For readers of Myung Mi Kim’s work, the publication of Penury in its long form (Omnidawn, 2009) is an unlikely chance to view a poem on the move. Unlikely because the thinking might hold that the publication of a full-length collection is the culmination of the work, rather than another instance of its form. However, with Kim’s book this is arguably not the case. When two small presses issued portions of this project in 2006 (From Penury, published by belladonna* books, and River Antes, by Atticus/Finch), readers were met each time not with a draft, but another countenance of the work. So, too, with Penury. This fact becomes abundantly clear in even a cursory comparison of these books: while an entire section disappears from the poem “fell” in the most recent publication, perhaps more startling is the addition of a diacritical mark resembling an end-repeat in musical notation ( “:|” ) that surfaces incessantly at the left-hand margin, but was nowhere to be found in the belladonna* version. What’s more, the similarities between River Antes and Penury might accurately be described as donation rather than drafting (along the lines of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s “donor” system in her long poem, Drafts, where text from previous sections of the poem is repurposed in subsequent sections); even though there is clearly some revision from one book to the next, in many ways these are decidedly different books that happen to share some of the same materials.
This is not at all to say that one must own all three books to understand any one of them. Rather, I point this out to begin to rehearse an argument that Kim’s work continually takes up. In each book, in each event, publication itself is problematized, politicized. Each book must negotiate the problem of being a book, of being in that way final. Inasmuch as it legitimizes the book (assuring both that the contents are made legible and that the book itself is recognizable as such), the spine is contested terrain — which contest has very real consequences for bodies in the world. Through the interrogation of spines, Kim explores legibility (becoming legible as subject, as work of art, as book or poem) as the site of an unreasonable demand. Rather than operating strictly as pedagogy (as texts that would teach readers how to read), Kim’s books reach for a relationship with readers that owns to and remains critical of the political and systematic nature of that encounter, often thematizing reading itself in the process:
she, the weeping work
parade of earnings
|| weight of forelegs and hooves under water
a ripple | birched
Here one’s daily language use and one’s life in work are conflated, the doing having become inseparable from articulating the concerns of a life, the learning of a language from being thrust into the “parade of earnings.” In Penury, language acquisition means going to work, putting both one’s labor and one’s economic status on display (figured above as reminiscent of the spectacle of professional mourning — “the weeping work”). And throughout the book, this fundamentally grammatical conjunction of language and labor persists:
Through sameness of language is produced
sameness of sentiment and thought
: Got up to cut meat
Stood in that smell all day (27)
So the book constructs its own grammar, one where the vehicles for advancing a standardized usage (primers, pedagogical lessons, scholastic demonstrations, etc.) must be rigorously pried apart from any effort at voicing a critique, problematized in order to put language to a more radical use. Even writing that would dismantle such standards, if it stopped short of questioning the method of articulating the critique, would thus risk merely recapitulating the terms. In Kim’s work, this resistance is no small concern, since the systematic function of language tends to push against the actual content of language (often to the point of erasure), granting and restricting access to discourse arbitrarily:
within a few years it learns to read — if it is a boy — and in this place
the catalogue of books may be inserted (23)
The catalogue is faceless, interchangeable, but also rigidly gendered. Drained of content, it persists in protecting its own. The catalogue is a canon. Penury is critical of such systems when they function solely to safeguard privilege, but in order to make that position legible, the book must construct and adhere to a system. It must somehow cohere. The book attempts to navigate this difficulty without relying on an elaborate apparatus, but instead approaches a penury of system, a poetics of the “minimum human subsistence experiment” (7) — as if to mourn the deprivation and trauma wrought by such experiments in daily life. These poems are a calling to account for legibility’s high price:
Fighting house by house
You saw it and you heard it?
Grass grew from the sternum
Roots took over the mandible (100)
And yet what remains is not a penury of legibility, regardless of the level of difficulty such writing engages. In addition to critiquing the cost of becoming legible, these poems offer alternative legibilities as a horizon of the work. (As much as “Roots took over the mandible” is an eternal silence, it is also itself a kind of speech.).
