Myung Mi Kim's performance of language

Myung Mi Kim at the Kelly Writers House, 2010. Photo by Arielle Brousse.

As she puts it in a 2008 interview with Lynn Keller, Myung Mi Kim approaches writing as a notational process, “working through accretion and sedimentation of material.”[1] Penury is a text (and language) of lived experience that emerges through the dynamic sequences of motion and change, thus providing a space for the (re)telling of multiple narratives. At times, it feels as though Kim writes from the space of liminality — from an outside that was once inside. The emerging self is continually transformed and reformed by the implicit sequences that compose the hegemonic, patriarchal system in which they function.

In fact, Kim has acknowledged the generative potential in poetic sequences that keep “reconfiguring a series of correspondences and relations,” as she tells Keller.[2] Ideologies are like this — fusings of collective memory that work to inextricably tie signifier and signified into cultural mythologies. Thus, there is a constant perpetuation of the hegemonic discursive structure. There is a subversive nature to traditional ideologies: their existence between the known world and the fabricated consciousness work to indirectly perpetuate notions of self and identity. There is a constant process of negotiating and redefining in order to safely and functionally live within the established normative structure. Myung Mi Kim explores the manifestations, effects, and consequences of the performance of an artificial self. Not only does she ask what is authentic, but questions whether that aspect of self is even accessible.

Disjunctive narrative and a place for artifacts

Although Penury is divided into six sections, each demarcated by three colons (: : :), it is by no means a work that follows the traditional concept or structure of narrative. The work moves through associative images and locations, a movement which speaks to the mutability of the construction of the self. The narratives exemplified in Penury are each enactments of possible truths, those that are unable to fit into an absolute representation of self. This design is based on a generation of self that relies on the external forces of a dominant discourse enveloped in a patriarchal system. A construction such as this does not have the capacity to represent selves who reside in the margins. That constructed self performs in a nonlinear sequencing of a multilayered narrative.

The aspect of Kim’s narrative that I will address is the interspersed appearance of what can best be referred to as “historical documentation.” Throughout the work, these artifacts (three transcripts and one tablet panel) presuppose the presence of an omniscient narrator or voice as is commonly found in traditional narrative structures. Conventionally, this voice acts as a documenter, a guide who leads the reader through the linear sequencing of a story. It must be noted that this storytelling is formed within a linguistic structure that, by its very function, privileges a certain discourse. That language has the ability and, most importantly, the power to present an empirical reality. And the transcript becomes a product, an objective and textual representation of a self. Documentation is a scientific endeavor meant to embody an “I,” yet this process simply does a disservice to the self by essentializing it.

Kim takes the very normalizing idea of documentation and unhinges it. In that way, the text exists as a dynamic document: one which performs and embodies a physical self as subject rather than an archetypal symbol. The reader is presented with a sparsely written and abstract document — a text that is difficult to pin down — that is labeled as “transcript” or “panel,” implying that these are factual illustrations.

In a twist of preconceived notions of documentation, Kim allows these pieces to be self-generating and self-propelling. Within the transcripts, language is based on the logic of an internal guiding principle. The “I” created in this space is one that rebirthed itself, emerged from deep inside the linguistic body. What was once marginalized is now mainstream — it is an upending, a reversal of the dominant discourse. The creative potential is within language, but in Penury, language is, itself, a reconstructed self:


 you speak English so well transcript[3]

In a conventional sense, these letters could represent a person’s initials — abbreviations of a name. With this interpretation comes the automatic power association: are these names products of an ascription, or are they the result of an enacted agency, a renaming and reidentification? Yet the last line queers this reading by calling into question our conceptualizations of language systems. None of the letter couplings is an accepted English word. That is to say that these couplings are not found in the dominant discourse. However, the final line, in its understood objective authority, labels those very letter pairs not only English, but commendable examples of it.

Abstractions and linguistic turns illustrate an infinite parsing of language to create new meanings. Learning language is not simply a matter of learning words, but of relating those words to the things and happenings for which they stand. Once we accept the idea that language acquisition is about learning the relationships between words rather than simply the meanings of individual words, we can shred language to recreate it in our own poetic formulation. Kim speaks about the plasticity of language, suggesting that language is

a social practice rather than any sort of intractable given, and once that rift enters your consciousness, it allows you to have an interrogative relationship to language. You have questions about what language is, what it performs, what it means to get recognized as a speaker of a particular language. This reflexivity prepares you to be an acute listener. This transitive space is a translative space — both linguistically and, I think, in terms of the person, the subject, if not spirit. This opens up multiplicity, plurality, in social and personal conceptions of language.[4]

There is a sense of indeterminacy and ambiguity that, strangely, also works towards achieving something more permanent. But what is extracted, what comes out of this linguistic structure, could not be called whole. It’s the stripped-down remnant, a skeletal structure that is left from the disintegration/destruction of an I. Ironically enough, the coupled letters take the shape of the letter “I” on the page. By virtue of this visible presence, the conceptual idea of the self also remains with the reader.

