On Myung Mi Kim's 'Under Flag'
When the feminist poetry press Kelsey St. published Myung Mi Kim’s 1991 epic work Under Flag, a publicity blurb described it as a book that “documents” the “struggle to learn English,” an experience, the blurb goes on to say, that “resembles the experience of innumerable other US citizens in a century that has been shaped by wars and vast human migrations.” The blurb seems to take care to describe the century as the thing that is shaped by wars and human migrations, while the struggle belongs to its citizens.
But in use of the phrase “struggle to learn English” to describe Kim’s epic, the Kelsey St. blurb also points us to ways in which the individual lyric moment lies in tension with the larger historical and political structures of Kim’s epic work. Under Flag can be read against other instances of twentieth-century modernist verse epics that insist on providing the kind of inductive assemblage that can fuse discrete perceptions and historical particulars while resisting the totalizing operations of linear narrative. At the same time, these modern epics contain within them, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis suggested at the University of Sussex conference on the long poem in 2008, the “ghost” or “mark” of lyric: the problem of the subject set against the social, to cite Adorno. Even within those historically ambitious modernist epics we have, for example, in Pound’s Pisan Cantos what Richard Sieburth calls the “internalized or subjective” sort of “anamnesia” within the epic vision of the greater scheme of the poem, or William Carlos Williams’s lapses into compressed bits of verse in the midst of the philosophically meandering Spring and All. The opposition of lyric and epic appears to be constitutive of the twentieth-century long poem.
In Myung Mi Kim’s work, the tension between lyric and epic is legible in concentrated moments where forms and facts of speech are contested, and in moments when they become foreclosed into moments of silence. To read this so-called “struggle,” then, is to pry apart the way this poetry uses silence to stage an argument about individual citizenship against the backdrop of history. In Under Flag, sound and silence articulate the problem of place.
One provocative way to read this articulation is through the recurring image of the mouth. Images of the mouth recur frequently throughout Under Flag: mouths of infants and children, but also related images of throat, larynx, and face. Mouths in this work are full of speech and other objects; they also appear empty and silent. This emphasis on the mouth places Kim’s book in dialogue with Theresa Cha’s Dictee, which highlights organs of the body and their connections to sound via the inclusion of anatomical diagrams and figures, an acupuncture chart, and descriptions of the mouth changing shape as it takes on a new language.
The first section of Under Flag, “And Sing We,” invokes a citizenry against the spaces of contested sound. (Many of these passages can be heard online at Myung Mi Kim’s PennSound page.) Sound emits from the throat before mirroring the distance between voice and subject against the distance between two continents. Kim writes:
Must it ring so true
So we must sing it
To span even yawning distance
And would we be near then
What would the sea be, if we were near it
It catches its underside and drags it back
What sound do we make, “n”, “h”, “g”
Speak and it is sound in time
Several discrete moments in this passage emphasize the links between voice and place. Punning on the notion of “yawning” as something that both mouth and land do, Kim then asks how we would understand the body of water the “we” is no longer near to. That unknown sea is followed by the word “Voice,” set on its own line. “Voice” behaves as an object as well as a command, linking the question about action in the line that comes before with the objectified “it” in the line that comes after: “It catches its underside and drags it back.” The voice, in a way, never leaves the mouth: we are always acutely aware of its belonging to the body. The voice goes on to make a sound that is dissociated from sense: the disaggregated letters “n,” “h,” and “g” can only be provisional. Later in the book, Kim will ask, “Who is mother tongue, who is father country?” (29), drawing a provocative contrast between gendered notions of geography and the voice.