If you like systems: the book is built of roughly seven movements (three movements + “fell” + three movements + a short coda). On a first reading, the organizing principle might be difficult to discern, especially amid so much blank space, but the structure calls to mind the form of a sonata: exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda. All movements here, except “fell,” begin with an opening statement, followed by a completely blank spread + 1, and then continue on for eight to ten pages. The poem “fell,” located near the center of the book, approximates sheet music: six-line poems mimic six musical lines in a score (the title page tells us the poem is “for six multilingual voices”), each line beginning with what appears to be an end-repeat in musical notation:
:| Measure streets by the number of uniforms
:| It’s the pitch of the cry that carries
:| Hunger noise thirst noise fear noise
:| Inside acts conducted outside
:| Decades of continuous drought
:| Weapon and deed (51)
Thus “fell” is a song of militarized bodies, where displacement is put on display, where even a whimper is legible as song (to cry out, to make a “Hunger noise thirst noise fear noise”). If each line begins in an end repeat (which mark would, in sheet music, signal a repetition of what precedes it), then “fell” extends a cry begun elsewhere, perhaps prior to this book. We might begin to consider whether there can be a canon of cries, whether this work seeks, by motioning to what is prior to itself, such a thing as lineage. We are reminded that even professional mourners have a repertoire, a sense of mastery.
At the center of the book is the songbook. However, what it gestures towards is not a tradition, but the participation of a multiplicity of (multilingual) speakers. If we have the script, if we are in fact being (re)educated, then according to the grammar of this book, we’re being put to work. So what then is to be our occupation? What are readers to do with this book that interrogates reading? What does a reader/a reading do here?
[Reader of the Announcement of the Spirit]
Place in the nose a piece of blue paper
The hair is combed and parted in the middle
Any fallen hair is collected and put in a pouch
With a spoon carved from a willow tree
Place three spoonfuls of rice in the mouth
Seven times bound with rope (63)
This is reading as tending, an attention and a motion towards. But like Kim’s work in writing, our work in reading is on the way to elsewhere, our attentions are turned outward, onward. As movement, a reading tends toward the world, not just a text in the world. A text, a book, is not a fixed point in a trajectory, but a confluence, a meeting place. Instead of aligning with a tradition, Penury traces the stewardship of a concern. Rather than sit in reverence of a text, here to read is to prepare to attend to bodies in the world, even if they remain unsalvageable by that effort:
In attendance on (a person)
: Don’t lie, don’t say retrievable — shipped each tagged and marked (72)
In the latter half of the book, this attention is figured as preparation for a death and/or a burial (as above) — a funerary concern. Penury takes up the ceremonial as a way of redirecting the pedagogical function of texts, but the particulars of this ceremony (above all its attachment to any specific dogma) seem to have undergone a vast erasure. At one point in the last movement, the score is a wordless series of backslashes and periods, a scansion detached from any verse. The syntactical units of the sentence are sometimes supplanted by what might best be described as sound sets. Often, the passage of these sound sets (they travel) behaves not unlike the more performative reading scripts, issuing an utterance made to nurse the dying into death, like “Abode, braver, avow” (89), and elsewhere, “Abdomen boat // O hewn” (103). Phonemic travel becomes a kind of spiritual accompaniment. This relationship to sound might be what Kim has in mind when she writes of “chants, though their precise meaning was long since become unintelligible / recited from a scroll” (101).
What remains of the ceremonial is little more than an intimacy, a collaboration, an acknowledgement of the shared need to mark an affront and a passing, to register a cry “For which no pronunciation exists” (1). What remains is a preparative. If the book extends a sentence begun elsewhere, we needn’t look for that sentence in literary history, though the book might have obvious forebears. And the effort to make the sentence historical (to enter it into record — a few of the poems here are even labeled “transcripts”) would be a corrective to the historical erasures that the book traces: “the place I’m from is no longer on any map” (7). But more than doing documentary, Penury instructs us to seek — in the publication of a book of poems, as in any encounter with language — something that doesn’t easily resolve into what might be recognizable as progress or mastery, an interaction that doesn’t come to a culmination in the document alone. It invites us to participate in attending and extending the limits of a discourse, reexamining the terms by which we measure legibility in that discussion.
