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from the November 2005 issue

Halls of the National Museum

I lost sight of my child in the Yi dynasty hall:

Like a forgotten royal concubine, I had been staring at the king's rice bowl, goblet and spoon. I dash back at once to the Goryeo dynasty hall, shedding the lotus petals from the white porcelain ink-water container. I scamper amid the jade-green vases. It is as if the vases are falling to one side, collapsing. A dainty crane leaping up, a young pine tree, fresh-water fish falling on the floor and I, helter-skelter. I call out my child's name as I run, feeble and low. Like kindling thrown into a flaming kiln, the murmur leaves no trace. Again, I dash back. From Goryeo hall to Silla hall, from the ancient city of Gaeseong to Gyeongju, kicking away the doors as I go. I sprint through the room where earrings of gold, jade, and glass cling and clang. Like gold dissolving in royal alchemic water, gurgling and burbling, bubbles rise up in my chest. What should I do? At the open tomb of a king I catch a glimpse of what appears to be my child's head. I reach into the tomb's burial accessories. Thud! A firm glass screen shuts out my palm. From the Silla hall, I leap over to the hall of the Earthenware Era. I mustn't leave the museum, slimmer chance finding her outside. Clay rises up and becomes a vessel. Clay rises up and becomes a person. Clay rises up and becomes a water jar. All the vessels look like my child. They look like shards of my child glued back together, my child standing there, holding water within. Hwijae, Hwijae, I whimper. My tears soak the carpeted floor, and the postcards I bought at the museum's entrance fall and scatter. I call my child again at the entrance to the Stone Age hall. Even in frenzy, I turn for a second glance at what seems like smoke rising from the stone stove. Stone daggers, stone arrowheads, stone spears, hard to believe that there once were beasts to hunt with them. A roe deer flashes before me, fleeing out the door. I chase after the deer but halt to look around the lounge. Could it have been a room where royal appointments were presented to ambassadors leaving for other lands? A splendid curtain, thick and crimson, magnificent. Lowering the appointment papers over their heads with one hand, Go to Africa, and you, to Chile . . . Or, could it have been a room where foreign men performed plays, endowing other foreign men titles like baron, duke, count, viscount, and feathers as well, telling them to play the peacock and prance around at noon. Coca-Cola is sold in the room. I bump into someone and receive a cola baptism. It spreads on my white skirt like rancid blood. I whimper and whine as I descend the stairs. Then up again. It is like a slanted maze. I fall and stumble into a room, the Iron Age hall. An iron sword, an iron shield and an iron helmet. I turn my back on the iron spear and leave the room yet again. Thereupon, like a dream, I see my child walking up the stairs. Mommy, what is this? My child, it's a suit of iron armor. They wore it for protection in swordfights. Must be heavy. Standing before the armor-clad warrior from the Iron Age, we hold hands.

For the next poem in this sequence, click here.

Read more from the November 2005 issue
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