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Poetry

The Cupboard with Strawberry Jam

By Lee Hyemi
Translated from Korean by Soje
A sensuous prose poem from South Korean poet Lee Hyemi​.

We stood on our tiptoes and fumbled around the top shelf for a taste of those red, red things. With mouths dyed red, we felt like a pair of nipples.

Sister, we must be a cleverly split person. The morning we wore the disheveled green crowns of strawberries and spoke of our first wet dreams under the covers. We laid a chewy seed in every pore, growing recklessly private and gradually tender. In the kingdom for two who sway inside translucent jelly.

If I had a spare season, I would’ve rushed to whisper vulgar words like a bird with a disappearing beak and gifted you, Sister, the sweetest song on the verge of rot. I would’ve squished the all-pink rainbow and called over the morning owl with the strange joy of guilt.

Feeling like there was more to hide now as the sweet stickiness dripped down between my fingers. If I had another pair of lips, another pair of thin mucous membranes, we would’ve been able to talk about the flavors that deepen as they’re mixed together.

But today, simply with our arms spread wide, we experienced our ruddiness of old. Of the days when we loved what was still hidden and sweet.


From
Unexpected Vanilla (Moonji Publications, 2016). © Lee Hyemi. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2019 by Soje. All rights reserved.

Read Bios Context Explore Teaching Ideas

We stood on our tiptoes and fumbled around the top shelf for a taste of those red, red things. With mouths dyed red, we felt like a pair of nipples.

Sister, we must be a cleverly split person. The morning we wore the disheveled green crowns of strawberries and spoke of our first wet dreams under the covers. We laid a chewy seed in every pore, growing recklessly private and gradually tender. In the kingdom for two who sway inside translucent jelly.

If I had a spare season, I would’ve rushed to whisper vulgar words like a bird with a disappearing beak and gifted you, Sister, the sweetest song on the verge of rot. I would’ve squished the all-pink rainbow and called over the morning owl with the strange joy of guilt.

Feeling like there was more to hide now as the sweet stickiness dripped down between my fingers. If I had another pair of lips, another pair of thin mucous membranes, we would’ve been able to talk about the flavors that deepen as they’re mixed together.

But today, simply with our arms spread wide, we experienced our ruddiness of old. Of the days when we loved what was still hidden and sweet.


From
Unexpected Vanilla (Moonji Publications, 2016). © Lee Hyemi. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2019 by Soje. All rights reserved.

Lee Hyemi

Photo of Author Lee Hyemi

Lee Hyemi is the author of Ultraviolet (Changbi Publishers, 2011) and Unexpected Vanilla (Moonji Publications, 2016). At eighteen, she was one of the youngest winners of the JoongAng Literary Newcomer’s Prize. She is currently a PhD student in Korean literature at Korea University. Her poems, translated into English, have been published in Modern Poetry in TranslationAsymptote, and Korean Literature Now.

Soje

Translator Soje

Soje is translator of Lee Hyemi’s Unexpected Vanilla (Tilted Axis Press, 2020), Lee Soho’s Catcalling (Open Letter Books, 2021), and Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon (Honford Star, 2021). They also make chogwa, a quarterly e-zine featuring one Korean poem and multiple English translations.

Meet Lee Hyemi

“What we used to never question is already changing, you know?” Find out Lee Hyemi’s thoughts on Korean stereotypes, made-up words, and sexual violence in this conversation with the poem’s translator, Soje.

Speak Korean? Watch a Korean-language interview in which Lee Hyemi, an avid scuba diver, explains what poetry and scuba diving have in common.

Meet Translator Soje

Find out why Soje planned to spend the winter of 2021 in “hibernation” in an interview with Asymptote.

Then, find out why they later changed the English word “sister” in this poem to a different one in the essay “Not Exactly a Sister.”

Hear the Poem

Watch Lee Hyemi read “The Cupboard . . . ” in the original Korean in this video from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.

You can also hear Soje, the translator, read the poem in English.

A Scholar's Notes

Read what Brother Anthony of Taizé writes about this poem—and about queer history in Korea—in his introduction to Korean literature:

 

. . . It is only recently that a few courageous Korean writers have begun to depict non-heteronormative love. In Korea, conformity to traditional social norms is greatly valued; not so long ago, young men and women were not even allowed to hold hands in public. There was no place for homosexual themes in mainstream literature. In contrast, strong platonic friendship was always possible between members of the same sex, whereas the gay community still encounters strong opposition.

Even today, there are few female writers, and even fewer male writers, who have dared to come out. The inclusion . . . of the poem “The Cupboard with Strawberry Jam” by Lee Hyemi is an attempt to include this still largely closeted world. In the veiled but vivid symbolism of “The Cupboard,” we witness the emergence of a new language, coded to evoke lesbian experience.