The first volume of the Whitman Manuscripts at the Library of Congress contains a facsimile of the following undated note by Walt Whitman, surely an interlocutor in some of the same discourses as Kim. I offer Whitman’s dispatch here not only because it reads like a page out of Penury, but because it iterates a rather haunting prior location of the concerns of that book:
[corner cut out here]
Language as activity in the prosody of Myung Mi Kim
A way is open(ed), a hole is made
— Myung Mi Kim, Dura
In an interview, the poet Myung Mi Kim explains her prosody as a temporal/spatial concept, existing in “the space between time and space” that can be understood only through an experience of the “sensorium” — when “all your senses are involved in understanding.” There is clearly much that needs to be unpacked from such a statement. What does she mean by this inter-temporal/inter-spatial site where her poetry is located? Why is her prosody — her (mis/dis)use of meters, lines, rhythms, beats, sounds, poetic melodies — so “different” and “difficult” (two comments that Kim admits she has received most frequently), and what does this say about her concept of the nature of poetry? How does one overcome ocular-centric tendencies and use one’s breath and ears when reading her poems, and how is this central to the understanding of Kim’s idea of versification? These are, of course, vast questions that have no definite answer(s), but I believe that they lay adequate groundwork on which a study of the Korean-American poet Myung Mi Kim, a veritable tour de force in contemporary American poetry, may proceed.
The hyphen between the words “Korean” and “American” in the previous sentence, then, would be a good point of departure for a discussion on Kim. In her talk at the fifth KAFSEL conference entitled “Translingual Consciousness: A Meditation in Four Movements,” Kim talks about “the predicament of the hyphen”:
I could be (and am often) variously hyphenated as a Korean-American poet, a Korean-American woman poet, an immigrant Korean-American woman poet, a Korean-American woman poet of the diaspora, a bilingual Korean-American woman poet, and so on. These markers of ethnicity, gender, displacement, migration, and linguistic affiliation, however, tend to reiterate the “purity” of languages, inviolability of nation boundaries, and fixity of categories that elide the complex geopolitical and historical forces that produce these hyphenations.
What is implied through the small punctuation sign of the hyphen is a forced conjoining between two uncombinable languages, cultures, and sociopolitical ideologies. For Kim, a subject who left Korea at the tender age of nine, “Korean” and/or “American” are categories that cannot specifically define her own current position. Though her ethnicity as well as her childhood memories depicted in her poems are both intensely Korean, her Korean language itself is “truncated, stunted, and ruptured,” and thus “something [she] do[es] and do[es] not know or ‘possess’” (F, 30); hence she is a Korean but not really a Korean. On the other hand, though her tongue finds English more effortless to pronounce and her hand finds Romanized alphabet more comfortable to write, she is still an “otherized” figure in the landscape of America because of her Korean appearance; hence she is an American but not really an American. Perhaps this tension between the two categories that are neither equivalent nor selectable to Kim is shown best in the following line from “And Sing We”:
Um-pah, um-pah sensibility of the first grade teacher, feet firm on the pump organ’s pedals, we flap our wings, butterfly wings, butterfly butterfly, fly over here
Here Kim describes a Korean memory, abundant with Korean sounds (“Um-pah, um-pah”) and melodies (“butterfly butterfly, fly over here” being the lyrics of a well-known Korean children’s song) in an anglicized mode, but this instance is much more than a mere transliteration. If transliteration is an act that is linear in its dynamic and is based on the assumption that there is a fixed co-relation between word A and word B, what is taking place here is significantly different from such an act in that a communication of languages is occurring. It is not so much a “tension” between two words and/or phrases that is taking place, than it is an act of what Kim refers to as a “hybridization” of language, a formulation of a third linguistic mode C through the dialogic interaction between language A and language B, in her case English and Korean: “I am constantly aware of this particular English I participate in — perhaps an English that behaves like a Korean, an English shaped by a Korea.” Thus Kim can be seen acknowledging how languages are continuously influenced by other languages, whether it be through emulation or repulsion, and through this process, “the spectral, the remaindered, the asymmetrical, and the incommensurable in traversing languages and cultures” (F, 30) is revealed. The “residual” material that emerges from this process is what comes to compose the language of languages, namely the language Myung Mi Kim aspires to transcribe and enunciate in her own writing.
