Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Today's Moon Prize, the eleventh Moon Prize,* goes to Tanya Ko Hong's poem "Comfort Woman"—backdating to the full moon of July 8, 2017. With it I want to honor not only an extraordinary poem by an extraordinary poet, but also all the women who have, throughout the recent history of mankind, been treated as not fully human but merely a convenience to men.

Comfort Woman

by Tanya Ko Hong

On August 14, 1991, in Seoul, a woman named Hak Soon Kim came forward to
denounce the Japanese for the sexual enslavement of more than 200,000 women during WWII. They were referred to as Wianbu” in Korean and “Comfort Women” in English.

1991, Seoul, South Korea

The voice on TV is comforting,
like having a person beside me
talking all the time
while I eat my burnt rice gruel.

Suddenly in Japanese
But we didn’t—
Those women came to us                                                               
for the money.
We never forced—
I dropped
my spoon into my nureun bap

On the screen
a photograph of young girls
seated in an open truck
like the one I rode with Soonja
over the rice field road that fall

Awake in a cold sweat
I gulp Jariki
bul kuk
bul kuk
but my throat still burns

It’s 3 a.m.
I reach for a cigarette
blow a smoke
and the white smog spirals
like Soonja’s wandering soul

They called me, wianbu—
a comfort woman—

I had a name.

1939, Chinju, South Kyangsan Province

We are going to do Senninbari, right?
No, Choingsindae, Women’s Labor Corps
Same thing, right?
Earn money
become new woman
come back home—

Holding tiny hands
red fingertips
bong soong ah
balsam flower red
together and colored by summer’s end
red fingertips

ripening persimmons
bending over the Choga roofs
that fade into distance

When the truck crosses over the last hill
leaving our hometown in the dust
Soonja kicks off her white shoes Ko Mu Shin

1941, That Autumn

That autumn night, Japanese
soldiers wielding swords
dragged me away
while I was gathering pine needles

they fell from my basket
filling the air with the scent of their white blood.

When you scream in your dream
there’s no sound.

Grandma’s making Song Pyunon the maru,
asking mom, Is water boiling?
Will she bring pine needles before my eye balls fall out?

I feel pain

They put a long stick between my legs—
Open up, open, Baka Chosengjing!
they rage, spraying
their sperm
the smell of
burning dog
burning life

grunting on top of me—
Under my blood I am dying

1943, Shanghai, China

One night
a soldier asked all the girls,

Who can do one hundred men?

I raised my hand—
Soonja    did    not.

The soldiers put her in boiling water
fed us.

What is living?

Is     Soonja    living  in  me?

1946, Chinju Again

One year after
I came home.

Short hair
not wearing Han Bok
not speaking clearly
Mother hid me in the back room

At night Mother took me behind the house by the well and washed me
Scars seared with hot steel like burnt bark
like roots of old trees                                                                                          
all over my body
under the crescent glow She always smiled when she washed me

My baby! Your skin is like white jade, dazzling
She bit her lower lip
washing my tummy softly like a baby’s
but they ripped open my baby house
with the baby inside

What is dying?

Mother made white rice and seaweed soup
put my favorite white fish on top
 —but Mother, I can’t eat flesh.
She hanged herself in the granary that night
left a little bag in my room
my dowry with a rice ball.

Father threw it at me
waved his hand toward the door

I left at dusk.

30 years
40 years


Mute    mute     mute

bury it with me


                        They called me, wianbu—

                        I had a name.
1991, 3:00 AM

[That night,
the thousand blue stars
became white butterflies
through ripped rice paper,
and flew into my room.

One, One hundred, One thousand butterflies—

These endless white butterflies going through 
the web in my mouth,
going into my unhealed red scars,
stitching one by one—
butterflies lifting me, heavier than the dead
butterflies opening my bedroom door, heavier than shame.]

I stand.

* * * * *

This excerpt of  “Comfort Woman” was first published in Beloit Poetry.

Korean American poet, Tanya Ko Hong, has been published in Rattle, Beloit Poetry Journal, Two Hawks Quarterly, Portside, Cultural Weekly, and elsewhere. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles, and is the author of four books of poetry, most recently, Mother to Myself, A collection of poems in Korean (Prunsasang Press, 2015). Fluent in Korean and English, Tanya is an ongoing advocate of bilingual poetry, promoting the work of immigrant poets. She lives in Palos Verdes, California with her husband and three children. Find out more at 

* The Moon Prize ($91) is awarded once a month on the full moon for a story or poem posted in Writing In A Woman's Voice during the moon cycle period preceding a full moon. I don't want this to be competition. I simply want to share your voices. And then I want to pick one voice during a moon cycle for the prize. I fund this with 10% of my personal modest income. I wish I could pay for each and every poem or story, but I am not that rich. (Yet.) For a while I will run a few months behind with this prize—eventually I expect to catch up to the current month.

Why 91? 91 is a mystical number for me. It is 7 times 13. 13 is my favorite number. (7 isn't half bad either.) There are 13 moons in a year. I call 13 my feminist number, reasoning that anything that was declared unlucky in a patriarchal world has to be mystically excellent. Then there are 4 times 91 days in a year (plus one day, or two days in leap years), so approximately 91 days each season. In some Mayan temples there are or were 91 steps on each of four sides. Anyway, that's where the number 91 comes from, not to mention that it's in the approximate neighborhood of 100.

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