These links between geography and the voice are further explored in the section “Food, Shelter, Clothing,” which opens with a ballad-like stanza of four lines that suggest a generalized perspective on landscape. The stanza ends by pointing us in multiple directions at once. Kim writes:
And of isolation, rock salt, jars preserving
Oxen returning on paths they themselves have shaped
Line of vision heeding lines of hills stretching
Farther west, farther east, than one had thought (20)
Recalling in its title Thoreau’s suggestion in Walden that the necessities for man “may be distributed under the several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel,” the poem enters the discourse of social philosophy. The passage begins paratactically, its initial word “And” shaping a sense of ongoing motion as well as uncharted land on the next page, as the “one [who] had thought” has shifted into a particularized “she” who confronts the mouth as the source of legibility:
She could not talk without first looking at others’ mouths (which language?)
(pushed into) crevice a bluegill might lodge in (21)
Here we begin with a silent speaker — “she” — who instead of waiting to hear language issued from mouths before speaking must actually look inside those mouths, as if the language were visible there. The second line of this stanza might suggest how a language can fit uncomfortably inside a mouth, concretizing the image as that of a fish lodging in a crevice.
Near the end of the poem, after intervening passages that depict scenes of war and arrival, the mouth returns to its struggle, but the poem has done away with its subjective energies, instead suggesting a general experience with language difference. Kim writes:
Span no tongue and mouth
Scripting, hand flat against the mouth (26)
The voice here is quieted by an authoritative, “scripting” hand. More important perhaps is the way the first two lines suggest what happens when language is absent, when there is no tongue or mouth: speakers go adrift, and silence is perceived as geographical distance. On the following page, the buoys echo in a line that suggests struggle by a generalized mass. Kim writes:
Up against bounty and figured human
allaying surge (27)
The human here gets figured, “counted,” scripted by citizenship. And if language has earlier been lost, it resurfaces here as gibberish. Kim writes:
ga ga ga ga
This line of abstract sound, hurled from a place of some hardness, could instantiate the “struggle to learn English”; it could also simply be the sound that accompanies the theme of flight in the poem. We see a scene of wartime Korea, but we also hear echoes of the memory of that time throughout the poem. Rather than settling into the trope of the poet’s mouth to issue forth, Kim suggests a tongue that belongs to everyone.
This notion of collectivity is undone by the beginning of “Into Such Assembly,” in which Kim reproduces an exam designed to assess both language and citizenship:
Can you read and write English? Yes _____. No _____.
Write down the following sentences in English as I dictate them.
There is a dog in the road.
It is raining.
Do you renounce allegiance to any other country but this?
Now tell me, who is the president of the United States?
You will all stand now. Raise your right hands. (29)
The gaps that follow the first two questions textualize the gaps and fissures in the rest of this text, revealing the citizenship ritual as something that cannot fully contain silence. The passage also makes starkly clear the way language acquisition is tied to the assimilating operations of citizenship: to be naturalized is to renounce allegiance to any other country, and, implicitly, to any other language.
The effect of this renouncing on the body is explored in “Body As One As History,” which begins with a description of “the body feigning,” undergoing an “inaudible collapse” under the weight of its various illnesses. Kim writes: “Gurgling stomach sack / Polyps, cysts, hemorrhages, dribbly discharges, fish stink” (35). The poem makes repeated references to the body being “large as I,” in a kind of reverse Whitmanianism: the body is big enough to contain the I, rather than the I being big enough to contain the people of the world. This seems especially apparent when Kim writes: “This is the body and we live it. Large as I. Large as” (36). The poem locates the multiple subjects within the body of the poem, which has just issued one of the book’s most violent and troubling scenes of war, but is finally unable to complete the explication of its link to the speaker.
The next instance of “As large as” (which lacks specific reference to the body) comes just after a moment when the mouth again holds language as a tangible object, this time in the service of self-preservation. A line of women on a clover field remain still to evade some danger, but inside their bodies there is resistance, there is life. Kim writes: “In their mouths, more than breath more than each sound buzzed inside / the inside of the mouth” (36). The language inside these mouths must be different from what we’ve seen before: there’s something more functional about whatever it is that is more than breath. Yet there is also something figurative: the women are frozen, but their muscles are moving, and one imagines that the muscle of the tongue continues to move against the oppressive silence.
