The following article was published in the August
1992 issue of Poetry Flash, number 233.
I first came
upon Myung Mi Kim's work when she was named guest editor of HOW(ever),
a publication of experimental feminist literature founded by Kathleen
Fraser, Beverly Dahlen, and Frances Jaffer in San Francisco. I immediately
had expectations. Having an interest in Asian American literature,
I was anxious to read a poetry collection by a Korean American woman.
Also having an interest in experimental poetry, I wanted to see
how Kim's poetics has developed within the forum of modern feminist
poetry. But mostly I wanted to see where the cultural and experimental
factors would intersect in Kim's poems.
my bias, I wanted to give Kim's Under Flag a fair reading.
Further, I wanted to give her poems a fair hearing. Ideally the
textual combined with the aural is what sets poetry apart from prose.
And it is always illuminating to compare and contrast the experiences
of both the reading and the hearing of a poet's work.
First the text.
The cover of Under Flag is made up of abstract artwork -
two untitled woodcut paintings by Norine Nishimura. I thought this
was a good invitation: but I came upon a familiar barrier. The back
cover of the book has a quote from Kathleen Fraser which describes
Kim's book as:
an assemblage of on-going effacements in the life of a child and
her family under occupation by American forces in Korea and, later,
in her struggle to enter an alien language and culture in the
U.S. Not since Oppen, has the eroding presence of war on the wholeness
of human existence been so vividly located ...
The quote does
what all good 'blurbs' should do by encapsulating a book's theme
or themes in a manner that is brief, concise and that deliberately
encourages or discourages a potential reader or audience. But for
better or for worse, the text is framed for its readers by a conventional
if not convenient context. In Kim's case, Under Flag is cast
into the social, cultural, and political foray. In reference to
George Oppen's name, Kim's book is given its post-modernist marker.
Many of Kim's
poems open with muted but compelling images which spring off of
their titles, as in this excerpt where she wistfully (ironically)
recalls the most arduous moments of her childhood, learning a new
it ring so true
So we must sing it
span even yawning distance
And would we be near then
would the sea be, if we were near it
catches its underside and drags it back
sound do we make, "n", "h", "g"
and it is sound in time ... (p. 13)
double and triple line spacings appear on the page as if to give
the poem a time signature the way quarter, half and whole notes
are scored on a staff of music. In the opening lines there is a
triangulation of the short "i" vowel sounds when "ring,"
"sing," and "it" are interspersed, while "must"
is intoned both as a question and as an imperative.
'n', is given the same attention in lines three and four. The hard
'in' in "span" and "even" is set against the
soft in "yawning" and "distance," almost to
escape the necessity of an article. In the fifth line, the long
'e' vowel wounds are crowded together. Kim's use of vowels and consonants
give musical distinction to lines that can threaten the limits of
the book, Kim's sense of lyricism seems to counteract its content.
The fragmented imagery sheds light on both the personal and the
historical subjugation of country, culture, gender and race. The
pieces are held together like the details in a large classical Korean
landscape painting, as in the book's title poem:
distance. If she knows it
and again casting into the pond to hook the same turtle
by borders conquered, disfigured
house can be seen
another thatched roof
this side of the sea the rancor of their arrival
Where invasion occurs according to schedule
a singular wave set against stubbed bluffs
of those who carry households on their backs ... (p. 16)
are moments in the book where the luminous becomes dull, especially
in the longer poems. In "Food, Shelter, Clothing," it
is hard to negotiate the narrative no matter how much desire there
is to place or read into the text; the poetic voice is unsustained:
Up against bounty and figured human
Geographical trodden shelter
ga ga ga ga ... (p. 27)
I went to hear
Myung Mi Kim read from Under Flag at three different venues: at
a book party and reception in a private residence overlooking the
Oakland Hills; at Cody's Books in Berkeley; and at the Japanese
Cultural Center in San Francisco sponsored by the Kearny Street
Workshop and Small Press Traffic. At all three events she was introduced
as, "...Korean American ... she came to the United States at
age nine ..." This kind of introduction is honorific. But again,
for better or worse, Kim's work was framed for the audience by its
ethnicity. And each time she was introduced, she tried to steer
the audience away from framing her book ethnically - almost as a
disclaimer. "My work isn't so much about the immigrant story,"
Kim said, "as it is about how that experience is branded
or imprinted on the language of the poems." [paraphrased]
I think her statement expresses both the desire and predicament
of Asian American poets and writers today.
