Five poems by Choi Jeongrye

If I tell you there's a kangaroo inside me, you won’t believe me, will you?

Choi Jeongrye studied literature at Korea University, where she received her PhD. The author of seven books of poetry and essays, she was the recipient of several literary honors, including, in 2007, the prestigious Modern Literature Award.  Her poems have been translated into Japanese and English: a collection, Instances, co-translated by Choi with Wayne de Fremery and Brenda Hillman, appeared in 2011; a 2013 interview details this process, among many other aspects of her work and life. Until her death in 2020, she was a frequent guest at international writing residencies, and taught poetry at her alma mater as well as at Korea National University of the Arts.


By way of introduction:

"Like a dolphin, sometimes I lose my sense of direction and time. I don’t know where I am, and when is now. Whenever these strange things happen, it’s like my sonar waves don’t work. I have an illusion; I mistake a flying stone for a bird (I have thrown stones a few times in anti-government demonstrations in the 1970s and 1980s.) These moments are usually short but sometimes they last long enough to build a kingdom […] I wander in an illusion of these moments. Whenever I ask myself who I am and what I am doing, I cannot help but recall my past. […] As you can tell from my poems, memory is both my deficiency and my mind’s ruin....”

Choi wrote a version of this text during her stay in Iowa City in 2006, in English, confronted by the “worldly” limits of Korean and distraught at the estrangement from her maternal language:  instead, and as in so many of her poems anyway, animals and things, or sometimes animal-things, freed her up to speak a language of images, of imagination. The borderline between what tangibly exists in the world and what "I am" in that world’s reflection may be gauged in the deceptively simple direct address, so frequent in Choi’s poems: “hey, you!”

--Nataša Ďurovičová

Kangaroo is Kangaroo, I am I

If I tell you there's a kangaroo inside me, you won’t believe me, will you?
I can't believe it myself.
When I saw a kangaroo jumping along with a baby in its pouch,
I thought:
How many ridiculous animals there are in the world!
Of course, I also went leaping here and there breathlessly with a baby on my back,
but that doesn’t mean there's a kangaroo inside me, does it?
I saw a kangaroo boxing on TV.
If the man hit out with his right hand, the kangaroo used its right hand to hit,
if he used his left hand, it struck back with the left hand,
hitting, being hit, hitting, being hit,
there was no difference between man and kangaroo.
If I happen to meet a kangaroo by chance
during a trip to Australia or New Zealand,
I might well hold out a forepaw, hoping for a handshake in spite of myself.
I tend to keep worrying unnecessarily about all sorts of things,
such as what a kangaroo will do if its pouch fills with rain,
and I worry about my children’s future.
Once the TV showed a kangaroo drowning, having jumped into the water
to save its baby that had fallen into the sea.
After trying to estimate the weight of the water in the pouch and the baby's weight,
that night in my dreams I floundered in the water.
Kangaroo is kangaroo, I am I,
but if I get an attack of the kangaroos like this in the middle of the night,
I can't get back to sleep, sometimes.
Kangaroos are said to dig a hole in the ground
and then do nothing with the hole.
I too dig holes for no purpose and then do nothing with them.
Kangaroo is kangaroo, I am I.

I Chatted with a Goose — In Iowa

On my way back after watching a rodeo
I dozed off on the bus.
A little fluffy puppy was rushing into my arms.
What’s wrong with the puppy?
As I spoke in Korean in my sleep,
the fluffy puppy turned back into a water bottle again.

Here, where Korean is not understood,
whenever I open my mouth, an alien speaks first.
The more passionate my thoughts are,
the more my words become incantations.
As I was walking along beside a river,
I met a goose.
The goose squawked loudly, quack, quack.
It sounded just the same as a Korean goose.
When I approached in delight,
it pecked at my feet.

The only words I knew were quack, quack,
but thinking that was its language
I replied in a most impertinent manner.


Has it come back after visiting another world?
The house whose roof and doors tremble
beside the railroad.

Once past the warehouse where you deposited darkness,
similar windows approach again.

A speeding subway train blows away the sound
of peddlers shouting through megaphones in vacant lots,
like a flash
over the weeds that keep collapsing whenever a train passes.

In one window, men are training,
bulging their upper arms, saying: ‘Hey, feel my biceps.’
In that place, out of reach,
they pound sandbags,
they lift heavy barbells then fling them down,
they pedal fixed bicycles.

I am on my way back home from the hospital,
after getting a message that the end had come, I must be ready.
With cancerous cells spread throughout her body, drugged with morphine,
my aunt recognized nobody, just clenched her fists.