For Kim, then, capturing the access to a language that is both permitted and denied becomes the site of attention she wishes to delineate first and foremost in her poetry:
So, in this effort and failure of bridging, reconfiguring, shaping, and being shaped by loss and absence, one enters a difficult negotiation with an Imaginary and a manner of listening that to me is the state of writing. (JKL, 95)
Writing for Kim is an act that occurs in the interstices and/or ruptures of languages and cultures; it is the ongoing “effort[s] and failure[s]” of narrating the “spectral” and the “incommensurable” that have been unseen/dismissed by so many other writers in the past that characterize Kim’s poems. She accepts the trauma of her displacement and her diasporic positioning and utilizes it to examine how “the space between the two languages [becomes] a site of mutation between an English and a Korean” (JKL, 94) and thus a hybridization of language occurs. This third space Kim’s prosody finds itself located on is a space that is situated on the process of “languaging,” on the intersections of temporal and spatial construction.
“Languaging,” then, as Kim explains, “is a practice of language that reconfigures legibility, intelligibility, and sense-making by heeding the liminal — the not-yet-available to culture” (F, 31). If “language” implies a conforming to a fixed set of rules and is judged according to whether it has been mastered or not, “languaging” — language as an ongoing act of (re)creation — is a process which accepts that there can never be an either/or situation when it comes to lingual orality and/or textual legibility. Through this process, language “factors in, layers in, and crosses fields of meaning, elaborating and extending the possibilities for sense making,” and it is this continuous fluidity and subsequent polysemy of language that enables “[a] measure, a page, the book to embody the multivalent, the multidirectional — a cathexis of the living instant” (Commons, 111). In other words, for Kim it is the incommensurability of language that both limits and legitimates one’s recognition of his/her present space at the moment. Because language is always approximate, and “diction(s), register(s), inflection(s) as well as varying affective stances … have and will continue to filter into [language]” (Commons, 110), it can never comply to the demands for a linearly coherent history nor a narrative that can be encompassed by all. In this way it is limiting. But it is also liberating in that, through “languaging” one is able to express an individual experience, to make visible the invisible, to let the unheard be heard through nonteleological enunciations. I believe this is precisely what Kim strives to articulate through her poetry.
How, then, does this idea of language as an activity manifest in Kim’s poetry? An instance where the “lyric as it embodies the processural” (Commons, 111) and the ongoing act of languaging is depicted by Kim can be found in the third part of “The Bounty”:
in measure and in collusion separate and bound
by nine entries in the figure of nine propertied
by nine entries in one acre shallow well and pump
hairy snouts arrows in wealth parade of gifts
rain soaked evergreen
note circles heat swelling
familiar dipthong again siege
wrench its nature alloy encumbering
quality of light mineral
This is only the first page of part 3; eight more pages continue in exactly the same format — three pillars of words placed in three rows (except for the last page, which is to be discussed in detail later on in this essay). How is one supposed to read, moreover understand, this passage? Of course the obvious answer would be that there is no definitive interpretation, and as Kim always emphasizes, “confusion [can] be productive … [as] reading and poetry are sites of self-reflexivity, even if they fail.” In other words, it is the process of reflexivizing that Kim valorizes, and there are various possibilities of such an act of languaging that can occur here. A reader, for instance, could read the words/phrases line by line, from left to right: “attenuate / in measure and in collusion separate and bound / wrench / mill / by nine entries in the figure of nine propertied / cell.” The thought process starts in medias res with forceful imperative verbs that seem to command the reader to participate in actions of violent pounding and weakening (“mill,” “attenuate”), twisting (“wrench”), and tying up (“bound”). What is being separated and beaten to a pulp, so as to be fragmentized to the minimal size of a “cell” is yet to be revealed. The second column on the following page, however, provides a hermeneutic opening: “village home for bridal bequest fish by dozens to fry” … “proffer armfuls of just pressed noodles” … “ivy and clematis unhurried / one and one conjoined” (The Bounty, 92). By ceasing to read from left to right, and applying a vertical reading, from the top of a respective column to its bottom, an environment of patience and generosity can be seen to be depicted, which is juxtaposed with the brutal violence drawn on the previous page. While the piercing sounds of “wrench / cell / force / precisive” are accentuated in the third column of page 91, more rounded out sounds, in the form of “o” — “threshold” … “rotation / born” — occur on the third column of the following page. Thus a shift in the poem’s mood is brought about through not only how the poem is textually approached by the reader, but also through how the reader aurally voices the poem itself.