Under Flag renders vividly physical the process of learning to speak a language. The mouth here inhabits its own multiple meanings — including mother tongue, suckling mouth — as a way to resist the easy binarisms of language acquisition models and move us instead to a larger consideration of history’s writing on the body, inside the mouth. In an interview with Yedda Morrison, Kim links “texts that […] allow for the impossibility of speaking” to the need for a politics that goes beyond opposition. Kim has spoken more than once on her desire to locate a radical politics that does not depend on opposition, which she sees as dangerously evocative of empire. For Kim, the oppositional mode leaves little room for ambiguity, which is at the heart of her approach to silence and language. She tells Morrison:
And Paul Celan, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. With these writers we are in the company of language that has been met with potential erasure; what happens in that kind of collaboration between the impossibility of utterance and finding the means by which to utter? […] For me those works that keep re-invigorating that space of silence and erasure, the space of the seemingly untranslatable, are the ones in which you really feel some sort of endurance and power.
It’s especially apt that Kim would mention Celan here, whose reference to “two / mouthfuls of silence” has crystallized our notions of the loss of speech under the Holocaust. Celan figures mouths that have caught something in their grasp but are unable to release it, for fear that they would turn up empty.
Because this is an essay that is about epic citizenship but also about sound, I want to end by reading Kim against an earlier instance of modernist silence in which sound breaks away from language and becomes embedded in landscape. This is from Lorine Niedecker’s 1928 poem “Mourning Dove”:
The sound of a mourning dove
slows the dawn
there is a dee round silence
in the sound.
The poem begins by collapsing the sound of the mourning dove into the experience of time passing: the dove’s call “slows” the dawn, where “dawn” could indicate the time of day as well as the sight of the sun breaking over the horizon. The following lines then extricate bird sound as if it were something material, a concrete object in the landscape, identifying a “silence” within the sound itself. That sound is broken apart into its discrete parts according to its orthography: “dee” could represent the whistling call of a killdeer, a bird also native to the mourning dove’s habitat, but on the page also recalls the “d” in “dove,” as if the dove were circling silence.
If Niedecker offers a site-specific vocality in which subjects and voices recede into the landscape, for Kim, that landscape is always charged with subjective pressures, even in its silence. Kim’s diverse language textures move beyond habits of citation and toward a politics of language acquisition: the poetry maps the linguistic trauma of migration, identifies language as a tool of assimilation, and cites the frustrated work of language to map nation and subject. Using fragments and gaps in speech, Kim’s work suggests the inability of epic to articulate a coherent model of citizenship, suggesting instead the “articulate silence” of postwar American poetry. In this way, Under Flag, as well as subsequent work in Commons and Penury that breaks communication into discrete elements, inaugurates an epic that confronts the sonic fallout of displacement, as when Kim writes in Under Flag:
And when we had been scattered over the face of the earth
We could not speak to one another (31)
4. Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, ed. Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 23. The stanza that follows serves as Niedecker’s critique of imagist poetry exceeding its methodological limits: “Or it may be I face the full prospect / of an imagist / turned philosopher.”
5. For a discussion of “articulate silence,” Myung Mi Kim, and poetics of otherness, see Xiaojing Zhou’s The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006).
One or more voices out loud
There are so many ways for something to be unsayable. Reading a poem out loud is one of these ways. From this vantage, consider the prospect of the contemporary American poetry reading for poets who believe that “the text is not the text.” For poets who ask, as Myung Mi Kim is always asking in her work, “Who has authority?” and then are asked to appear at the front of the room and wear their author-ity by reading out loud.
“For which no pronunciation exists”
but exists in the room and later on tape,
offered because asked, asked because written.
Listen to this moment during a 2010 event at the Kelly Writers House. Not long into the reading — about thirteen minutes — Kim invites several audience members (at 13:00) to join her in a “brief experiment.” She asks them to read with her from “fell (for six multilingual voices)” in Penury, encouraging them not to worry about how it turns out, or how fast or slow they go — no performance anxiety, guys! (to paraphrase). She wants several people reading, because for her, this poem “is not the poem unless it’s read by six different voices at the same time.”
