• Stanzas: Baek Seok

    Derrick Austin


    It’s not often I remember exactly where or when I first read particular poems, but I was on a bus headed toward downtown Oakland in fall 2021. This was my second fall in a city I didn’t know particularly well, so perhaps it was fitting to have encountered “Home” by Baek Seok, translated by Jack Jung. “Home” is a narrative poem recollected in four stanzas—a scene-establishing couplet followed by three quintets. One day our speaker, alone in the North, feels ill and visits a doctor. This is the second stanza:

    The doctor’s face was like Buddha’s, his beard was like Lord Gwan’s.
    He could have been a sage god from an ancient country.
    He pulled out his hand. His little-finger’s nail was long.
    He calmly held my wrist and counted my pulse for awhile
    and suddenly asked me where my home was.

    The poem establishes our other principal character. Otherworldly, courtly, wise, the doctor is compared to Buddha and “a sage god from an ancient country.” In line three, the speaker describes the exalted doctor’s hand, a gesture grounding this man in the world. The doctor “calmly” treats this patient. Then he asks about the speaker’s home, an innocuous bit of small talk. This stanza provides a clear portrait of the doctor, but the situation isn’t particularly dynamic. No lyrical extravagance. Fairly uniform in length and end-stopped, the lines are rhythmically similar. “He could,” “He pulled,” and “He calmly” are soothingly repetitive. But the details in this stanza obtain new facets as the poem continues.

    The next two stanzas reveal that the doctor intimately knows his patient’s father: “we’ve been friends without shame,” the doctor says to the poem’s speaker. It’s a sentence that, to this reader, can intimate queer love and desire, but it could just as movingly be a tender, abiding friendship. This recollection—a chance encounter between patient and doctor, a coincidental friendship—is as much about belonging and care as its absence. Looking back at stanza two, it’s telling that the lonely patient is drawn to the doctor’s hand and how his wrist is held. It’s moving to briefly enter the emotional landscape of the preternatural doctor. I’m inspired by the poem’s clarity and pacing, how it encourages and enriches itself through rereading. Patient and Doctor, Father and Son, Two Friends in a dance that surprises and moves me.

    Derrick Austin is the author of Tenderness (BOA Editions 2021), winner of the 2020 Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, and Trouble the Water (BOA Editions 2016).

    Read More

    Web Design and Development by Riverworks Marketing