There is also a contrast that emerges in the imagery: the “unhurried” (92) sense of the past, where communal rituals of “hairy snouts arrow[ing] in wealth parade of gifts” (91) and meals of “armfuls of … noodles” along with “fish by dozens to fry” (92) on wedding days, are suddenly forcefully ceased; “the property of daughters” (96) ends up having to resort to sparse resources (“shallow well and pump” ) and even endure a surrender of language — “familiar dipthong [sic] again siege” (91). Hence the vowel diphthongs in the left column (“familiar,” “bestiary,” “espouse”) are “in measure and in collusion separate[d]” (middle column) to become a “cell” (right column) and/or its “nature” is “wrench[ed]” (middle column) as its “alloy [is] encumbering” (middle column) and thus meaning is “force[fully]” (right column) extracted. What we see here is not only how language that once “bloom[ed]” in the “fertile” “unctuous hills” (92) is grinded, “dulled,” and “defer[red]” (91) by external forces, but also how the middle column acts as a phrasal bridge that connects whichever word on the left with whichever word on the right, thus enabling numerous chiasmatic readings to be possible. If the interpretation focused on a convergence towards the word “need” (right column), then the ominous reading of a language “wrench[ed]” out of its due environment would be overturned, and one would be able to assume that the reading is actually championing a “need” for redemptive measures, thus tinted with a more optimistic hue. This myriad of polysemic interpretations is especially apparent in page 98, where Kim writes, among other words, “resilient” and “bare” on the right column. Whichever action in the left column (“envision” / “recitation”) and phrasal bridge in the second column (“her, and reading” / “object and word”) is used, the meaning of the resulting line will differ greatly. Compare, for instance, “envision / object and word / resilient” and “envision / object and word / bare”; while the former opts for the possibility of language, the latter rejects it and thus the “bare” ends up sounding inconsolably hollow.
As noted earlier, the final page of the poem is drawn out differently from the previous pages, with its disorganized form and erased/missing parts of the column:
its own property chemical and
bricks free of straw
brush mound and gravel
Gaps occur in the columns that were, in previous pages, so meticulously formed to perfection with nine words on each left and right column and nine phrases in the middle. Here, in not only the final part of the poem but the final page of the book itself, the reader’s participation is maximized through the processural space of languaging opened up by the poet. The “synaptic / unruly enter” may, as Kim points out, “fire or misfire, connections can be constituted or dismantled [and] no conclusions are possible” (JKL, 101). However, it is because the blank spaces can resonate a sound of their own, according to the voice the reader hears from it, that “the synapse of language” and the “perpetual motion toward the beginning and not necessarily toward knowing” (JKL, 101–102) is deemed so important in Kim’s poems. Both the words/phrases and the gaps are like tesserae that create a textual mosaic according to the method of languaging the reader implements, thus producing a different picture for each respective process of cognitive organization. Kim’s third space of language, then, becomes an inter-temporal, inter-spatial plane on which not only the writer participates in the act of creating her own language, but where also the reader joins in the act of writing as well; the act of languaging becomes a joint endeavor.
It is important to explain, at this point, why Kim locates herself in the spaces between languages and finds it impossible to recite her story in a putatively conventional way. For Kim, the story she wants to tell about herself is a specifically personal one, meaning that it is one that cannot follow the narrative trajectory that has been traditionally agreed upon nor be transcribed with the tools of an accepted storytelling mode. If there has been an assumption (or at least an agreement) between the writer/transmitter and the reader/recipient that the historical continuum is linear and exists on a single plane, in Kim’s poems such an assumption ceases to exist. It is only though the refusal of chronological linearity that migratory, diasporic, and traumatic experiences can be faithfully written out. As she remarks in her own talks, this is the only way she can “show a respect” to her own particular specificities. The polysemic reading of the three columns, whether it be from left to right, from top to bottom, or in the form of chiasmus, is, essentially how Kim understands her own fragmented experiences and thus the only way she knows how to write it out in paper.
