Rumpus Original Poetry: Two Poems by Esther Ra





The Girl from No Gun Ri

During the Korean War, on July 26-29, 1950, around 250 to 400 South Korean refugees were killed in a US air attack and fire from the 7th Cavalry Regiment at a bridge near the village of No Gun Ri. The US military, fearing North Korean infiltrators in disguise, ordered soldiers to shoot South Korean refugee groups.


I was sixteen when they came
war had broken out     and girls
were the price of cigarettes
older women swung scythes
like broken teeth         at soldiers
who were said to         —        the girls
so I hid in an urn         in the dark
waiting for history to pass
my name was Park Hee-Sook
I wore my hair long    in a braid
tipped with a rippling ribbon
smooth as the flow of red blood


my playground became a battleground
and we gathered our skirts to flee
home became a fistful of objects
pounding its dirge on my back
the communists are coming    they said
you must move out or die       they said
in the sun        everything       was too hot
I can’t breathe             the Americans
said keep walking        I cannot


then the sky split         and the universe
was a crematory

everything       was in pieces
            father               sister                home
                        body                leg                   arm                  head
   earthclod                  cattle               burning
                        where              am I
            human meat                we are all

                                 on fire


            orphaned in a day, I wear
the torn bodies of the dead,

            hiding from a horde
of black bullets

            I hear blood gurgle and burst
in the strafed tunnels,

            a cacophony of flies
feed on swollen flesh

            my throat burns like paper
in the dark, I don’t know

            if I’m drinking
water or blood

            if I stay            I will die
if I leave          I will die

            if I die             I will die
                        I run out


            an American waves me forward
and men clamber out of their holes

            I say Hello Hello
the only English word I know

            Hello my whole family
has been killed

            it is hell in there Hello
I cry coated in blood

            I scream Hello Hello
and pound on their chests

            you said you would save us

            I am red ribboned with
the dark hands of death

            as they hold me shaking
in their arms

            Hello I cry
to the living and dead

            as I weep all the bones
from my body


            In the village, the nights
have burning blue eyes

            I cannot stop my own eyes
from drowning.

            The watchmen remember
my wracking with wails

            as ghosts clog my throat
with their names.

            Before the war ends
I walk back to the bridge

            and search for remains
of my father

            I scoop up his flesh
in the cup of my hands

            and bury him
far from his home

            O my father rest here
in the dark of the earth

            as I braid your spirit
from the past

            O my father hide here
in the mouth of the land

            as we wait
for history       to pass


A Quiet Terror

You watched us, hair catching
and shining like flags
on the stiff slivers of the bamboo.

As children, we laughed
as we danced through the leaves.
The park was so bright
and you feared it.

You followed us, descending
like darkness and dew,
mistrusting a childhood of joy.

That sound—was it death’s cloak,
snagging on a twig,
or merely a ray of light flinching?

When he pressed the switchblade
to your throat, you were young
and a stranger to blood.

So you followed us, softly,
so as not to be seen,
and yet to make sure
we weren’t murdered.

Sometimes I look back
at your pale, anguished face,
a white doe surrounded by hounds.

Time tried to gnaw out
your eyes; you filled them
with patience and patience…

You were worn out with waiting
for us to return, before
any of us had left.

You were gone, you gasped,
jolting in your sleep.
I said, I’m right here,
and drew close.

Other nights, it is I
who start up in my sleep,
tears lying damp
on my cheeks.

Umma, I whisper, in pain,
but softly, to preserve
your few dreams.

Esther Ra is the author of book of untranslatable things (Grayson Books, 2018), which won the Grayson Books Chapbook Award. Her work has been published in Rattle, Exposition Review, Watershed Review, and CONSEQUENCE Magazine, where her poetry received the Women Writing War Poetry Award. She alternates between the United States and Seoul, South Korea, where her heart and writing often return. More from this author →