Myung Mi Kim, author of "Under Flag."
Myung Mi Kim, author of "Under Flag."
Can you tell the truth in the words of your oppressor? Will his language become the voice of your memories? Will his history be your own? These questions circulate like currents of air through Myung Mi Kim’s five poetry collections, beginning in 1991 with “Under Flag.” Book by book, she has turned away from the words and usages of her oppressors, refusing to reproduce the heady wine of their conquest and domination. “Through sameness of language is produced / sameness of sentiment and thought,” she writes. As much as the social registers of language bind us together in ways that create community, they limit us, too. Sameness of language becomes another kind of tie, a shackle of knowing just one thing, dehumanization, of accepting its excuses, its inevitability.

Against that sameness Myung Mi Kim has placed the quiet reply of her poems, whose words reverberate as signposts of a language meant to recreate the uncontainable. In “Penury” (2009), she returns again to the wasteland of the past (Korea, mostly) and ripples through its shards of glass and scattered petals. Her poetry is like something exposed too long to the elements: cracked, blasted, worn away by neglect, cruelty, and indifference. Or unleashed — from the restraints of syntax, from speech sounds chained together. On the page letters eddy away from words and spiral into combinations that elude recognition. White space swallows typography or blankets the lines in silence:

[lookout post]
Are these your names
From we are from where are you from
Say this may speaking

To burn or expose to the threat of the sun a person
with a pigeon chest and protruding stomach

At times a grotesque beauty coincides with the wreckage. Penury’s broken sequences yield moments of lyricism as rhythm, sound, and imagery give way to song: “Could the rock be that yellow, canary yellow // Corresponding // Pelvis Bowl // Bunker buster bomb.” Imagistic and elusive, silent and expressive, passages like this one show the way Myung Mi Kim’s words tend toward the sonic qualities of music even at their most a-logical or unfamiliar.

Many readers will glance at a page of Myung Mi Kim’s poetry and find it terminally off-putting. Others will be thrilled for the same reasons exactly. Yet I wish the off-put readers would simply keep going. There is no secret meaning to decode in this poetry. Penury (or “Dura” or any of her other books) offers a great gift in its seemingly alien communications. Who hasn’t experienced some version of pain or terror or sadness or hope, the kind that leaves us speechless, beyond words? If, in such a moment, we did find the words to say what we felt, those words might well resemble one of Myung Mi Kim’s desolate assemblages. Still, there would be no sameness there, just a disorderly kinship.

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