for my cousins

First the meat disappeared from our rations,
then the rice, then the barley and millet,
then the rations vanished.


We caught croakers, cuttlefish,
hauled creels of eelgrass and whip-wrack
until soldiers fired warning shots to keep us from the sea:

trapped squirrels, snapped sparrows’ necks,
stoned snakes if we were quick, dug mud
for frogs, dragged dogs from their holes:

and when they were wiped out, gnawed rats raw –
though even they seemed to grow thinner,
the parasites in our guts wither, the lice on our scalps starve –


                                                     하루 두 끼만 먹자!
                                                     [LET’S EAT TWO MEALS A DAY!]


We boiled bracken, ground flour for noodles
from bean-stalks, stretched it with sawdust,
cooked gruel from grass or moss:

stripped pine-trees to chew the green inner bark,
picked pigweed, hogweed, horseweed, wort,
pounded acorns into a pulp –


                                                 고난의 행군에서 승리한 기세로 새 
                                                      세기의 진격로를 열어나가자! 
                                                 [LET’S CHARGE FORWARD INTO THE NEW CENTURY 
                                                            IN THE SPIRIT OF THE ARDUOUS MARCH!]


Hunt for spilled grain near shipyards and train stations.
Poke through cow-shit for corn.
Wash well.


Crush grubs. Suck leeches. Swallow
the worms that would swallow you.
Eat anything alive to stay alive.


Snatch scraps of black-market meat.
Mother-meat, father-meat, meat of ‘wandering swallows,’ meat of tomorrow –?
Is-Was. Eat-Eaten.


                                              오늘을 위해 살지 말고 내일을 위해 살자!
                                              [LET US NOT LIVE FOR TODAY, BUT FOR TOMORROW!]


The children’s skulls swelled, their bellies bloated,
their nails fell off,
their faces leathered, flesh blackened with infection,

their hair rusted, eyes ringed with wrinkles
as if steel spectacles had been soldered into skin,
but what was there to see?


Dig faster! Save face, the aid workers are coming!
Hide them, the rotted bodies, lives heaped high as leaves –
there is hardly earth enough to bury all the dead.


(Note: Kochebi (고제비), or ‘wandering swallows’, are North Korean children orphaned by the 1990s famine, during which an estimated 600,000 to 3.5 million died, out of a national population of 22 million, according to the UN)

Judge’s Report by Kwame Dawes

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