"A Cleverly Split Person"

In the second stanza of this poem, the speaker tells her lover, “we must be a cleverly split person.” What does this mean?

 

 

Translator Soje explains in the essay “Not Exactly a Sister”:

 

 

 

 

This playful observation likely borrows from the theory of soulmates passed down from Aristophanes to Hedwig and the Angry Inch: humans were once all two-faced, four-legged, etc. until a vengeful Zeus ordered them to be severed, leaving them forever in search of their other halves. Except Lee Hyemi’s choice of words is much less violent and feels to me like the lovers are somehow tricking the system for a sensual treat of their own.

 

 

Watch a short video on Plato’s creation myth, which explains why being in love can help us to feel whole:

 

Being Queer in South Korea
An image of rainbow light falling on a hand, by Yingchih on Unsplash.

Meet the marchers at the 20th Seoul Queer Parade, including high school student Sun-hyung, college student Sanghwa, and CEO Bumbie, in this feature from Vice.

Then, find out why the queer community is finding lots of allies in K-pop in this article from the Korea Herald and the Jakarta Post.

Anton Hur on Queer Korean Writing and Translation

“What’s with all the queers in Korean literary translation?” Find out in this essay by Anton Hur, whose translation of a short story will soon appear in this unit. Here, he writes:

Queer people and translators are more often than not invisible, but we are, more often than not, here.

Then, read Hur’s “How to Write Queer Korean Lit: A Manual,” which begins with the question: “What if I told you that one of the first works of modern Korean fiction was a queer short story?”

Background on Korea
Street painting in Seoul, by leifbr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0. Access at https://flic.kr/p/G4ggkp.

New to learning about Korea? Read a short profile of modern Korea from the BBC, or a more detailed, historical profile from the Asia Society.

For a quick trip through 2,000 years of Korean history, watch the video “All Korean kingdoms explained in less than 5 minutes.”

 

More from the Author
The cover of Lee Hyemi’s Unexpected Vanilla

Read more poems from the collection where “The Cupboard . . .” appeared in English, Lee Hyemi’s Unexpected Vanilla, in Korean Literature Now and Asymptote. (The translator’s name is slightly different here.)

Then, read multiple translations of Lee Hyemi’s poem “Space Boy Wearing Skirt” and listen to the poet read it aloud on Modern Poetry in Translation.  (The poet and translator’s names are spelled differently here.)

Finally, read an issue of the translator Soje’s zine Chogwa, featuring multiple translations of a single poem from Lee Hyemi (PDF).

More from the Translator

Look at Soje’s Twitter post featuring their visual associations with Lee Hyemi’s Unexpected Vanilla, the book in which “The Cupboard . . . ” appeared:

(To hear Soje read some other poems from Unexpected Vanilla, visit their Instagram Live chat.)

Read other translations and find out about upcoming events on smokingtigers.com and Chogwa Zine, a unique online magazine “featuring one Korean poem & multiple English translations.”

More from the Author and Translator

Watch a video set to Lee Hyemi’s reading of “Taste of Wings,” also translated by Soje.

The video was produced by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. For more poems and videos of work from Hyemi and Soje, visit “A Taste of Unexpected Vanilla” on the AAWW website.

More Korean Women Writers

Left to right: Lee Hyemi, Oh Jung-hee, and Koo Byung-mo. Photo of Oh Jung-hee courtesy of Korean Literature Now, the world’s only free English-language quarterly of Korean literature.

For many more Korean women writers, see this list from smokingtigers.com.
More on Being Queer in South Korea—and Around the World

The 2015 Pride parade in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Simon Williams-Im on flickr.

Find out about queer life and rights in South Korea—and how both of these changed during the Covid pandemic—in an article in The Conversation.

Then, get recommendations for other online writing about queer Korean life in Anton Hur’s essay “Queer Korean Literature is Stepping Out,” published in Words Without Borders.

Finally, look through photographs of Pride parades from around the world in the New York Times and trace anti-LGBT laws on a world map from Human Rights Watch.

Another Pair of "Sisters"

Poet Lee Hyemi commented in an interview with Words Without Borders:

 

 

When the film The Handmaiden came out, there were people reading the lesbian romance as “sisterly love,” or really trying not to see what’s in front of them.

To see what she means, watch the trailer for this film about a relationship between a Japanese woman and a Korean maid with criminal intentions.

 

What's #MeToo in Korean?

In the same Words Without Borders interview quoted above, Lee Hyemi talked about her involvement in the movement known as #문단성폭력 (or “sexual violence within the literary establishment.”)

