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Esther Ra

Esther Ra is a bilingual writer from Seoul, South Korea. She is the author of A Glossary of Light & Shadow (Diode Editions, forthcoming in 2023), book of untranslatable things (Grayson Books, 2018) and the founder of The Underwater Railroad, a literary reunification project. Her work has also been published in Boulevard, Rattle, The Rumpus, American Literary Review, PBQ, Twyckenham Notes, and Korea Times, among others. Esther has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Pushcart Prize, the 49th Parallel Award, the Vineyard Literary Award, the Women Writing War Poetry Award, and the Sweet Lit Poetry Prize.

Esther Ra
Portrait of Esther Ra courtesy of Youngsun Kang, photographer


A Glossary of Light & Shadow

April 2023

Publication Date:

About the Book

AGlossary of Light & Shadow examines what it means to live as a human in a world rife with atrocities and unexpected grace. Weaving together a rich variety of forms and personas, these poems explore the anguished affection and quiet resilience of human beings who are more than their trauma.

The collection includes a section of twenty-six poems (one poem for each letter of the alphabet) drawing from the author’s experiences working with North Korean refugees. This section explores experiences that are commonly overlooked in the politicized narratives on North Korea: falling in love in a country where love has no name, homesickness after “successful” resettlement, and the lingering effects of survivor’s guilt. These poems depict peace-building as a slow and often painful process, yet persist in cherishing small moments of tenderness amid loss, illness, and war.

At once a collective love poem to the silenced, a celebration of ordinary miracles, and a deft, playful tribute to the strange beauty of the English language, A Glossary of Light & Shadow is a testimony to the limits of human suffering—and the frail, fierce hope that survives in spite of it all.


“Esther Ra’s A Glossary of Light & Shadow carves a glass lens through which she delivers a pure gift—glacial, crackling, blueing—poems that press into the tongue. Ra delivers an exciting record of self, body, and world, interrogating boundaries of selfhood and nationhood. There’s no mistake so big as war, and these poems tell us to remember what we’ve chosen to forget.”

— E. J. Koh, author of The Magical Language of Others and A Lesser Love

“Once in a while, there’s a book I’ve waited for without knowing I was waiting. Esther Ra’s A Glossary of Light & Shadow is one of those books. Now that these poems are here, I can’t imagine ever having been without them. Prayerful, profoundly compassionate, and utterly generous, they are encouragement in the truest sense: to put heart in. And though the poems never look away from suffering, their empathic witnessing returns me to a sense of wonder at human existence. 'Today,' Ra writes, ‘I am given a small, shining life.’ Today—how lucky we are!—we are given this poet, these shining poems.”

— Kasey Jueds, author of The Thicket

“If, as Louis MacNeice says, ‘World is crazier and more of it than we think,’ Esther Ra’s words arrive
as quiet faith-spangled proof of a poet’s power to navigate and defy the overwhelm of human violence and affliction; lifting tealights toward fury, each poem a lucent bubble, in A Glossary of Light & Shadow, Ra offers a sustained lyric meditation on what it means to be alive suspended between—identities, geographies, sensibilities, desires, times. Like bruised Alice far from a mother and sister, Ra’s speaker, a fledgling soul tumbling to rise again, moves haunted amidst landmines and cakes to find home in a chapel made of song. In monologues conjuring Randall Jarrell with their empathy and child-like clarity, Ra enacts complex reflections of befriended refugees. In sequences borne from forms appropriated precisely to repurpose constraint (the corona, abecedarian, anagrams), honeyed silken strands leak through taut barbed wires. Ra rearranges shards (political, pestilent, pleading) to illuminate faith, transforming bandaged mouths into bouquets, translating rain into confession, and “eat me!” into embrace. Though its juice stings in the cuts, Ra’s book is an exquisite, delicious prayer for each day to be unwrapped, and savored: elegant, urgent, necessary.” 

— Katrina Roberts, author of Likeness

“Esther Ra’s stunning full-length debut stings the reader’s eyes with the clarity of fresh daybreak. These poems build affecting images from simple and beautiful language to offer us meditations at the scale of human experience. The poems approach their subject with a wisdom and sensitivity that is rare. The poems speak to the complexity of the Korean peninsula’s political strife and to the emotional complexity of third culture existence in the 21st century. This is a special book.”

 — Nate Marshall, author of Finna

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