Possibilities Out of an Impossible Position: Myung Mi Kim's Under Flag

Zhou Xiaojing


At a reading Myung Mi Kim gave on November 2, 2001 at SUNY-Buffalo, a member of the audience asked a question about the connection between Kim's ethnic background and her poetry in words to this effect: Given your visible Otherness, are you trying to reclaim your Koreanness, or to dwell in English? Kim replied that her poetry was about the impossibility of either. This essay explores the possibilities that are opened up for Kim's poetry as a result of this impossible position of either reclaiming a seemingly stable ethnic identity, or seeking to be at home in the dominant language. For Kim, an oppositional position constricted by an "either-or proposition" is incapable of addressing the complexity in the process of bringing social, political, and aesthetic change. The fact that "we're each implicated in a machinery that works to maintain the loci of power," Kim notes, makes it even more necessary "to pose how we might participate in inventing how 'change' takes place." As a poet seeking to be a shaping force in the way change takes place, Kim believes that "Poetry is simply how you participate in language [. . .]" (Morrison 75, 77). Language in Kim's poems is a site for destabilizing ethnic and national identities, for interrogating power relations, and for articulating an irreducible alterity that resists assimilation. "It's the locating of one's own condition by agency of a text," says Kim in an interview, "that is so profound" (Morrison 81).

In her poems about the Korean immigrant experience collected in her first volume, Under Flag (1991), Kim investigates the diasporic subjects' relationship to language, history, and U.S. citizenship. She interrogates the encounters between cultures and languages, including the ways in which language reproduces or unsettles power relations. Her rendering of English with foreign accents dislodges binary constructs of cultural and national identities which assume essence, fixity, and hierarchy. Interweaving her investigation of language with an exploration of collective memory and history, Kim examines what she refers to as "the questions of translation between cultures and languages and in particular the kinds of resemblances and contaminations that inform how language(s) systematize and engender notions of power" (Lee 94). She employs what might be called a language of diaspora, whose other-sounding music transforms the prosodic structure of traditional English lyric, making the English language "shift," putting it "to flight," to borrow Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet's terms and concept (58). In their discussion of marginalized and subjugated people's relationship to the English language, Deleuze and Parnet note that it is precisely by being "a hegemonic, imperialistic language [. . .]" that English "is all the more vulnerable to the subterranean workings of languages and dialects which undermine it from all sides and impose on it a play of vast corruptions and variations." This subversive and creative "shift" in a hegemonic language, they contend, also characterizes official American English: "The American language bases its despotic official pretensions, its majoritarian claim to hegemony, only on its extraordinary capacity for being twisted and shattered and for secretly putting itself in the service of minorities who work it from inside, [. . .] nibbling away at that hegemony as it extends itself [. . .]" (58). To corrupt the hegemonic language from within is precisely Kim's strategy.

In fact, Kim materializes immigrants' experience of disjunctive time in terms of "speed, "duration," and "music" in the English language inflected with "foreign" accents. In the opening poem of Under Flag "And Sing We," Kim uses displaced English words to enact Korean immigrants' fragmentary memories of home, including the "Um-pah, um-pah sensibility of the first grade teacher" and the sound from "feet firm on the pump organ's pedals," pumping water into rice fields (14). At the same time, she explores the possibilities of what Deleuze and Félix Guattari call "the deterritorialization of language," opposing "a purely intensive usage of language to all symbolic or even significant or simply signifying usage of it"(Kafka 18,19). By making such intensive use of both English and Korean, Kim is able to oppose the "oppressive quality" of either language and to arrive at the kind of "perfect and unformed expression, a material intense expression" which Deleuze and Guattari refer to when speaking of the deterritorialization of Yiddish and German in Kafka's writings (Kafka 27, 25, 19). Kim's use of language as such articulates the immigrants' memory of home and sense of dislocation in a land where they can no longer trace their ancestry. As she invents a new prosody in English to render the experience of diaspora visceral through verbal sound not identifiable with any single system of language, Kim allows immigrants to confront their feelings of exile and the process of their becoming. Indeed, Kim employs what Deleuze and Guartari might call "deterritorialized sounds" (Kafka 26) to destabilize national and cultural identities:

Once we leave a place is it there

Prattle (heard, found, made) in kitchen

No longer clinking against the sides of the pot set to boil

Prattle displaced. Guard birds

That should have been near, all along

Prattle done trattle gone just how far

Do voices carry

What we might have explored, already discovered

Falling down falling down

Callback fallback whip whippoorwill

Not the one song to rivet us trundle rondo

Not a singular song trundle rondo

What once came to us whole

In this we are again about to do

In the times it take to dead dead dead la la la

Trundle rondo for a long time it stood marker and marked

Mostly, we cross bridges we did not see being built (Under Flag 14 -15)

With what used to be familiar noises of prattle in the kitchen displaced, "we" find the songs we hear no longer identifiable with a common ancestry or language, as we realize we are not the pioneers in the land where we live now. The singing of London Bridge (or perhaps some other structure) "falling down falling down" is interrupted by a different song with a disparate rhythm and cadence: "Callback fallback whip whippoorwill." Both are intersected by yet another song of a different music, "trundle rondo." This singular music "trundle rondo" has become part of a heterogeneous assemblage of songs, in which each maintains its distinctiveness. These songs are markers of time, diaspora, and duration of memories, not traceable to a single source of nation or ethnicity. As immigrants' cultural identities lose their traceable origins in a land where they can claim no "natural" bond through lineage, their otherness contaminates the dominant language and disturbs the cultural homogeneity of the U.S. nation-space. Refusing to be defined as the opposite of the norm by Orientalist discourse, or reduced to the Same by assimilationist ideology, the alterity of diaspora subjects in Kim's poems at once resists and intervenes in the dominant culture even as immigrants themselves are being transformed in the process of becoming.

Kim's poems also break away from linear, chronological time in expressing immigrants' experience of dislocation and becoming with regards to collective and individual identities. In her collage composition, time as duration of articulation and memory is intersected by national history and the history of colonialism and imperialism. Kim interweaves markings of time as geographical and cultural displacements through polyphonic articulation that resists any "regularizing, maintainable 'pattern', " to borrow Kim's own words ( "Anacrusis" par. 2). Like the other-sounding English, the multidimensional time and disjunctive simultaneity in Kim's poetry open up the textual space not simply to the social, historical, and political, but also to the unutterable, the silenced and erased. In "Food, Shelter, Clothing," the speaking voices follow the trajectory of refugees' and immigrants' diaspora, while shifting from one historical moment to another. Using blank spaces on the page and fragmentary utterances, Kim creates a sense of disruption, isolation, and exile, which is intertwined with Korean history, including the Korean War, the Japanese invasion, and Korean resistance. This method enables Kim to bring into her poem a remarkable range of geographical locations and historical moments as well. Take for example, the arrangement of these lines on one page, and their juxtaposition with the lines on the opposite page:

They had oared to cross the ocean

And where had they come to

These bearers of a homeland (Under Flag 22)

Leaving the rest of the page blank, Kim uses incomplete sentences on the opposite page to evoke two historical events-the landing of the amphibious tanks of U.S. military in South Korea on September 28, 1950 at the "same spot" where Japanese invading armies had landed before. The arrival of the U.S. amphibious tanks marks the beginning of the Korean War and an unequal relationship between U.S. and South Korea; the landing of the Japanese invading armies in Korea led to the brutal colonization of Korea by Japan from 1910 to 1945. Although the U.S. military presence in Korea was motivated by purposes vastly different from those of the Japanese military campaigns, it also brought massive destruction and countless deaths to Korea:

Those landing amphibious (under cover of night)

In a gangplank thud and amplification take

Spot of ground. Fended it might remain

Republic and anthem, spot and same spot

How little space they take up given the land's reach

All those whose feet had resounded

Smear fear tyranny of attack

Already the villages already the cities receding (Under Flag 23)