I made a list of what happened to me and ended up with twenty-five people. I didn’t even include any of the “lighter” counts like touching my thighs. Just direct physical and verbal sexual harassment. . . . It used to be, “Oh, that’s just how it is. Don’t complain. Did you hear about so-and-so?”

Find out more about the Korean movement to end gender-based harassment and abuse in “The #MeToo Poem That Brought Down Korea’s Most Revered Poet,” from The Paris Review.

Then, listen to a five-minute NPR story about a bestselling novel that “gives public voice to private pain.”

The cover of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

According to the Korea Times, “9 in 10 women in Seoul suffer from dating violence.”

Dating in South Korea

Find out why “love” used to be an embarrassing concept in Korean culture in an article by Yi Kwang-Su, published in Korean Literature Now.

More Poetry of Food and Love
Strawberries in a jar. Photo by Jonathan Ocampo on Unsplash

Browse the Poetry Foundation’s online anthologies Poetry and Food and Queer Love Poems.

More Prose Poetry
Iman Mersal, author of “Amina”
More Korean and Korean-American Poetry

Read “Injeolmi Rice Cakes,” another Korean poem connecting food, love and longing.

Watch an interview with poet Kim Hyesoon in which she warns: “Beware when poets and poetry disappear,” courtesy of Korean Literature Now, the world’s only free English-language quarterly of Korean literature.

Finally, read about the surprising new places where you might find poetry in Korea.

More Impossible Love**
A photo of a rose. Photo by Ann Fossa on Unsplash

On WWB Campus:

  • “Unity of Form” by Regina Derieva (translated by Valzhyna Mort): A Russian poem about receiving “kingly presents” such as burnt-out light bulbs

Poetry Elsewhere:

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies . . .

Music Elsewhere:

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?
Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long
And wouldn’t it be nice to live together
In the kind of world where we belong?

I don’t have much money, but, boy, if I did
I’d buy a big house where we both could live
If I was a sculptor, heh, but then again, no . . .

If I gave you diamonds and pearls
Would you be a happy boy or a girl
If I could I would give you the world
But all I can do is just offer you my love

**For Teaching Idea 1

More Language and Love "On the Periphery"**
Emily Dickinson. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On WWB Campus:

  • The personal essay “On the Moscow Metro and Being Gay, in which Russian poet Dmitry Kuzmin reflects on homophobic laws and describes a personal experience of marginalization at the hands of his mother, who physically cut queer poems out of his first published collection. (Translated by Alexei Bayer)
  • From Japanese author Nao-Cola (“New Cola”) Yamazaki, the sweet breakup story “Cavities and Kindness” never brings up queer rights, but makes a strong statement by centering a trans woman’s experiences of love.

Elsewhere:

**For Teaching Idea 2

More Complicated Love Stories**
Poet Forugh Farrokhzad

On WWB Campus:

  • “Connection,” by Persian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, translated by Sholeh Wolpé
  • Two poems about how it feels after love ends: the Tang-Dynasty-era “Poems for Parting” by Du Mu, translated by David Young and Jiann I. Lin, and the contemporary Egyptian prose poem “Things Elude Me” by Iman Mersal, translated by Khaled Mattawa

Elsewhere:

in my memory lean back again let me love you

  • “The Precision of Pain and the Blurriness of Joy,” by Yehuda Amichai, in which he writes: “I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness and blurry joy.” Available in the collection Open Closed Open with an excerpt available on Twitter (translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld)
  • A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti, which, like “The Cupboard . . .,” piles image upon image to reflect the speaker’s mood.

**For Teaching Idea 3

Key Points
Launching the Poem
1. Impossible Gifts and Paradoxical Qualities
2. Words "On the Periphery"
Love and Happiness: It's Complicated
To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

We stood on our tiptoes and fumbled around the top shelf for a taste of those red, red things. With mouths dyed red, we felt like a pair of nipples.

Sister, we must be a cleverly split person. The morning we wore the disheveled green crowns of strawberries and spoke of our first wet dreams under the covers. We laid a chewy seed in every pore, growing recklessly private and gradually tender. In the kingdom for two who sway inside translucent jelly.

If I had a spare season, I would’ve rushed to whisper vulgar words like a bird with a disappearing beak and gifted you, Sister, the sweetest song on the verge of rot. I would’ve squished the all-pink rainbow and called over the morning owl with the strange joy of guilt.

Feeling like there was more to hide now as the sweet stickiness dripped down between my fingers. If I had another pair of lips, another pair of thin mucous membranes, we would’ve been able to talk about the flavors that deepen as they’re mixed together.

But today, simply with our arms spread wide, we experienced our ruddiness of old. Of the days when we loved what was still hidden and sweet.


From
Unexpected Vanilla (Moonji Publications, 2016). © Lee Hyemi. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2019 by Soje. All rights reserved.

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