Kim, in effect, creates an alternative narrative by challenging the normative both in her abstraction of the linguistic construct and in her use of the white space of the page. This forges a space for alternative cultural production and alternative epistemologies — different ways of thinking and knowing that are crucial to creating a counterhegemonic worldview. In order to change conventional ways of thinking about language, we must recognize that within a written work, as bell hooks writes, “there will be fragments of speech that may or may not be accessible to every individual.”[5] Those who benefit from and function fully within a hegemonic structure have taken their understanding and use of that structure’s language for granted.

Kim’s narrative is structured as a layering of sorts. Within a sequence, the layers serve to qualify, reinforce, or alter the parts that precede and follow. Each part is both complete and incomplete, leaving the reader with a feeling of absolute uncertainty:

At the quarry
Leaving the Quarry
Bringing hand tools
Approaching the river
The workmen are prisoners
A chariot is pulled by two servants

At the left heads are counted and the booty is piled in front of clerks
who are recording the details in a book and on a scroll

          Tablet VI Panel 53[6]

One can examine this through a lens of social and cultural production: the observer has partial power over what is being viewed. Our interpretation is controlled/ordered by some unknown prison guard or master. The presentation is both complete (conveying the artist’s point of view/perspective) and incomplete (each observer has interpretive power). The narrative of Penury is made up of diffuse, multiple narratives that are gathered, briefly encapsulated, and repositioned in a transformational sequencing that gives the self a sense of agency.

There are also narrative moments where Kim seems to lift the language off the page, away from concrete connections or associations and toward a continual abstraction. In each of the pieces, both labeled as “One Arrow transcript,” the sparseness of the textual elements is very striking. Although the nature of the transcription is to accurately represent an event, these sections perform an incomplete gesture. One feels as though there will never be a complete picture or succinct narrative representation:

The said release             annexed     surrendered
Majority of members
In consideration of lawful money
The said water frontage and the above described lands
Rolling country              small poplar bluffs

     One Arrow transcript[7]

Kim is gathering the splintered elements — bits of letters, fragments of words and sentences — and resequencing, restructuring. The act is a gesture of “re-,” of appropriating a linguistic system that failed to communicate all aspects of a being — constructing the self in terms of that once-silenced self. The self, as performed through the disjunctive and queer narrative, is nearing not an absolute, essentialized version, but rather a representation of authenticity — an implied narrative (a combination of an event’s presentation, the documentation of that event, and its spatial interpretation). Kim “queers” the page in Penury by highlighting the plurality/alternity of identity, disrupting traditional narrative, and deconstructing language through formal and sonic structures.

Action follows image which leads to another action:

stinging nettles
wild scythe swing

machines hunch
vehicles in and out

     One Arrow transcript[8]

The narrative is disjunctive, yet the movement and momentum of the piece is continuous. Like the swinging of the scythe, the motion is steady. But the effects are ominously reverberant.

Formal and sonic structures

Throughout Penury, Kim alters the performance of language by utilizing traditional typographic markers in uncommon ways. Kim’s work not only linguistically queers the page, but also examines the hegemonic discourse of this position through the uncommon use of visual elements for both their symbolic and sonic effects. According to Derridean philosophy, in the aftermath of the tethering of word to thing, signifier to signified, we are left with the trace — a sort of odd entity. This trace lies outside of the normative discourse but within the literal white space, the silence, of the page. It may also lie in symbolic elements — sonic formulations which cannot be spoken in the conventional sense but that are, themselves, linguistic constructs.

One of the most striking examples of Kim’s use of symbols in Penury occurs on page 104 with the use of the forward slash:

                         /         /
/        /        /        /        /
        /.       /        /
           /.                 /
             /        /
                               / /        / /
                      / /     / /      / /       /
                   /      /         /      /
                             / /    / /    / /    / /
                                /.    /.
                                            /    /
                              / /           / /
                                       /           /
                               / /    / /   / /     /

Kim asserts that this piece is an attempt to “render rhythm, word, syntax, pitch, graphic presentation, and so on” without the intentionality that language implies; thus, it “rotates in and among and unsettles those categories by which we participate in sense-making.”[9] This speaks to larger ideas about poetry. If one considers language to be a sense-making system, poetry is a means to work within that system. What Kim is doing is utilizing the master’s tool to disassemble the foundation of the master’s house.

The sonic qualities and visual structure of this piece are translated into a textual representation on the facing page:

cherich apere
bliss and tenderage
kind property brew speech rose
such errant rapt
reflection, attend
leun   lubon
errant rapt refraction
kind speech bliss
flur also thist

       beris beryl barris rose[10]

This section is speckled with English words and unrecognizable discourse. The piece performs and represents a textual body in its very cadence, suggesting that meaning can be gained through other systems of communication.