Taking "flight" in her use of language that breaks open the poetic form produced and maintained by prosodic structure or syntactical closure, or by sequential development of argument, Kim is able to incorporate into the poem through a few fragmentary lines the aftermaths of both the Japanese invasion and the Korean war, as well as Koreans' struggle for freedom and democracy:

A face hauled away and a small flag of the country nearby

They were stripped

They were made to roll in one direction then the other

If they didn't do it right, they were kicked


An ambulance on which the words "blood bank car"

Had been written in blood (Under Flag 24)

Shifting from the geographical locations of Korean history from Korea to indeterminate time-spaces of Korean immigrants' experience of diaspora, Kim's use of language becomes further "deterritorialized," breaking further away from metaphoric or symbolic signification. Her lines become more fragmented as the utterances resist centrality of the self and the privilege of the lyric I/eye:

 "In my country" preface to the immigrant's fallow
 Field my country ash in water follow
 Descent    slur    vowel

 Stricken buoys
 Span no tongue and mouth
 Scripting, hand flat against the mouth (Under Flag 26)

With these departures in her use of language and form, Kim is able to investigate "what it means to find a connection between poetry and the world," as she says in an interview with Yedda Morrison (Morrison 77). Finding this connection, for Kim, means not simply a matter of what to tell but how to tell in her poetry. "Part of the meaning of being a historical subject," Kim says, "is to engage in how to tell. [. . .] How to refigure and reinvent and reoccupy the manner of telling" (Morrison 80).

The last two pages of this poem illustrate well the ways in which Kim refigures, reinvents, and reoccupies the manner of telling Korean diaspora through radically fragmented utterances:

Up against bounty and figured human
             allaying surge
 Geographical trodden shelter
 Locate deciphering 

                            by force
 As contour
       ga ga ga ga (Under Flag 27)
 *   *   *   *

 Will be plain foil credo 
 Figures pervious arboretum
                                         ave mella ferro (Under Flag 28)

These scattered words and phrases, and the visual and aural effects they create translate the seemingly untranslatable experiences of violence and destruction, separation and loss, endurance and hope. Kim's use of language in such a way so as to foreground the sound patterns of words is similar to what Deleuze and Guattari call "pull[ing] from the language tonalities lacking in signification," thus "open[ning] the word onto unexpected internal intensities [. . .]"(Kafka 22). Paradoxically, these internal intensities of the word in Kim's poem are brought out by her engagement with historical events of war, colonization, and diaspora, which are external, though not unconnected, to language and poetry. It is precisely through her engagement with the world and historical moments by pushing the limits or extremities of language that Kim finds new creative possibilities for articulating what seems impossible to articulate.

Speaking of the writings by Paul Celan and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Kim notes that the space where the "collaboration between the impossibility of utterance and finding the means by which to utter" is in "constant motion, and constant reshaping of itself" (Morrison 81-82). She adds, "any poem is always on the cusp of coming into legibility-formally, psychically, politically. For me those works that keep re-invigorating that space of silence and erasure, the space of the seemingly untranslatable, are the ones in which you connect to a source of endurance and power" (Morrison 82). The empty spaces left on the page, and the spaces among words, sentences, and images in this and other poems by Kim are spaces which articulate silence and erasure resulting from massacre-"An ambulance on which the words 'blood bank car' / Had been written in blood"- and from oppression by patriarchy and colonization-"She could not talk without first looking at others' mouths (which language?) / (pushed into ) crevice a bluegill might lodge in" (Under Flag 24, 21). These spaces also mark the process in which this poem, "Food, Shelter, Clothing," is coming into legibility, moving from one fragmented image to another, from interrupted utterances to silence, from silence to utterances, as fragmentary evocations of home and national history give way to experiences of exile and diaspora. By re-invigorating those spaces, Kim connects to "a source of endurance and power" such as that found in the writings of Celan, Cha, Kafka, and Beckett, as well as in the collective memory of Koreans' resistance to Japanese invasion and colonization: "These men these women are throwing stones / These men these women chant and chant" (Under Flag 25).

