December 19–25, 2016
Jihyun Yun is a Korean American poet and recent MFA graduate from NYU. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, she has poems published or forthcoming in Narrative, Fugue, River Styx, Drunken Boat and elsewhere. She received a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship this fall for study in Jessica Greenbaum’s Home and Away workshop.
Sundays for the Faithful
Thirteen again, a sun-baked wild child
on a youth group outing. We rock the hoops
we swiped from Claire’s with our cutoff short shorts
with exposed pockets, make the eyes
grown-ups make at each other in the movies
before fucking or dying at the boys who pass us,
but what do we know of why their whistles
make us scared.
Pastor says sins of the flesh, says hell.
But when we see the boys
with their strong corded necks that make us crazy,
we want and we do not.
We decide against rides and roam the boardwalk,
flirt our way to free cherry popsicles
to stay our steady overheating.
We stain our lips jam red and when Pastor sees,
he makes those eyes, kind of hungry, and says
What have you been sucking for your lips to be so flushed?
When we say popsicles, he asks if we made sure
to thank the lord before eating.
They tear into the face
of the gape-mouthed mackerel,
dislodging the eyes and sharing them,
unhinging the jaw so it hangs,
a flap of skin after a potato peeler slip.
I wonder about the assaulting
nature of seasons. How they come and come,
and seduction is a violence all its own.
Did you drink from the fountain
you weren’t supposed to yet? Remember,
all birds are struck with the same madness
that send them south, balding the horizon
in winter, when the first snow falls,
when the bud first bursts or is first burst.
When I was young I couldn’t outrun
my lisp or gap-toothed whistle. Outside,
the sky curdles over, masking daddy’s view of us,
and the stragglers with their frostbitten wings
are thrown down as if they were born for that.
Inside, the boys corral the quiet ones
into the closet, undress them,
prick bloodied initials on their flushed skin.
Hush, they say, Daddy’s too busy
spying on the neighbors to hear you anyway.
Now the milk-blooded men
set to mourning what they killed.
We were not what they wanted
us to be; thighs to bite
that are yet unbitten,
bodies pert and fuckable
but clean. Their hymns
hum like the backs
of our stockinged knees in autumn,
a letdown of a herd
Yet our absence carves a hunger in them.
I am not so dead to be blind. The men
wail for us now
but that appetite—
from below, my ladies push up
lunacies, our plot of earth
so it was familiar,
these sorts of snaggled drum beats
beating uneven against the bible we laid
across the snare to silence its rattle. If God gave
us money we’d tighten it. Or rather,
we’d pray away from our adolescence,
these pews, his honey-dumb face
turned up to crosses.
Practice always goes this way:
Pastor begging us to care. And we,
too young not to barter, barter.
Thirty minutes for chump change,
79-cent chocolate dipped soft serve,
other meek exchanges to strum strings,
beat broken drums, sing hallelujah
like we get it; and after Pastor blesses us all
in his yellow, watery-eyed way
and we think Sundays are for the faithful
The first of us is sexting in the foyer.
The second goes up and sings broke praises,
and I, the third, consider the pastor.
Fancying it night, and myself nude,
I watch him bloat whole and huge,
rising in place of the moon.
–Published in an earlier version on AAWW’s The Margins, October 2015.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem came to me slowly and in parts. The sections were written with about a year between them. It was only during my thesis semester at NYU when I realized they could live in the same home.
What are you working on right now?
I am currently working on a collection titled Some Are Always Hungry, which is primarily poems I’ve written about my grandmother’s experience during the Korean War, and then our family’s subsequent immigrant experience. I’m negotiating my family history through the lens of food or lack thereof. As such, there are many recipe poems in the manuscript.
What’s a good day for you?
Waking up past noon, a strong cup of coffee, breakfast if I remember to have it. Flowers. If I don’t have to leave the house, rain. A shift at the bar with good tips. Any day I can put pen to paper.
What brought you to New York?
I moved here for the MFA program at New York University.
So you live in Manhattan. Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I have lived in Harlem for about a year now, and I love the neighborhood as it reminds me a lot of some of my old stomping grounds in the Bay Area of California. My first digs in NY were at the corner of 145th and Edgecombe, then I moved briefly to Bed-Stuy, then back to Harlem. Even in my short three years in the neighborhood, I can already feel it changing. An old laundromat on my block went out of business and became a Starbucks; the Pathmark in East Harlem closed down, and a few avenues west a Whole Foods is coming in. Having seen the rapid gentrification of my hometown, this is all eerily familiar.
How often do you come to Brooklyn? What neighborhoods do you go to? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I used to live in Bed-Stuy off the Bedford-Nostrand G stop, and I still visit the neighborhood often. There is a very randomly located Korean restaurant there that serves the best bibimbap I’ve found in NYC. I also have a soft spot for Cobble Hill because I used to work there.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
For me, a poetry community is a group of people I love and trust enough to show the rawest forms of my work. I have definitely found that community in New York through my time in the MFA program. Sometimes we workshop, but other times we just send and read each other poems we discovered and love.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Walt Whitman. I always am reminded of the poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” when I walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My mentor at NYU was Yusef Komunyakaa and I could not have asked for a more gracious, brilliant and supportive advisor. I began to study with him in a time when I was feeling most uncertain about my work, but he taught me to trust my impulses. He urged me always to remember the music in things.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I read Slow Lightning by Eduardo Corral a few months ago, and still cannot get it out of my head or heart. I also recently reread Engine Empire by Cathy Park Hong and drowned in the incredibly intricate world-building.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones has been on my reading list for a long time. My roommate and fellow poet just recommended Mad Honey Symposium by Sally Wen Mao to me as well, so I will definitely be reading that collection soon.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
Strangely enough, I am able to read collections I am not enamored with quickly and cover to cover. The books that I love, I take forever to read. I’ll read a few poems, get overwhelmed, and have to put it down. Then I’ll skip around and reread poems that were particularly striking over and over again before proceeding. I prefer physical books. Always, always, always.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
An empty bar or café. Riverside Park.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I adore the Brooklyn Bridge, particularly walking from Brooklyn towards Manhattan right at sunset. This is one of the first activities I did when I arrived in New York, and still it fills me with the same feeling of wonder for the city that I felt back then.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the cities I know by heart,
And what I lose of myself in your alleys you return to me,
For every streetlamp lit in me as good gratitude to you.
It was home once.