like forever. Maybe you say I wish. Or I love. Maybe you say these words more than once. Over and over again. You take a long time saying goodbye. You take all night. You don’t want to leave. You don’t want to go back, back into that world that exists after goodbye. You want to stay for as long as you can. You want to live in that place where loss is happening but hasn’t happened yet. That’s here. That’s where we are.