“Kimchi” by Viola Lee

Sculpture by William O’Brien

Whenever we hear
of another death
in the family,
my mother
will often bury
in the basement,
immersing her body
into hours and hours
of kimchi making,
with big, earthen jars,

and large,
silver aluminum bowls.

I remember
using one of them

to bathe my son
when he was first born.

My mother layers
the napa cabbage,

covers in a blanket
of light

green and white scallions,
shutting the folds of the cabbage

in rhizome of
tucking in bulbs of Allium

then flavoring
in a disaccharide of glucose sugar

and dried red pepper flakes —
how often I see those red peppers,

the color of blood,
sun drying on a blanket

while walking around
my father’s village,

a tobacco farm
and that tiny living


we often wondered
how so many family members

could share a room

sleeping on a floor
out of necessity —

what is healing
for my mother

is making this
even saltier,
she uses some form of fish,
or those tiny minuscule pink salted shrimp.

When her brother died, I was ten,
he was the uncle
I would read

About only in

I remember watching her
from the window of the basement door,

the forceful motion
into layering the pepper

onto the leaves
of the napa cabbage,

a metal bowl singing
from the movement and pressure,

all the energy and force
to move a body when it’s grieving,

intentionally, she cut,
diced, slivered,

a weight, growing, growing,
when folding something onto itself.

Last year,
after my cousin’s death,

my mother and her sister-in-law
made kimchi

out of pounds
and pounds
of Joseon radish,
burying themselves in the work,

burying themselves
in sustaining their family.

Never once
did they speak

of the mental illness
continually being buried

in the bodies
of family members.

Never once
did they speak

of the healing properties
of the spice,

the pepper
or the garlic.

Instead they just move along,
the way my mother

moves along
after hearing of each death,

the way the bodies
of the dead

move along to their new form,
the way that everything

that is made by hand
moves along,

changes in form,
changes in body,

the way that this fermented
spice, pepper and garlic

moves along, mouth, pharynx,
esophogus, stomach,
through the body,

moving without a sound,
moving, moving, moving,

the way the air moves
while the house

is soundless with sleep,
the way the cold leaves and the wind

move on the roof of the warm, warm house,
the way thoughts
and images move,
becoming stronger
after each passing passing


Viola Lee graduated from NYU with an MFA in poetry. Her book Lightening after the Echo was published by Another New Calligraphy. She has published poems in small literary journals throughout the US, and won honorable mention in the Vincent Chin Memorial prize. She is currently working on writing another manuscript of poems. She lives in Chicago with her husband, son, and daughter. She teaches at Near North Montessori School.