Her experimental uses of meters and rhythms can further be seen in “Hummingbird,” a poem included in Dura (1998). In the following passage the reader is able to experience Kim’s own modification of the caesura, here visually re-created to divide and/or connect syntactic phrases and meanings:
Argue: precedents, oaths, public record, witnesses
Deliver: introduction, narration, statement of the case, and peroration
The writing hung on the wall] [whose writing is it
Meal means: stuff, material
Hummingbird happens as a sound first
Is it clear] [then it is
Heal] [landed parole
Continuous, as of line or time
A perceiver without state (100)
In the lines “The writing hung on the wall] [whose writing is it” and “Is it clear] [then it is” the brackets — and the space between — act as visualized caesuras that not only break or interrupt the flow of thought but act as, to quote Kim’s explanations, “a pivot.” Kim defines her use of the caesura as a device similar to the “hinge,” for it is a “break in the measure [that] travels both ways … like sense breaking and joining simultaneously.” If a caesura in traditional English verse were simply an audible pause used to break up the line, Kim’s caesura acts as a transhistorical space where the line not only shifts forward but thrusts backwards as well: one sees “the writing hung on the wall” and subsequently asks, “whose writing is it[?],” but this question sends one back to look at what is written on the wall once more, and the process is continued over and over again until an answer is deduced. But can there be an answer? Do we know whose writing consists the language of “precedents, oaths, public record, witnesses,” not to mention the formulaic linguistic modes utilized when “deliver[ing]” an “introduction, narration, statement of the case, and peroration”? For these are all static forms of language that were concocted and solidated before we even learned how to speak our own first words. We have been seasoned to believe that language is resolute and knowledge exists in corresponding equivalents, and this is shown through the use of colons. A:B means that A and B are correlated, and therefore “meal” is automatically linked with “stuff, material.” But this is far from how language truly exists for the poet and moreover ourselves as well; “meal” does not necessarily share a relation with “stuff, material,” and the words and language used in “argu[ments]” and “deliver[y]” are not commensurate to the actual experience itself. This is what Kim means when she writes “Hummingbird happens as a sound first,” for it is never the written words but the resonating sounds that can be most truthful to the re-enunciation of the experience. Hence the question “whose writing is it[?]” naturally shifts to “is it clear[?]” for clarity (the basis for transmission/communication) is of more importance than the actual writer — if it is sincere toward expressing the truth, “then it is.” In this sense, through this use of an end-stopping and simultaneously open-ended caesura, Kim emphasizes the “perceiver without state,” always in the fluid process of experiencing without the linguistic means to re-create his/her perceptions. Experience, for Kim is “continuous, as of line or time” and she strives to implement language as an “instrument for gauging, approximating, and rendering” (JKL, 103) the ever-changing world and her own specifically shifted/shifting position in the “clear[est]” way she can.
It is Kim’s aforementioned attention toward the sounds of experience and language (“Hummingbird happens as a sound first”), most prominent in part 1 of “The Bounty,” that makes her poetry so rich in its portrayal.