Kim also takes symbols from both computer programming and mathematics and places them within her text. One such symbol that she uses throughout her poetic sequence is the pipe or vertical bar, which appears both singularly ( | ) and doubly ( | | ). The pipe first appears on page 5 (“the calf stranded across the creek  |  that bellowing”).[11] One could argue that this symbol visually mimics the action which it is meant to represent — it creates a literal barrier between words on the page. Here, the pipe figuratively serves as a wall that separates the animal/object from its action. Again, Kim introduces the idea of shifting agency — power and control are constantly redistributed among bodies. This visual illustration could imply a subjective compartmentalization — the agent distances herself from her actions or from her performance of those actions. It may also represent a bifurcation that leads to objectification — if we separate the subject from the emotive quality of her (re)action, then it is easier to see her as a thing and not a self.

However, there are points in Penury where Kim uses the pipe as a connective unit:

     maim trough


        goods have mutual fit martial hand


                  heady courtesy[12]

In linking these linguistic chunks, Kim’s poetry suggests an implied connection between the concepts they represent and the self they describe. The flow of agency is bungled: an act of animalistic violence in the first line visually ties to the functional benefits of the second line. The end is a harsh but willful sense of allowance.

To extend the possibility of interpretive abstraction, one could examine how the technical definitions of these symbols relate to the figurative usage. In another context, a single pipe functions to represent a “temporary section of computer memory capable of linking two or more computer processors, increasing the overall efficiency of the computer.” In this way, Kim’s pipe walls become necessary structures. They may appear to prevent movement and transition, but are elemental to the subjective whole. At other points, Kim uses the double pipe to link portions or lines of text. These symbols often represent a Boolean statement of logical truth values. From this perspective, Kim not only connects textual bits, she equates them. It is interesting to note that the pipe is utilized so frequently that the letter “I” could easily be mistaken for this symbol and visa versa. Kim could be inferring that the “I”/self could easily be its own hindrance and its only hope.

Another interesting combination occurs when Kim uses both the colon and the pipe:

: |  Tree       frog       toads

: |  I send them candy wrapped in socks

: |  The extent of the land that must be cleared for tank traffic

: |  Boulders hang from my shoulders

: |  Scorched earth tactics

: |  Nights spent askew in a cauldron[13]

The colon can be seen as a figurative gate, inviting one to continue into a quartered area. However, these colons are followed by vertical bars. The colon-gate may open, but the metaphorical pathway is visually blocked by the wall of the vertical bar. Whoever resides on the other side of the colon-gate does not have access to anything beyond this barrier. By titling this section of her poetic sequence “(for six multilingual voices),” Kim seems to imply that these voices are somehow silenced, either by force or situational circumstance.

It is possible that Kim is using the visual and sonic qualities of symbolic language to deconstruct and then reconstruct a textual body that is inadequately represented by dominant discourse. In altering this dominant linguistic system, the performance of the self becomes unsettled — a queering of the subject. Through this convergence of symbol, signification, sound, and performance, one can illustrate the infinite expansion of language to create new meanings.

Also, it could be argued that certain forms of communication may reside outside of a culturally bound linguistic system or national borders. By blending symbolic languages, a distinct vernacular emerges, and, by direct consequence, the self is affected in its re-presentation. In this way, Kim’s writing is imbued with a different standard of power, one that “forges a space for alternative cultural production and alternative epistemologies — different ways of thinking and knowing that [are] crucial to creating a counter-hegemonic worldview.”[14]

Kim’s work problematizes and questions the construct of a self as it textually performs its existence. In particular, she addresses the ways in which authenticity and agency operate in the constant evolution of a self. Penury is a sparse and ever-shifting collection of poetic performances that are under continual construction. Languages are tools, systems used by the dominant majority to construct a valid reality. Understanding that limitations and perimeters inherently exist within and among our communicative endeavors, we also must acknowledge that these codes can be mutated and reappropriated. The page can also be a site of rebellion, a space where ideologies and practices are upended and queered. Language can begin and perpetuate these aberrant acts of regeneration and outsider agency.

Kim has written that poetry should serve as a call to action, a means with which we “mobilize the notion of our responsibility to one another in social space.”[15] With Penury, Kim is enacting that very idea. The textual construction itself is a representation of the plurality of identity. By challenging our traditional conceptions of self, Kim emphasizes the need for acknowledgment. This awareness of the other has the potential to transform our relationship to that/those other(s).

One method of escaping the confines of a dominant and inadequate linguistic paradigm is by conforming language to the truth of our many selves: as bell hooks argues, language can be a site of resistance. Linguistic hegemony cannot be achieved if the dominant group does not convince others to accept their language norms and usage as standard. Language should be used to disrupt, to decenter and unfetter one from complacency. By doing so, the self is able to continually reconstitute its identity.



1. Lynn Keller, “An Interview with Myung Mi Kim,” Contemporary Literature 49, no. 3 (2008): 335–356, 340.

2. Ibid., 341.

3. Myung Mi Kim, Penury (Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2009), 29.

4. Keller, “An Interview with Myung Mi Kim,” 355.

5. bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 174.

6. Kim, Penury, 13.

7. Ibid., 69.

8. Ibid., 85.

9. Keller, “An Interview with Myung Mi Kim,” 349.

10. Kim, Penury, 105.

11. Ibid., 5.

12. Ibid., 53.

13. Kim, Penury, 58.

14. hooks, Teaching to Transgress, 171.

15. Kim, Commons (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 111.