This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features a poem by Emily Jungmin Yoon.


The Transformation

In early 2016, 13 sperm whales beached themselves
on Germany’s North Coast, their stomachs full of plastic litter.

I was once naive enough to be a woman. I once had a car
silver and new, and drove it over paved roads trilling with rain.
I took it to a pebbled beach lean with ebbing tide, pools of fish
here and there. I could see them, small and lustrous. In deeper waters
were hairtail, and cuttlefish. Hairtail were called knife fish
in my language. If you’re shipwrecked, some say,
knife fish are the first to wrap around you
and pick you clean. Silver ribbons sweet
with human meat. But I was no fool. I shed my coat,
my cardigan, my scarf, my hair, and other things of lean beauty.
Rain made my skin stick. I was sickened to my stomach
with the affairs of human concern. Guns and stupidity, mostly:
it was ignorance that hurt us best. Loathing, too, but it is son
to ignorance, a sleek cage. People who love the cage felt snug
and protected. They wheeled it over others, crushing them,
surprising them. I lay in the eerie water. It streamed over me
and other live things, changing us, changing us, scale
by scale, strand by strand. It wasn’t fair that fish could see color,
and whales could not, but I was okay: I loved my new body.
I don’t know what kind of whale I was. In the ocean
there were no mirrors. Pieces of glass and other gleaming debris,
I ate. Hairtail stood like hair and stared at me with their dumb eyes.
A diver once came down to photograph my eyes, then left without showing me
my likeness. I swallowed squid, and their beaks clattered
against the plastic in my stomach. Once I was naive enough to think
to starve with a full stomach meant filling yourself with water.
I then knew that it meant filling my new silver belly with a thousand pieces
of manmade waste. I ate parts of cars just like mine. I ate bags
clear and cloudy, they were blurs to me. Human affairs. How unusual,
how fantastic it feels to be here again, air again, the tide ebbing,
gray sand drying on me—to see a bird fly again, its wing like the belly
of an insect-creature I once saw on the ocean floor,
striped and dead. Look: such slender beauty of things.
Shadows, leaves, rows of clouds pushed
by some animal wind.



Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the PEN Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).