Pyeonghwa Highway, North from Uijeongbu

South Korea

I think, if you drive for long enough, Pyeonghwy Highway 

Runs into the DMZ

          Is that right?

 

At 13, I sat in the backseat as your husband drove

North along the Pyeonghwa Highway

Wherever it is the highway goes –

you told me stories about history 

that stay pressed against the present:

 

How the grassy mounds and damp wooden shelters

rising from between trees dotting the hillside 

Along the highway are symbols of, and in essence,

Life and death.

 

You explained how the wet-green mounds are ancestors 

nestled in air-drenched grassy wombs. Each 

tended by the family's eldest son until – 

When does it stop?

 

You traced with your finger against the window

Of the car, mound after mound

As we moved along

One big inverted U after another, lingering 

in condensation.

 

Your finger changed shape

Mapping the machine-gun outposts, presently

Manned by both Spirit and soldier, scattered among 

however-many

Mounds along the highway. 

 

Your finger could have traced several inverted “U”s

 And then a squared-U-propper to map the pattern

Of death and what could be protection,

But you didn’t do it like that –

You stopped tracing the mounds all together,

Lifting your finger between sharp line drawings

On the glass. Does this mean something to you?

I would have liked to know how the graves 

of your ancestors and machine-gun 

outposts live in relationship 

Along this highway, in your mind. 

 

But what you told me is

how the Pyeonghwa Highway is a road

crusted in stories of invasion. How 

The Northern army might fire missiles,

Hitting the city-center of Seoul in just 

Minutes.

How the plan for escape is by an air-lift 

Out – how in a skyscraper, your reptilian 

Brain knows to tell your legs to climb

Rather than descend. 

 

Will you be rescued

Or leap?

How many times have you asked that question?

 

You stop tracing and point, instead –

At a face burrowed in one of the small

Shelters on the hillside along the highway,

or the barrel of his rifle just under his chin. 

 

At a restaurant on the riverside just off the highway

You point to each speaker box nestled in the walls.

You explain how loudspeakers deliver war orders, 

How civilian becomes soldier if the history 

that’s nearly-always pressed against the present

Evolves in the wrong direction. 

 

How this sprawling lumpy graveyard might all

turn to battleground.

 

That night, standing on the subway platform 

At Uijeongbu Station, I told my father what you’d

Told me, rolling my finger in the air, mapping U after U,

Just like you had. He missed some of the story

As I tried to yell, unsuccessfully, over a train carrying 

tanks that roared along the platform.  

 

I wondered what he heard, but in love, you’d already 

Told him everything. We watched the hard flashes of tanks

Roll across our vision for minutes. My moving mouth muted

Then still. 

 

Eventually, my father said,

We Americans were never taught to live like this – the proximity to war,

Or – how lovely it could be to know that you’ll be buried, gestating above the ground 

and still 

in the earth, just as we grew before birth, nestled,

decaying, just as we grew. Doesn’t it feel as if all these tanks are

Rendered dust?