I can see a school in the distance,
with the school gate, playground, classrooms.
There’s no sign of any children.
That’s odd.

A few days ago, I dreamed
I had been offered a job
and was heading somewhere down south,
but I was told I had taken the wrong train,
that I had already gone past the place,
that no such station existed in this world.

Sangnoksu-Evergreen, Banweol-Halfmoon, Daeyami, Surisan,
the names of stations dream dreams that are fantastic and brilliant
so who is it, that keeps making me turn the wheel relentlessly.

Swing Dance

In that vague cumulus cloud
there are words like this, for example:

Tell me what you want, I will grant it all.

Then, like a silent airplane,
piercing the clouds in passing
I’ll say:
My wish is the unification of South and North Korea.

Just like a plane
that leaves on Friday morning and
arrives on Friday morning in a different country,

going to a country where today is still today
even after flying all day long
across deserts and vast seas,

leaving on Friday morning, waking up on Friday morning,
between today and today,

Though I’ve never lived tomorrow,
my wish is:

To put flowers in my hair and land on a star called the North Donkey,
so that my dreams can dance the swing dance with reality.

Boeung Kak Lake

Today I received an odd text-message from the Writers’ Association. Poet Jeongrye Choi: deceased. Wake in room 203, Mokdong Hospital funeral parlor. Funeral on the 30th. It was the usual kind of message I often received. But this was someone I knew; the name was my own. I just stayed there, waiting for another message acknowledging that it was a mistake. I phoned my husband and said it was funny, but he just said it was about a poet who had died, and I was not a poet, was I? That made sense. I told my daughter that when I died, what worried me most was the mother-of-pearl encrusted wardrobe and the stone bed. My daughter told me not to worry. She said she was going to use them. But that’s a lie. She can’t use this heavy old stuff that takes up the whole room. I told her not to give them away or sell them to others. My daughter burst into a rage because I didn’t believe her. I thought of calling the Writers’ Association and complaining, but gave up the idea. I have never attended a meeting and have no close friends there, so to whom would I claim to be alive? Surely, since I’m alive, isn’t that enough? I’m alive. I’m really alive. But I was curious. Somewhere in Southeast Asia I saw people who put a chair in front of the door of their house and sat there all day long. I also do nothing all day long and just stay there. I don’t know why the name Boeung Kak Lake suddenly came to my mind. I heard that the lake had been filled in and had disappeared. That was what the driver told me when I took a taxi and asked to be taken to the lake. I couldn’t go to Boeung Kak Lake and I didn’t give a dollar to kids who begged: “Please, one dollar.” I couldn’t give because I’d been told that if I gave once, fifty other kids would come running after me. I’m alive and making strange excuses. I thought of calling my friends and telling them I’m alive, but I didn’t. My friends are busy and don’t listen to nonsense. I’m just sitting here, imaging Boeung Kak Lake that’s vanished now.


CHUNG Eun-Gwi [정은귀 鄭恩龜], a professor in the Department of English Literature and Culture at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, specializes in 20th c American poetry, cultural poetics, and translation. From the Korean she has translated Shim Bo-Seon, Lee Seong-Bok, and Kang Eun-Gyo; among her translations into Korean is a volume of Ann Sexton’s poetry and, most recently, Amanda Gorman’s "The Hill We Climb." She has been a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, and teaches regularly at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI).

Brother Anthony of Taizé was born in Cornwall (U.K.) A member of the Community of Taizé since 1969, he has been living in Korea since 1980. He is now an Emeritus Professor of Sogang University (Seoul) and a Chair-Professor at Dankook University. A prolific translator, since 1990 he has published over 40 volumes of translations of Korean literature, mostly contemporary poetry. He took Korean citizenship in 1994; An Seon-Jae is his Korean name. (Adapted from

91st M 2021 Vol 11 no 1



· Zhang Zhihao: four Wuhan poems; translated from the Chinese by Yuemin He
· Choi Jeongrye: five poems; translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony and Chung Eun-Gwi


· Homeira Qaderi, from Noqra, the Daughter of Kabul River; translated from the Dari by Ali Araghi
· Iana Boukova, from Taveling in the Direction of the Shadow, translated from the Bulgarian by Ekaterina Petrova
· Pilar Quintana, "Easy Money," an excerpt; translated from the Spanish by Joel Streicker
· Beaudelaine Pierre, "You May Have the Suitcase Now," a memoir-essay.