In The Souls of Black Folks W.E.B. DuBois opined: “One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro . . . two warring ideals in one dark body.” Substitute “Korean” for “Negro,” and DuBois is highlighting the thematic undercurrent of poet-Voice critic Cathy Park Hong’s first book, Translating Mo’um.
At turns seething, randy, and quixotic, Translating is as irascible as it is unclassifiable. While confronting how languages and cultures mesh and refract, Translating reads like a bi/cross-cultural Dadaist linguistic fugue with a tonal range that careers from lullaby to rant.
Hong’s verse combines projectivism’s unbridled ecstasies with Wallace Stevens’s abstract reveries—sans his lyricism. Her emotional versatility calls to mind Korean bard Kim Sujang’s whimsical stylistic liberties with the sijo form. Hong’s stratagems (fill-in-the-blanks, untranslated Korean phrases, “legal” exhibits) and scintillating, discursive leaps resemble UFOs hovering, then darting to points unknown.
Divided into three sections, Translating is anchored by poems about curios. “The Ontology of Chang and Eng,” “The Shameful Show of Tono Maria,” and “Hottentot Venus” all symbolize Hong’s awareness of both cultural and individual spectacle.
“Chang and Eng” serves as a seamless objective correlative for Hong’s self-proclaimed oddball status and dual consciousness. But rather than state the obvious, Hong invents a formal lattice to bolster her contentions. In the poem’s opening section, Hong uses slashes to depict the twins’ differences: “Chang spoke / Eng paused.” In the second part, Hong’s syntactic parallelism highlights the twins’ similarities—”both owned . . . forty slaves.” (Cathy, don’t think, especially with your oblique arguments for cultural empathy, that the “slave” line snuck past a brother.)
As stand-alones her curio poems are provocative. But Hong’s intellect makes the reader draw parallels between how the lazy gaze of the imperious “others” ogles the obvious (Hottentot’s steatopygia) and overlooks nuance (Venus’s polyglot gifts), and Korean American culture’s potentially marginalized, freak-show status.
Hong’s a cutup to the end. Her antics even surface in the title. In the endnotes, Hong explains, “Mo’um” means—ready?—mom. Why should anyone have to define they momma? But it’s Hong’s wry manifesto: You know I got Seoul. Translation, anyone?