Roll call

Trains came to a halt.

Factory chimneys stopped breathing.

Schools and hospitals boarded up their doors.


But from his desk each morning,

the old teacher still called the roll.

His chapped lips spoke each student’s name.


Whenever he was met with silence –

as if he had been punched right through –

he shouted, Study comes before hunger!


The teacher was absent today.

Above the desk where once stood

character, learning, wisdom

now hung only the portrait of a dead man.


The register lay open, each name waiting for the call.

With no one there to utter them

their whimpers spoke their loss.


They had no right to absence –

conscience forbade even tardiness:

he’d lived his life a sacrifice

for the future of the homeland.


And so each weeping student stood;

each raised his arm to shout:

Teacher, I am here!

Teacher, I am here!


This poem is set at the time of the famine in North Korea, where it is treasonous to show greater respect to anyone other than the Supreme Leader.


Translated from the Korean by Shirley Lee.

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