In her other poems collected in Under Flag such as "Body As One As History," "Demarcation," "These Fishing," and "From The Sea On To the Land," cadences of deterritorialized words and deformations of sentences engage with historical moments of violence, destruction, and mass migration. Lyric utterances in these poems are intertwined with experiences of diaspora and moments in Korean history. Kim's disjunctive poetics denaturalizes national and ethnic identities, particularly Asian Americans' essentialized bodily and cultural differences which were used to justify their prohibition by law from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens. In another poem, "Into Such Assembly," for example, Kim employs collage juxtaposition to expose the contradictions in the process of being "naturalized" as a U.S. citizen, and to articulate an alternative concept of belonging, which does not seek to erase difference or reduce otherness. While relating the acquisition and usage of English to state power in the process of assimilating the "Other," the first part of the poem simultaneously enacts and undermines the official procedure of naturalizing aliens:

	Can you read and write English?  Yes______.  No______.
Write down the following sentences in English as I dictate them.
There is a dog in the road.
It is raining.
Do you renounce allegiance to any other country but this?
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .] (Under Flag 29)

In juxtaposition to this process of naturalization, Kim introduces a passage of apparently Korean immigrants' nostalgic memories of home, including a line of Korean song in Korean.

 Cable car rides over swan flecked ponds
Red lacquer chests in our slateblue house
Chrysanthemums trailing bloom after bloom
Ivory, russet, pale yellow petals crushed
Between fingers the green smell, if jade would smell
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
The other, the pine wet green side of the mountain
Hides a lush clearing where we picnic and sing:
Sunn-Bul-Sah, geep eun bahm ae (Under Flag 29)

However, the images of this home seem to be a typical Orientalist depiction of the East frozen in time and space. The line from the Korean song-Sunn-Bul-Sah, geep eun bahm ae (Deep into the night at the Temple of Becoming the Buddha)-highlights this romanticized description of Korea isolated from history. In contrast to this Orientalist construct of Korea, Kim's references to Korea's colonization by Japan and to U.S. military and political interventions in Korea, as well as Korean citizens' protests against Japanese colonialism and American imperialism in the proceeding poems, particularly the title poem, "Under Flag," indicate the impossibility for Korean immigrants to claim a stable, singular identity of nation or culture. Kim foregrounds the ambivalence of Korean immigrants' national and cultural identities in the provocative ending lines of the first part of this poem:

Neither, neither

Who is mother tongue, who is father country? (Under Flag 29)

The double negative and the questions refuse the binarized choice of either this or that category of national or cultural identification.

In the second part of this poem, Kim shows that a binary, hierarchical scheme of identity construct of the American self and the Oriental Other is formulated and maintained in terms of geographical locations. Using collage to juxtapose different voices, Kim at once reveals and subverts such reductive binary identity constructions:

Do they have trees in Korea? Do the children eat out of garbage cans?

We had a dalmation
We rode the train on weekends from Seoul to So-Sah where we grew grapes

We ate on the patio surrounded by dahlias

Over there, ass is cheap-those girls live to make you happy

Over there, we had a slateblue house with a flat roof where
I made many snowmen, over there (Under Flag 30)

The emphasis on geographical locations for defining ethnic and national identities in these lines evokes the question raised in the opening poem of Under Flag, "And Sing We": "Once we leave a place is it there" (14). While the dialogically juxtaposed questions and statements suggest a mode of identity construction out of historical contexts, but contained in an ethnically designated space fixed by geographical boundaries. Kim challenges such spatially bounded and dichotomized identities by introducing a passage of instructions for how to pronounce certain English words: "No, 'th', 'th', put your tongue against the roof of your mouth, [. . .] that's better" (Under Flag 30). This passage reveals a power relation and identity reconstruction embedded in the immigrants' relationship to the English language, indicating a process of Korean immigrants' identity transformation in part through learning a new language, a process which destabilizes spatially defined identities of nation or culture.

