The Trauma of Losing a Parent

Monday

None of Donald Trump’s actions has been as wantonly cruel as separating children from their immigrant parents to discourage them from seeking asylum. Now, following a judge’s order to reunite the families, the administration is pleading incompetence and asking the ACLU to do it for them. The episode will join the internment of Japanese Americans amongst our dark moments.

Suji Kwock Kim is a Korean American poet who has spent much of her poetic career recreating what her parents and grandparents endured under the brutal Japanese occupation, which lasted from 1910-1945. In “The Tree of Unknowing,” Kim imagines a child remembering being sung to by a mother she has lost. “I wonder who you were,” she says and then adds, “I wonder because you were.” Which is to say, the mother was a concrete presence in the child’s life, and we can’t help but wonder about those who have touched us.

However much we search for parents we have lost, unfortunately, there will always be uncertainty, which Kim describes as a dark forest: “Uncertainty, take me into the forest/leaf by leaf.” The mother, as if anticipating the separation,” sang to the child, “Where, along the endless road, are you going away from me like a cloud?”, and the words burned into the child’s skull. The child saw “a maze of you” in the mother’s gaze and wants more. Desperately, she dives into the remembered words to find something concrete:

The words have their own woods.
Where the words can’t go further: where the woods begin

that make us mad, too real and not
real enough. Whose memory was it? Why did I feel such joy?

Kim describes the mother’s words as “crumb[s] of light” that light up “a galaxy of sparks…among the branches.” In the end, however, this “cloud-tree” is a “tree of unknowing.”

How many of the children that Trump has separated from their parents will grow up with this uncertainty? The remembered words of mothers and fathers may sing to them and light their way—“the cloud-tree will never die”—but the poet also asks “lighting the way where?” The ending may not be happy.

Are you as horrified as I am by the barbarism that has been committed in our name?

The Tree of Unknowing

By Suji Kwock Kim

Uncertainty , take me into the forest
leaf by leaf–

where an immigrant sits in a Jersey slum,
a young mother rocking her child.

Where, along the endless road, are you going away from me like a cloud?
Like a cloud, like a cloud?

I lay in your arms, watching your lips.
I touched your chin with my tiny fingers.

Your loneliness sang to me,
each word a crumb of light, burning in the skull–

until a galaxy of sparks flashed among the branches,
Lighting the way where?

 I lifted my head. What was it I saw
in your gaze, the maze

of you: corridors of years, corridors of war, black wheat-hair ripening–
the last shape sown in closing eyes.

The words have their own woods.
Where the words can’t go further: where the woods begin

that make us mad, too real and not
Real enough. Whose memory was it? Why did I feel such joy?

Look, the cloud-tree will never die–

I wonder who you were: I wonder
because you were.

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