Some of her
poems need to be read aloud as in the following excerpt from "Demarcation,"
which is charming on the page and sweet to the ear when Kim sings
the motifs from a Korean folksong:
A bird calls out in perfect thirds: do-mi, do-mi
Domi, domi, saal zsin domi
Domi, domi, oh fat snapper As complicated as it is
As dirt scrubbed off that a thousand hands smear on
As dim railings pen children at long tables spooning gruel
As the infant face is absence onto which we say
It is like - it is like - (p. 38)
In her readings,
Kim never read from the series of six poems called "These Fishing."
Perhaps they are no longer current or relevant to Kim. Or perhaps
from the time of their writing to the time of publication they seem
less vital to her. But I think they are the most elegant pieces
in the book. Visually they look like the five line English translations
of Chinese lyrics from the Tang Dynasty that I grew up reading as
a child. Filled with intriguing elements, their visual simplicity
is deceiving. For example, "These Fishing Six":
soldiers of this great enterprise
the intrepidly stationed buoys
one thread to bring next to needle eye (p. 42)
The first two
lines of this short poem represent the determination and the anxiety
of a boat full of immigrants as they approach the waters of a new
land. With the third line we wonder who of the many will take on
a new name; who of the many will hold steadfast to their name? And
whose name lingers that is left behind? The images shattered by
the fourth line. The possessive and interrogative "whose"
and "what" are counterintuitive in relation to the words
that follow. The poem as a unit presents many possibilities that
are, to name a few, 1) syntactical, 2) phonological and/or cultural,
3) perceptual, and 4) metaphorical.
we read the fourth line and try to rearrange the words (in our own
mind) as an organized thought if not an actual sentence. For instance,
one rearrangement of the third and fourth lines might read as, "their
names linger / as the focus of an eye upon a needle to be threaded."
There could be many variations on this phrase as we try to reconcile
the infinitive "to bring" without the benefit of a true
verb to clearly indicate the subject / predicate function of the
phrase in light of the three preceeding lines. This is only one
example of how we can read a text that may at first seem unsurmountable.
we wonder what motivated or generated an utterance like the fourth
line? Is it random association? Or is it a product of a flashback
and suppressed memory? It certainly violates the left-to-right assumptions
of logic that we have for text in standard English. For me, the
fourth line as a lyric quality that seems to be inherently Asian
American. It is reminiscent of my seventy-three year old mother's
language and how ti changes around the holidays. She might spend
a week with my aunties speaking in Ilocano. And then she might teach
my five year old niece how to mend a sock speaking in English. She
might say, "anaco, take one thread to bring next to
needle eye, kasta, like that!" My niece would not find
it necessary to correct her syntax. She would understand the directional
gaze of her lola's eyes, mirror her gestures, follow her
fingerings and engage the task. The sock would be mended. And the
song-like quality of her lola's phrases would become part
of her linguistic repertoire.
the last word in the poem plays off of our ability to focus on an
image. Is the "eye" in the poem the eye of the needle
or the human eye of the subject? Is the needle an object "next
to" the eye? Or is "to needle" an infinitive with
an indirect object? On first reading and in subsequent readings,
our perception changes with the text.
I am not implying
that a specific linguistic strategy is required of us to appreciate
the poem. But I am suggesting that we let our eyes and ears play
with the language both as text and as music. Metaphorically, this
poem represents the necessity and perniciousness of the immigration
endeavor and how it is pulled by many forces between opposing shores.
The most centered
reading that Kim gave was at the Japanese Cultural Center. As all
events sponsored by the Kearny Street Workshop, the atmosphere was
'tribal' - sipping juice or wine, selling books, introducing family
and friends and chatting with the artists beforehand. The audience
was highly receptive. And her opening remarks were different. It
was the first appeareance at which she felt comfortable enough to
dedicate the reading to her father. She explained that after coming
to the United States at age nine, her father was killed in an auto
accident when she was fourteen. The painful irony of that story
is not in the book. But the emotional impact of that experience
as it is imprinted on her poetic language is most present. I looked
at the book once again; the first page of Under Flag is inscribed,
"for Young Ok Kim (1922-1972)."
The music of
poetic language comes from a core more deep than we can sometimes
imagine. And we are amazed to emerge from the perplexities of our
losses as the "bluegill" (quite literally, a lyric symbol)
peeps out of difficult lines.
cound not talk without first looking at others' mouths (which
into) crevice a bluegill might lodge in (p. 21)
is not an easy text to engage. But by exploring the precision and
possibility in Kim's use of poetic language, Under Flag grieves
and sings as we desire.