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A Ghazal on Turtle Ships



Artwork by Aldwin Li, staff artist


There is nothing romantic about calluses,

even if they are on a violinist’s fingers around her bow.

Let me play you a Concerto in G Minor that typhoons.

I’ll forget afterwards, onstage, to take a bow

because humility is a luxury,

and modesty tastes like the rosin on my bow:

chalky and syrup sweet. It creates friction

I can’t afford. Meanwhile, my mother imagines me on the bow

of a battleship: a geobukseon* with a dragon masthead.

I wish I had been born in the year of the dragon; I want to bow

my head only to rear it. That is to say, I need time

to kindle the fire in my throat. The bow

in my right hand must feel weighted, if the music is to begin

with an accented note. Don’t bow,

my mother scolds. You don’t need to pay your respects

to everyone. I look at the calluses on her non-bowing

hand. We violinists know friction is necessary

to create music. I was five years old when I learned to bow

to sugar-lipped strangers and dragons with monolid eyes. Mother,

a geobukseon is so hard to build, and standing on the bow

of the ship makes you vulnerable. Let me trade

these armored plates for a musician’s hands.

* geobukseon (거북선): a type of Korean warship that was used intermittently by the Royal Korean Navy during the Joseon dynasty; also known as “turtle ship” in western descriptions for its protective shell-like covering

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