해녀의 노래: Haenyeo’s Psalm
2023, Senior, Poetry & Spoken Word
Climate Hero: Yujeong Lee, Iho Society of Haenyeo
for the haenyeo
Jeju Island, South Korea | 434 AD
Underwater, we’re guided by rocks.
Above, our tewacks bloom like marigolds.
Our tewacks—once home to the ocean’s children,
now carrying plastic fish cradled from the seabed.
Dipping myself into the sea was easy
as inheriting this shriveled body from my line of women
in Jeju, women who leave
season at the shore and hear the ocean’s mood
better than forecasts, even once
every word is a conch shell’s psalm.
Diving into the womb of the world, we lip
our air back to the sea. Oxygenate cod, salmon.
The oxygen tank left on the basalt shore so we don’t return
with too much. Instead, we learn how to breathe
through gills passed from mother to daughter, mother to daughter.
The sea etched my body into shell and took my sisters
behind waves but left the oceanfloor’s deathmoney, stroking
through middle-earth to spoon sticky rice into children’s mouths—
we breathe bubbles into coral now white as shock, leeched
by greedy algae, by swollen plastic.
It always hurts to see mothers stripped.
If I could be bleached instead, foul-white, my body
leaching bottle caps, shedding bloody band-aids.
Hurting is easier said than done.
Mosaics of fish, seals, haenyeo nesting in forgotten fishnets.
Sharks, whisper-finned, slip into Jeju Shore’s warming mouth.
요왕: Dragon Queen-Mother
So I weave myself to water, singing haenyeo’s song
as we pour libations to the ocean’s matriarch. We all become
her daughters, one body to breathe life
back in. We, underwater. With death on our backs.
We, mining abalone and candy wrappers under her skin.
Our battle with the sea has become a battle for the sea.
Each dawn, I share urchins with my four sisters and leave
the shallows for the elderly.
I have carried the unbreathing bodies of my sisters after
they drowned like glaciers, disappearing slowly
through foam. Beneath the sea, the corpses feel lighter
in the sea-goddess’s hand. I don’t cry:
my tears would raise sea levels.
With only a minute in water, time warps—
we scatter like snappers, filling tewacks with trash.
Buoyancy drags our ponytails above heads
and wafts our arms upwards. We, waterlogged ballerinas.
The octopus’s only ugliness is its paper-cup home.
In the right light, the bones of fish don’t litter the sand
for long, straws and drink stirrers look the same,
gum wrappers and toilet paper tubes the secret to immortality.
When breath curls in on itself and my body peels
into the ocean, I arise, seaweed-handed.
숨비소리: “Hwui pah!”
Some call my bursting breath a whistle or a song.
It is not.
Behind rocks encircling waterlogged women, the bonfire melting
my curled body, we repeat the same story over and over.
We must fight for Earth—like our mothers, leading Jeju
away from Japanese bullets, even our own country’s
bullets, buckets of water fresh & waiting for our faces.
We can’t help but return
to the ocean’s belly, watching
our heroic mothers—wrinkled, goggle marks
embroidered—stare back. We, mermaids
without tails; we, with lead belts. Rubber
suits. Calluses. Blooming
like a whole field of canola flowers, a whole golden field.
Until my tewack is empty of plastic fish
I will dive.
We have street sweepers on land, but what about in the ocean? Women divers called haenyeos have turned their responsibility of harvesting seafood into a way to clean up marine debris surrounding South Korea’s Jeju Island. As an immigrant, I take pride in embracing both my Korean roots and the connection Korean culture shares with the environment. Haenyeos, whose culture is recognized on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, possess incredible bravery, selflessness, and connection with Mother Nature; they led the anti-Japanese-colonialism movement in Jeju and have been building schools for decades. In fact, their sense of communal sacrifice even extends to their primary role of seafood harvesting—they leave the shallow water for elderly haenyeo and confront trauma while diving further and deeper. They prioritize abiding by nature’s laws, even diving without oxygen tanks to prevent overfishing. In particular, I’m inspired by how Jeju’s haenyeos apply their noble sense of sacrifice to their ongoing fight against ocean pollution. I get hope from statistics, such as the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report suggesting that we can reduce 50% of emissions by 2030 with sustained efforts. However, my real hope comes from haenyeos, who come together across generations and education levels and take risks everyday to save our planet. I believe in art as a way of not only embracing my activism but also fostering it in others. From conducting research in science labs, platforming and sharing ecopoetry through the literary magazine I founded, studying oceanography, to participating in protests, I find ways to use my voice and vision to advocate for environmental awareness and action. I wrote “해녀의 노래: Haenyeo’s Psalm” from the perspective of Yujung Lee, a Jeju native and the youngest currently active haenyeo, but the poem weaves many other haenyeos’ stories, as well. First, I endeavored to establish the generational relationship that the haenyeo community maintains with the ocean, as well as the ocean’s inherent beauty (as the “womb of the world”). As I built poetic momentum, I aimed to amplify the disruption of ocean pollution and the profound pain haenyeos feel in confronting Mother Earth’s degradation each morning. The more I thought about how haenyeos remind people of the vitality and resilience of humankind, the more I knew I had to write this poem and share it with the world. (In fact, each section of the poems begins with a word in the Jeju dialect, which is endangered despite its literary significance that comes from its close relation to Middle Korean.) Whether they themselves are “breath[ing] through gills passed from mother to daughter” to collect marine pollution or inspiring others who must rely on their own “gills” to breathe, haenyeos empower people around the world to join the global battle against climate change. Speaking of “breath[ing] … mother to daughter,” the poem begins with “어멍: Mother” and ends with “똘: Daughter” as a way of cementing the poem’s exploration of the mother-daughter relationship, as biological, environmental, and mythological mothers plead for the poem-speaker’s attention and intervention.