. . . I know that is poetry.” —Emily Dickinson

Before passing on, my father, who never got to read anything I’d written, recounted the decapitation of a teacher in a cornfield over half a century earlier. They’d been forbidden to speak Korean in their own land, by the Japanese who had to that point colonized the peninsula for twenty-seven years. All native children got assigned a Japanese name on their first day of school. Japanese grammar pamphlets were handed out to study for eventual matriculation into a nearby middle school, over which a pair of Imperial flags flew like dragon-red eyeballs. The baker’s son had eczema, a chubby face, and lived in my father’s neighborhood in Seoul. This boy bragged of sleeping with his Japanese grammar book under his pillow. Even when playing stickball in an abandoned munitions dump with friends, he refused to speak or shout his native tongue. The way my father described it, the boy wanted so badly to be Japanese and win a scholarship to university in Tokyo. One day the baker’s son reported their math teacher to the headmaster for reciting a classic Korean poem after lunch on a grassy hill. Their math teacher was a learned man, a poet, but not a dissident. Thickly bespectacled, this wiry Korean with a reedy voice spoke fluent Japanese and German, and loved Wordsworth, Geothe, Lermontov, Kim Sowol. My father couldn’t remember the title of the poem their math teacher recited that windy afternoon. “But very moving,” he recollected. “The man closed his eyes, like this, and to our small, knowing ears, a beautiful, horrific opera flowed like watching crows.”

BEFORE THE RAZOR button ver 2

Ed Bok Lee is the author of Whorled, a recipient of the 2012 American Book Award, and the Minnesota Book Award in Poetry, and Real Karaoke People, a recipient of the 2006 PEN/Open Book Award, and the Asian American Literary Award (Members’ Choice). Lee grew up in South Korea, North Dakota and Minnesota, and was educated there and on both U.S. coasts, Russia, Kazakhstan, and South Korea. His third book will be published in 2018.