Armies Of One


Suji Kwock Kim’s Whitman Award-winning collection arrives at a moment when many Asian American poets bristle at the redundancy and “ghettoization” of ethnic poetries in American letters. Kim’s Notes From the Divided Country opens with an almost parodic, mythic retelling of the poet’s conception in the “labyrinth of mother’s body.” After this surreal, prenatal fugue, the book abruptly shifts gears and launches into a series of first-person accounts of political atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese during the forced colonial assimilation of Korea and later by the Americans during the Korean War. An epigraph by Brecht alerts us to the fact that these imaginary perspectives are a deliberate attempt to flunk the ethnic litmus test of “authenticity.”

Citizens from Kim’s home village are “blown to hieroglyphs of viscera”—a piercing, uncanny image that doubles as a critique of the aestheticization of historical trauma. Although Notes belongs squarely in the tradition of what Carolyn Forché has called the “poetry of witness,” Kim’s guerrilla forays into Korean history quickly become formulaic. In the book’s final sections, the poet’s formal control and heavy reliance on narrative conventions make the question of historical representation feel like empty rhetoric. Which is not to say that the book doesn’t occasionally rise to Plath-like heights of confessional intensity (“Song of Ch’u: To the Sea-Wind,” “The Chasm,” and “The Robemaker”), or cough up the jutting, consonantal musicality of “Hanji: Notes for a Papermaker.” One can’t help but ask what continues to remain “unspeakable” in editor Yusef Komunyakaa’s Whitman choice this year, and why Asian American poetics still suffers from what Premonitions editor Walter Lew calls the “editorial aversion to poetry characterized by formal experimentation.”

Kim’s weirdly cinematic treatment of history shortchanges poetry and politics alike by leaning on immigrant clichés like “Mother chopped pieces/of her heart into the skillet.” No wonder the speaker of the final poem, “The Korean Community Garden in Queens,” discovers herself in the New World before a kind of ruined, overgrown Eden. Here, the dilemma of non-English-speaking immigrants struggling to acquire a new culture, represented so powerfully and unsettlingly by Korean American poets like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Myung Mi Kim, is translated back into the horticultural lingua franca of an exhausted American lyric idiom: “May I, and their gardeners in the old world/who kill for warring dreams and warring heavens,/who stop at nothing, see life and paradise as one.”

Archive Highlights