The audience-readers, including Kim, read a page together. Mostly, they read the page in unison — find each other’s speed in common.
We come to poetry readings because we like to hear poetry read, but we may not be ready to read.
“Through sameness of language is produced / sameness of sentiment and thought.”
Variant sounds, then, as a way to differentiate feeling and thought.
After they read the page together, Kim interjects (at 15:44) to offer further direction. She says she heard many languages at once when she composed the piece. “Read as openly as possible,” she tells her co-readers, “including associations, possible shadow words, possible translations, mutations.”
The small group of three/four voices resumes reading. Initially, Kim reads with them but soon stops, perhaps to listen better (at 16:05). As before, the readers are in unison, and although invited to improvise, they don’t. Although Kim has given them permission to slip in a “word that isn’t there,” no one audibly takes her up on it. Why not?
Why couldn’t the readers go beyond the fixed text in front of them — even when encouraged by the author to do so? There are more “concrete” answers (including, say, the readers’ lack of time to acclimate to performing the text this way). Beyond such speculation, however, should we feel disappointed that, more abstractly, the unsaid holds sway even in an attempt to give it voice/s?
Here, I turn to something Kim says about “dis-abling” habituated practices of language. “The idea of something not working, something not being sayable or reproducible, (re)printable, carries its own charge,” says Kim.
Even in the face of an invitation to say the unsaid, something unsayable sparks. We don’t know what it is.
Peter Quartermain writes: “Good reading, bad reading: neither is wholly possible; either might bring us to the threshold of speech. Strength of vocables: to bind.”
And if something cannot be voiced, or is voiced only with great difficulty, then let’s say the strength of those un-vocables is in leaving things unbound.
Kim talks about the difficulty of reading aloud with Leonard Schwartz on his radio show, Cross Cultural Poetics. Before she reads “Hummingbird” (from Dura), Kim says, “To some degree part of what [it] wants to ask is: where is the point where you can’t always voice something but it can be read and there is an experience of language, but it happens or takes place on a different kind of register — something that’s not simply attenuated or happening in a caesura or rift, but literally the difficulty of articulation, the difficulty of finding a music for a thinking, or a sort of thinking for which there is no a priori measure. So the poem tests these uncertain and undecidable spaces between measure, between song, between the un-articulable, if that’s a word. So, it’s going to be hard to read it, especially in this kind of format because it’s on the air, or I’m speaking it on the air to you. So we’ll see …” (12:37).
Kim’s description of the poem’s other-register music reminds me of Quartermain’s idea of how a poem’s polyvocality evaporates when it comes to air: “The difficulty in voicing the poem … may also have to do with a kind of tentative polyvocality, a simultaneity of possible tones and interpretations, possible (at least in a general sort of way) inside the head but impossible of public performance — a kind of undecidable music or tune” (221).
How flat we may come out when we open our mouths.
In the case of “Hummingbird,” I see a similar foyer between inner and outer in the spaces Kim writes into the middle of the poem’s lines, lines like these:
The writing hung on the wall] [whose writing is it
Varied] [faculty and expression
Sod] [the first deleted me written over (92)
Wall and sheep Tell and speak (93)
The wall is the brackets that stave off and scaffold the silence living dead-center of the line. The sheep are what moves between fenced and stonewalled fields. The fields of the poem and the faithful who come to hear it. Kim knocks on/through the wall.
Kim: “I think what I’m trying to perhaps pose here is this: can that space be left undetermined? Would it be possible to disengage the impulse to have art perform an equal translation or transparent rendering into the social?” (Close Listening).
Looking at it this way, I’m glad that the polyvocal reading Kim invited in 2010 didn’t work out. Its not working out carries a charge. Something there is, muffled, unutterable, and singing a messed-up choir off-tunish in our heads. A place where things fall apart or hold their own, terrifically private and out of reach, and where they also, like a reported ocean, form waves.
