Spiraling Poetry: Tanya Hyonhye Ko

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Paris Press includes a striking new poem by Tanya Hyonhye Ko, "Heo Nanseolhean," about the 16th century woman poet. Paris Press launched our new program, "Spiraling" on International Women's Day, Every month, the Press will feature original work by a contemporary woman writer. All genres may be sent to the Press through Submittable on this website. It is an honor to begin this new publication feature with the work of Tanya Hyonhye Ko.


Heo Nanseolhean  (1563-1589)

If women have han in their hearts 

            To be born a woman
To be born in the Chosǒn Period
            To be the wife of a husband 

 frost will come in May. 

Father let me study poetry with my brothers 
until I married Kim Song Lip and I put it aside. 
Waiting for my faithless husband, father said 

Write a poem 

ask yourself, 

Who am I?


Grandmother Talking Camptowns

At 77 years old all my teeth are gone
and the wind blows past my gums.
No windscreen in Dongducheon
where homeless live alone.

Rather than live alone
I wanted to be a monk in Buddha’s temple
but they kicked me out—
I sneaked the bacon.

The Deacon’s ad in the newspaper
offered a room at his church—
In exchange for cleaning I lived well.
One rainy night I drank Soju and smoked
so they kicked me out.

Damn hard work on my back for GIs—
pounded and pounded me inside
so one day it had to go.
The khanho-won removed my womb
no pension for sex trade
no yungkum.

American couple adopted
my half white son—
my half black daughter
I left at the orphanage door
and never knew her fate.

At one time I had money saved.
My brother came in his guilty face
Because I can’t protect you— you do this.
He used my handling money
to become a lawyer and soon removed
my name from the family—
like scraping a baby from the womb.

Still, on my birthdays my sister Sook
secretly came to see me,

came with seaweed soup—
Unni, Unni…
I waited for her to come
saved a gift chocolate so carefully wrapped—
gum, perfume, Dove soap…

Now that she’s engaged 
Sook cannot come again—
Why can’t you go to America like the others?
For the first time that day I was weeping,

Mother, mother, we should not live
Let’s die together! but Mother was already gone.

The time goes so fast that people on the moon
didn’t know where Korea was.

One day I met a man
and I am a woman making rice
washing his work clothes
submissive and joyful
until he found my American dollars
ran away and never came back.

Now in Dongducheon
stars shimmer in the wind.


Oxtail Soup

How does death feel?
I look at the bruise on my left hand,
dark purple, what is this called—

mung—holding in the pain, silence of sorrow,
ashes spread on the ocean settling in layers
palimpsest of lives—like maple leaf

            (Was I here before? Will I come back again?)

impressions left on the sidewalk after they’ve blown away—
like a raven on the roof that said
             Disconnect the phone

Turn on the gas
I was making Oyako Donburi
tears come…while cutting up the onions—
isn’t that the best gift?

I crack cold eggs,
pour over
boiling napa and chicken broth
close the pot lid
turn off the gas

pour over bowl of rice
feed child—

Empty unmade bed—
a summer river where
I didn’t want to see his body—

When I leave
I want to leave beautifully.

I remember one poet
saying that after his wife’s funeral,
he found a strand of her hair on the pillow and wept 

            (Was he crying, too, after I left?)

I made sukiyaki the day my father died—
I had to feed my children.

Oxtail soup,
that’s what Daddy made—
suck out all the dead blood
and boil until the broth turns milky.


About Tanya Hyonhye Ko

Tanya Hyonhye Ko, is a poet and translator who was born and raised in South Korea, and received her MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles. She is author of Generation One Point Five, and her work has appeared in journals such as Beloit, Two Hawks Quarterly, Rattle, and Writers at Work. She writes in English and Korean, and currently translates the work of Arthur Sze into Korean. As a woman who lives and writes in two cultures, Tanya Hyonhye Ko offers a unique, authentic, and courageous voice. Her poems create a voice for multiple generations of Korean women, especially for the “comfort women” who were silenced following WWII. Her poems will be published in 2015 by Purunsasang in Korea. She lives in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.