Further exploring Korean immigrants' experience of exile, dislocation, and becoming otherwise than what they used to be or are supposed to be, Kim raises questions about immigrants' relationships to mother tongue and dominant language. As the speaker asks in the closing lines of Part Two of "Into Such Assembly" :

And with distance traveled, as part of it
How often when it rains here does it rain there?
One gives over to a language and then
What was given, given over? (Under Flag 30)

These questions are central to Kim's exploration of the relations between diaspora and national, cultural identities. Rather than offering any direct answers to the questions, Kim moves beyond Korean immigrants' experience to suggest an alternative view of who "we" are as historical subjects in Part Three of this poem.

Evoking the indiscriminate nature of the rain, Kim articulates an inclusive vision of "our" identity that encompasses all of us across ethnic, national, and geographical boundaries:

	This rain eats into most anything
                       And when we had been scattered over the face of earth
                       We could not speak to one another
 The creak rises, the rain-fed current rises
                       Color given up, sap given up
                       Weeds branches groves what they make as one
 [. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
                      What gives way losing gulch, mesa, peak, state, nation
 Land, ocean dissolving
 The continent and the peninsula, the peninsula and the continent
 Of one piece sweeping
 One table laden with one crumb
 Every mouthful off a spoon whole
 Each drop strewn into such assembly (Under Flag 31) 

This "assembly" of us-all of us from all corners of the world-undermines the insistence on a monolingual, uniform ethnic or national identity, and subverts the hierarchical binary constructs of "us" over here and "them" over there, as alluded to in the first two parts of the poem. In this assembly there is no hierarchy of race, culture, or nationality, no preordained binary social order, no established center to which the new, the different must conform. Indeed, this assembly consists of what Deleuze might call "differences within multiplicities," which "replace schematic and crude oppositions" (Difference 182). It is an assembly constituted by "an internal multiplicity" which is "non-localisable," thus having an "indetermination [that] renders possible the manifestation of difference freed from all subordination" (Difference 183). As the title "Into Such Assembly" suggests, Kim's poems of diaspora call into question naturalized singular, homogeneous, or hierarchical national and cultural identities, which are often maintained by binary categorizations of peoples and cultures.

Asserting an unassimilable otherness that suggests "an internal multiplicity," Kim's poetry disrupts binary relations between majority and minority cultures. In doing so, her poetry carries out the task David Palumbo-Liu proposes for minority discourse: "It is a specific task for minority discourse to ascertain the interpenetration of minor and dominant cultures, and to see that reconfiguration as a site of a politicized aesthetics" (202). Keenly aware of the agency of her poetics as a site of politicized aesthetics, Kim regards her writing of poems as a way of interrogating "questions of national narratives, transcultural narratives, narratives of cultural and political diaspora, and concepts or perhaps more accurately, hybridizations of human community" (Morrison 84). Speaking as the other in the U.S. nation-space, bringing into English and American poetry an irreducible difference, Myung Mi Kim, like other minority American poets, is transforming the once Eurocentric American poetry, while inscribing histories of other times and places across national borders. The hybrid music of Kim's poetry is the sound of history. As those lines from the opening poem of Under Flag state: "What sound do we make, "n", "h", "g" / Speak and it is sound in time" (13). The "sound in time" in Kim's poetry is duration of memory, of history, and of the process of becoming, materialized in contaminated English.


Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

-- and Claire Parnet. Dialogues. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam.
London: The Athlone Press, 1987.

-- and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000.

Kim, Myung Mi. "Anacrusis." Talk at the Page Mothers Conference. University of California at San Diego, March, 1999. Online posting. 17 par. <http://www.scc.rutgers.edu/however/v1_2_1999/current/readings/kim.hitml>.

--. Under Flag. Berkeley: Kesley St. Press, 1998.

Lee, James Kyung-Jin. "Myung Mi Kim." Interview. Words Matter: Conversations with Asian American Writers. Ed. King-Kok Cheung. Honolulu: U of Hawai'i Press, 2000. 92-104.

Morrison, Yedda. "Generosity as Method: Excerpts from a Conversation with Myung MI Kim." Interview. Tripwire: A Journal of Poetics 1 (Fall 2000): 75-85.

Palumbo-Liu, David. "Universalism and Minority Cutures." Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 7.1 (Spring 1995): 188-208.