3. Full/partial, hazy disclosure: I believe Kim made the same invitation a few years earlier at a reading in Buffalo and I think I was one of the readers. If I recall correctly, I too was unable to improvise any variant readings.
There is no reading this book; it must be read.
Zong! is a book-length poem not so much “about” but “entangled in” the late eighteenth century British court case regarding the throwing overboard of 150 “negroe” slaves by the captain of the slavetrading ship Zong during its trip from the West Coast of Africa to Jamaica. NourbeSe Philip constructs her texts in the belief that this is a story “that cannot be told … [but] that must tell itself.”
This is legal poetry. This is, legally, poetry. Philip’s “intent is to use the text of the legal decision as a word store” in poetic maneuvers that try to sustain the material and immaterial balance of precision shared by both law and poetry. The poetry displays the agonizing tension of an exploration through the minute particulars and silences locked within the legal text, the precise and cautious movement that tries to not tell the story that must be told. In her back notes she says: “The ones I like best are those where the poem escapes the net of complete understanding — where the poem is shot through with glimmers of meaning.” The compositional task she set for herself, a palpable “negative capability,” explodes into the particles of language; the letters, syllables, sounds, silences, and spaces bob and glitter until the page becomes a seascape of indeterminate yet suggestive signs and linguistic attentions:
rt with the negroe s w ale and
sade flee dow
n the river do not
read this ruth it will destroy you s
am my lad jot these no
tes these tunes fa la s
This is both a reading and a score. In reading this we move into the spaces and fragments with the trust that this soliloquy of evidence is, simply, proof of the unfathomable meanings hinted at, in the surfaces of language. Meaning here is not to be “made” but, rather, felt. Der Traum! Story rendered not as history but “histology” — cellular. Information carried. The pages of this section, “Sal,” float and riff on the data, the dendrita. Visually the pages detail the wide range of performance of the words themselves, their intonations and shapes, elisions and resonances, language levitating between tongue, eye, and mind.
When NourbeSe Philip performs this text the silence between the particles is as articulate as the letters, syllables, and words. “Zong! #1” is a veritable creek of attention as the word “water” generates a letteral turbine of iteration and association.
w wa wa t
er wa te
er wa ter
Typographically too difficult to illustrate in this essay, the last section of the poem, “Ebora,” presents the text as “overwritten” (i.e., layered) which elicits notions of erasure, correction, confusion, overlap, and so forth. When she performs (reads) this, the overwriting inserts segments of “tongue-tied” text, static, and submersed language.
What is so engaging in this work is its adherence to the layered possibilities of making the poem. The book poses a poetic treatment of story as the most dynamic and ethical response to reading and writing history. Philip avoids becoming implicated in story language: “The poems resist my attempts at meaning or coherence and, at times, I too approach the irrationality and confusion, if not madness … of a system that would enable, encourage even, a man to drown 150 people as a way to maximize profits …” Instead she, and the text, work hard to sustain a provocative and confrontational relationship to the normative materiality of history by juxtaposing, as she suggests, the nonmaterial or immaterial layers it is always cloaked within.
The poetic text is presented in six sections, each with iterative turns and elements that dovetail laterally with different abstractions and content that surface in the project. Material echoes resonate from the names, words, phrases, and things Philip provides in a “Glossary” and a “Manifest.” The “Notanda,” a sort of “postface,” is an incisive discussion of how Philip approached the writing. Part journal and part essay, this grounding helps balance the tension and energy of the poetry.
Zong! is, as they say, a piece of work. It is one of the most labor-intensive poetic texts I’ve encountered. Unfortunately many readers will prefer the work to be transparent, the reading of it to be effortless. Against such a norm, NourbeSe Philip’s insistence on the more substantial, yet difficult, complications of history and story is doubly admirable. Don’t expect to just read this book but, understand, it must be read.
