Photo caption: Poet Koon Woon reads from “Water Chasing Water” in Seattle on April 18th and 19th. “Water Chasing Water” by Koon Woon (Kaya Press, 2013).
Koon Woon’s recently released poetry collection “Water Chasing Water” (Kaya Press, 2013) brings together a selection of new writing alongside poems from the author’s out-of-print volume “The Truth in Rented Rooms” (Kaya Press, 1998). The poet’s new book presents new work drawn from the landscape and places of the Pacific Northwest, while extending and building upon his previous interest in themes of poverty, isolation and longing. The collection features a foreword by Los Angeles-based poet Sesshu Foster, a contributing editor at The Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as an essay from Russell Leong, long-time editor of Amerasia Journal, the flagship scholarly journal devoted to the field of Asian American studies.
Likening Koon Woon’s work to the poems carved on the walls of detention barracks at Angel Island by early Asian immigrants, Leong speculates, “These poems, taken as a whole, form the backbone and reality of the marginalized in America – of immigrants and refugees, workers and women, the poor, renters, halfway house recoverees – those whose voices and expression have traditionally not been sought or heard, recognized, or taught, canonized or collected by others.”
Intimate remembrances of working-class family members populate the first section of “Water Chasing Water.” An alcoholic uncle rents a room at the Emerson Hotel in Hoquiam, which recalls the interrogation room where he was once detained by immigration. A brother, who begins working at the family restaurant at the age of 12, keeps returning home to Aberdeen, a place that is both “a child’s reworking of paradise” and the site of a grown adult’s failings. A family struggles to pay for a mother’s dentures, her teeth destroyed by giving birth to eight children. Elsewhere, a father who dies of premature heart failure, is elegized by “Number-One Son,” which recalls the patriarch’s impenetrable benevolence and dogged work ethic.
The speaker of Koon Woon’s poems is a spectral and lone figure who dons a waiter’s yellow jacket that has “been worn for three generations.” The poet hides out in a restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator during dinner rush hour reading James Joyce and Franz Kafka, while experiencing his own version of the French poet Rimbaud’s “Season in Hell.” And yet, there is no melodrama in Koon Woon’s poems, only perhaps a kind of stark zen pathos that tears off the veil of perception: “The first time you see death, it is real, / but every time thereafter, it is false. / When people want to talk to me about rules / I just smash them on the head.”
A droll and resistant humor emerges in a poem like “Village Boy” where the poetic speaker points to his outsider status as one who is “thrown into the village pond / for corrupting the morals of my fellow students.” The same speaker participates in the everyday violence of poverty, suggested by eating his pet dog in lean times, and yet he makes do with a straw coat in the rain – an enduring portrait of the poet-hermit.
In “The High Walls I Cannot Scale,” Koon Woon apologizes to a poetic predecessor Tu-Fu, close associate and drinking companion of Tang Dynasty poet Li Po. The two men were inseparable poets and friends who often celebrated one another in verse. But Koon Woon’s poetic speaker can barely afford a bowl of simple rice porridge in Chinatown: “I have only enough to pay for one bowl, / and, so, my friend, I’m sorry, I must dine alone.”
Koon Woon’s work first came to the attention of the editors at Kaya through Walter Lew’s groundbreaking collection “Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry” – the fledgling press’s inaugural release published in 1995.
“We began working with Koon Woon as an individual author several years later to edit and sequence the manuscript that became ‘Truth in Rented Rooms,’” recalls publisher Sunyoung Lee.
Over the years, Koon remained in touch with the press and has donated to Kaya in support of its literary projects on several occasions.
“We were thrilled to have the opportunity to publish more of his work,” says Lee. “’Truth in Rented Rooms’ was in need of a reprint at around the time that we received the poems that made their way into ‘Water Chasing Water,’ so we decided to kill two birds with one stone with this new volume.”
Koon Woon reads with Kaya Press authors Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut and Thaddeus Rutowski at a Kaya Press event at Elliott Bay Book Company on Thursday April 18th at 5 p.m. The poet also reads from “Water Chasing Water” on Friday, April 19th, at 7:30 p.m. at Open Books at 2414 North 45th St. in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. Both events are free.