The debut collection by Korean American poet Joey S. Kim is a brief, visceral experience venturing into questions of presence, the liminal, and human form. Body Facts (Diode Editions, 2021) is composed of 28 poems, each ranging one to two pages in length, which offer brief glimpses into the everyday experiences and memories of the poet. The forms capture the short-lived and the endured: momentary sprouts of verse are matched with vast, prosaic statements that propel across the page.
As the title alludes, this book is about the body and the relationship between the body and the world. Throughout the book, poems reference the imperative of human physicality. Like the Korean feminist poets Yi Won and Kim Hyesoon, Kim’s work is dreamy in its presence of human limbs, organs, and general appearance, all which pop in and out of the poems’ scenes in a fleeting blur. Though Kim expresses a flooding surrealism, much of her own comments on form and body are by way of a less dreamy and more chilling undercurrent of unease. A person being attached to another’s shin, a person having disintegrating fingers, a person who has bitten and swallowed a tongue—these several examples of how Kim describes figure and anatomy and its grotesque presence.
The morphic motion between personal body and objectification is incredibly powerful throughout the book. Arguably the most prominent example of this dualism occurs in the collection’s title poem. Kim’s 12-part work explores the disturbing relationship between plastic surgery and reconstructive procedures pervasive in Asia. Each part of the poem is named after a part of the body. The poet moves from part to part in a harrowing, monstrous description of total self that ironically sees the body as both object and complete form of identity. The result represents a grossly textured consciousness marring sought-after perfection: how even looking to fix, repair, and transform requires a process, and that process is unsettling.
Kim exquisitely builds outward through “Body Facts” and other poems in the collection, exploring how the presence of the body is inseparable from race and from categorizable difference: “I remember how the white neighbors watched my sisters and me play on our driveway, calling us ‘dainty, doll-like,’ refusing that our origins be anywhere near their midwestern fences” (from “Y,” pg. 18). Motifs of stereotyping, racism, and the malaise of ostracization are subtle but integral Kim’s liberatory poetics. Kim’s work, as personal as it may be, also finds questions of universal identity as central.
Following the presidential years of 2016-2020, the book feels a response to and born of resilience during a time of fascism and anti-Asian hate in the United States. But the book also feels historically global, a series of comments on the longstanding systems, visible and invisible, that pervade the world. In one poem a reference is made to a dictator’s tweets, and in the next the reader finds a comment on the relationship between imperialism and the Korean war. Body Facts is an intricate book that reflects the meeting of the many complexities of the world and the many complexities of personal, lived experience.
Kim’s reflections of struggle are met and tempered through culture. Both serve as a strong foil to the body, and a remedy to the book’s subtext of conflict and pain. In “Sky,” the poet writes, “being proverbial escapes the flesh of the physical” (17). Countering the weight and burden of the body, despite its universal implications, the poet leans into heritage and the gift of tradition. Many of the poems connect experience to family and foster a cultural intimacy that offers a portal away from grimness. This investigation into systems of protection and joy offer a plethora of lessons to the reader, lessons that Kim gratefully is open to sharing with the world, sharing with the self.