I admitted to write makes no sense. I am interested in consciousness. Thought follows the land of the spine. Caresses and alibis. The body in the center persists. Let’s not touch silence. Catch me in my difference. Un autre paragraph. Le peau hesitante. Le vaste complication de la beauté. We are closed to reality. Skin hesitating between philosophies and the dawn. The universe is on the page one page over. The nudity of reasoning beings. The present is not a book because of the body. Joy that traverses the rose bushes. The blind spot of pleasure. Suggestions heavy-hearted. Immensity. Sentences permeable to death and oblivion. There remained a wound in the middle of the universe — one needed to behold it. Eternity that recommences at the edge of the void. We served each other in order to exist. The poets. Light enters them in spite of themselves. Drop another ice cube in my port, if you would. Été, enfants, electricite. We propose to physically possess poetry. Syllogie. — Lines/phrases from Nicole Brossard’s reading
Nicole Brossard’s reading on January 21, 2011, concluded the two-day North of Invention conference, a gathering of avant garde Canadian poets, each of whom gave a talk and a reading at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. Brossard’s reading said something about poetry’s magic and power, its sweetness and hopefulness, its profundity and wit and otherness — its aliveness. I always like to find an occasion to present my favorite quotation from Charles Olson: “art is the only twin life has, its only valid metaphysic.” That is why, when hearing Nicole Brossard read, one feels — I felt, and I just watched the PennSound video — restored, revivified, reminded. Reminded by the lexicon of Nicole Brossard’s poetic imagination, a lexicon I would be unlikely to confront in most Anglophone poetry, with its admonition against “abstractions” still a first law in creative writing classes, as if an “abstraction” (“immensity,” “silence,” “consciousness,” “eternity,” “oblivion,” “light”, “reality,” “exist”) is a substitute for the real, rather than an extravagance of the real, owing to the felt extravagance of experience. An abundant, inclusive, affective language that has the power, as Brossard says, to enchant, disgust, and thrill, instills the pleasure one experiences in her poetry. It is, as we used to say, personal and political at the same time, for it is in poetry, Brossard says, that she is most faithful to herself and her relation to reality. So was Rimbaud and Verlaine; so it is in French poetry, French song lyrics, French philosophy. Their utopias always included immensity, oblivion, and existence. These words, in French, possess a quality of longing they seem to lack in English, where, embarrassed, they subside into the margins. Brossard’s poetry gives us back the wholeness of perceptual experience; for her, ideas are not only in “things.”
Anti-patriarchal, feminist, lesbian-utopian, and constitutive of a beautiful, erotic, and revolutionary écriture-feminine, Brossard’s luminous works in both prose and poetry are admired and respected by both English- and French-speaking Canadians. At Kelly Writers House, Brossard read from a new edition of selected works, edited and introduced by Jennifer Moxley, a tantalizing piece about a gathering of poets (whom “light enters in spite of themselves”) in a garden — perhaps a festival or conference occasion. Laughing, punning, quoting lines of poetry, the poets “serve each other in order to exist.” When the speaker says, at the conclusion of this piece, “drop another ice cube in my port, if you would,” the audience (their reflections shimmering in the glass panes of the door behind the podium) shouted and clapped for joy, and so did I. Honoring the conference’s stated interest in the practice of constraints, Brossard read from a book of alphabets, saying that using constraints was like swimming in the ocean, as opposed to the “swimming pool” of her own familiar methods. The poems openly struggled with English alliteration, especially with the owlish-sounding letter “w,” which barely exists in French, transforming the fraught history in Canada of English/French language issues into the playfulness of formal constraints, where we as readers and listeners are invited to “catch [her] in her difference.”
Nicole Brossard’s reading was a moving finale, a great programming decision on the part of the organizers, Sarah Dowling and Charles Bernstein. In his introduction to Brossard’s reading, Bernstein thanked Brossard for the “jouissance she brings to our poetries.” Her lifetime of work is indeed, as Bernstein said, a cause for true celebration.