Haenyo Song: Harvest

Original Text: 
A Strange Relief: Poems (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2001): 77-82.
2Cheju's long grasses have always belonged to the women.
3Like our inland sisters who crouch in flocks
4along the roadsides, cutting and tying
5tall stalks into bundles,
6we too wrap our heads in white towels, and bend to trim
7the jagged underwater lawns.
8We envy the sun's long arms, its deep reach.
9Crystals of light collect on the sea floor,
10settle like sugar in a glass of water, dusting
11the greedy seaweed fronds. When stirred by our fins,
12light disperses, dissolves. It clings to our bodies.
13We swim, pollinating the watery garden.
14Other crops move in the wet meadow: we hunt
15mobile vegetables -- cucumbers with fingers,
16flowers with feet!
17The urchin flees, millimetres per minute,
19into its white turban, tries to pass for one of us.
20The conch shies from the hand, curls into itself
21as a bud cringes before it is picked.
24casually as pebbles into a pond,
25but the ripples lashed our shores for years.
26Spread on their dissection table,
27Korea was a little rabbit
28on a stranger's map,
29dangling in China's paw or snagged
30in the hind paw of Russia
31if they had cared to look:
32they performed their secret operation
33blindfolded, in a far-away room,
34the paper decision to sever its head
35as easy as unpinning
37Everyone forgets islands
38but the armies.
39Cheju, both their rabbit's foot
40and a dropping at its heel.
41Our own country
42gnawing us off at the ankle
43to escape.
44What the sea gave back freely moved us first:
45He bobbed up, his pale back
46a bullet-pitted coral,
47shreds of skin around the wounds
48like the red blooms of anemone's flower.
49His mute body told the whole story,
50the exact cost of silence --
51two blunt stumps announced his lost thumbs;
52his tongue, waterlogged and swollen with secrets,
53tumbled from the cave of his mouth,
54dumbstruck as the long-hidden survivor
55who emerges from the dark shelter, and stumbles
56into the sober, devastated day.
57My own child in the basket
58beside the water, among the fishbaskets
59and waterjugs. A boy disguised
60as part of our harvest.
62of black stones soaked in red.
63Suddenly, blood oranges.
64Hatred is a crafty child,
65who finds even in a farmer's field
66torture's toybox:
67who needs weapons when at hand
68is onion's green-tailed whip,
69the rape-efficient orange root,
70and the killstone of white radish.
71Every war has its gory theatre
72it forces the land to watch.
73Cruelty laughing at the same joke
74over and over.
75The stories from Gyoraeri.
77Eventually we all marry those
78who killed our parents,
79and call it peace.
80This is how I know the North
81is not lost to us forever.
82Land's memory
83is so much longer
84than water's.
86the small hills helmet the dead.
87When rapeflowers grow bright
88on the little mounds, they sleep
89curled like children beneath a yellow blanket.
90The trees remind me of fear:
91hack them to stumps; still, deep roots
92stay tangled underground.
93The sun says nothing, recedes
94as if its radiant face would offend.
95We walk in the timid light
96that filters through the gauze of cloud
97bandaging the island, afraid
98to scar the soil with our shadows.
99I am full of lessons I cannot share:
100How wild grass cleans the mist
101from goggles, how to hook the sicklecord
102at the elbow, not the neck.
103How to find feather stars and sea lilies.
104The flounce of scallops, sea slugs' ruffled skirts,
105the split gourd shape of cuttlefish.
106How the concave of the abalone,
107its hard slick of colour, is like the skin
108of gasoline on water, a liquid prism.
109The depth of crab and shrimp. The myth
110of sand dollars, the bottle mouths of sea squirts.
111Polyps. Molluscs.
112How we learned to respect
113their reluctance to leave, the bravado of shells.
114How we learned to love
115the sea's slow resistance.


1] From a section of poems titled "Cheju Diary": "The island province of Cheju-do lies eighty-five kilometres off the southernmost tip of the South Korean peninsula, and owes many of its cultural distinctions to its geographic and social isolation from the mainland. A favourite honeymoon spot for Korean newlyweds, the island now promotes itself as `the Hawaii of Asia' and touts the few women that still work as divers as a main attraction. Not mentioned in the tourist literature are the events that took place from 1948-1953, when Cheju's political opposition to the division of the country and to the elections taking place on the mainland was brutally suppressed during a period of American occupation. Referred to as the April 3rd massacre, it is estimated that between 40,000 to 80,000 people (nearly a quarter of the island's population, and most of them civilians) were tortured and killed by South Korean troops reporting to American officers." (note by the poet, p. 87) Back to Line
18] sola: swamp plant, from whose pith are made hats. Back to Line
22] Halla: an extinct volcano (the highest in South Korea) and a park on Cheju overlooking the sea. Cheju-ans rebelled against US occupying police on April 3, 1948, at one a.m., lighting fires on 89 mountain tops as a signal of the uprising. This led to a brutal repression over the next seven years. Back to Line
23] Nagasaki, Hiroshima: the United States dropped an atomic bomb on these two Japanese cities, August 6 and 9, 1945, to seal the victory of the Allied forces. Back to Line
36] In 1948 elections in south Korea established a democratic republic there and prompted the northern part of the country, now a dictatorship, to separate. It invaded South Korea in 1950. US intervention led to a three-year war, ended in 1953 by an armistice that divided the peninsula at the 38th parallel into two countries. Back to Line
61] Government forces, disguised as resistance fighters, in 1948 persecuted the people of Orari, a village, in order to disrupt peace talks. The military executed almost 600 people in Bucholi in just two days. The horrific reprisals of 1948 were suppressed by the South Korean government until 1988. Back to Line
76] Now tourist attractions. Back to Line
85] orum: several hundred small volcanic cones on the island. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
Special Copyright: 

Copyright © Sonnet L'Abbé 2006. Not to be republished without permission of the poet.