Lilacs to the post foretold
Learning fetch of water
merges temporial wreath
For shelter the pounding sheet rain
ponder shir rain roof
Hovers it starts start over field and plain
mute forging how compass
Locate a thousand arrows deciphering one
degree salted (down)
By granite specked by pink
fraction to aim so
Uterus as uphill child’s heartbeat
repentant am in
Distinct from awash of mother blood
rimless to whole
Without specifics, wind
Pins joints held forth
two a nestle axis to tunnel
As axis what revolves
three behest insistence
Lilacs to the post foretold
In the first in three as
Signal and hook fey lingual
(The Bounty, 67)
Kim remarks that she when she wrote this she was able to hear the five columns “more or less simultaneously,” as if five voices were speaking all at once. Her focus on the “materiality of language” in which “[e]very world, every syllable—each sound, each rhythm jostles meaning, contributes to meaning-making” (F, 32) enables a prosody of the polyvocal to materialize. Poetry for Kim is no longer limited to the confines of the page, but rather, its lines are able to sonorously resonate in a cognitive space created by a sensorium — a place where sensory reception and interpretation all converge. Using one’s ears to hear the reverberating “r” sounds in the lines “For shelter the pounding sheet rain” and “ponder shir rain roof” when spoken at the same time, or breathing out the spaces between “Learning fetch of water / [ ] ranges lingering / Funnel thirty / [ ] merges temporal wreath” to feel the slow movements of “lingering” and “merg[ing]” occurring here is the way one needs to experience Kim’s poems, for they tend to demand a synesthetic application of senses. “The essence of poetry,” Kim explains, “lies in what emerges at that very moment of encounter with the written text, with your ears, body, psyche, historical condition.” Reading and writing, speaking and listening all become acts that not only Kim partakes in, but acts she urges the reader to join in as well, so that language can reach its potential of dialogism to the fullest degree, and so that the process of communication can be observed.
In this sense, Kim’s own personal experience becomes a metaphor for the possibilities of language itself: her loss of language (Korean), her newly acquired but still awkward new language (English), and the third space on which she can only reside in her linguistic endeavors becomes analogous to what all experience in today’s world, where the locus of enunciation is ever-shifting and the belief in a historical continuum — where experiences can be faithfully expressed — is questioned. For Myung Mi Kim, who often finds it difficult to find by herself an exact word to replicate an experience — “Hummingbird No word for its size” (Dura, 94) — writing becomes an act that is simply a part of a larger process in “the language of languages, the communication of communications” that she so emphasizes. The ideal reader of her poetry is not one who extracts meaning from the text, but one who accompanies it and the process in which it was created. The third space erected for the progression of understanding and/or language is what needs to be acknowledged by those who endeavor to both study Kim’s poetry and participate in the translingual experience.
1. An interview with the poet was conducted on June 18, 2009, at the Ewha Womans University BK English Lab, thanks to the generous efforts of both the BK and HK organizations. Unfortunately, as the interview content has yet to be published, all remarks referred to will be missing paginations. The full transcript can be provided on demand.
2. From the proceedings of the Fifth International Conference of the Korean Association for Feminist Studies in English Literature, held June 12–13, 2009, at Ewha Womans University, 30. Hereafter cited as F.
5. All citations of “F” refer to the proceedings of The Fifth International Conference of the Korean Association for Feminist Studies in English Literature, held June 12–13, 2009, at Ewha Womans University.
8. It is Korean tradition to place a head of a pig on a table at the beginning of a financial endeavor (such as an opening of a store, the first day of planting crops, etc.), and put money into its mouth as a way to pray to the gods for success.
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.” 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. 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
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.
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.” 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
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
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:
wild scythe swing
vehicles in and out
One Arrow transcript
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.” 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:
bliss and tenderage
kind property brew speech rose
such errant rapt
errant rapt refraction
kind speech bliss
flur also thist
beris beryl barris rose
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”). 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:
goods have mutual fit martial hand
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
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.”
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.” 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.
— Three Desks —
Myung Mi Kim said, “Let’s make lists of all of our discursive writing and look at those lists.” I began a list soon lost under piles. In the intervening years the bit of edification, the muzzle, gag and tethers of training that determined much of what fell to that list have remained of interest while the sign of the “discursive” under which the list accreted has become increasingly perplexing.
There are daily occasions that provoke response or invitations that require address. Vigilant against the learned behavior of automatic response yet immersed also in a porous need-world in which adrenaline calls the mother, whether or not she has children, before or after, to tend to the call.
The call is not the song. The Latin obaudire, hearing from below — obeying.
— George Albon
Here enter the imaginal and actual laws that authorize kinds of public discourse by kinds of public bodies. The bit and muzzle and their company surface at the moment of the call, as if address requires some kind of redress too: obedience. The writing that escapes seems to be poetry.
Years ago, unable to confine myself to the dissertation writing at the computer on my desk, I put a table to my right and another behind me. The one to the side was a repository for writing related to the topics of the dissertation but occurring in an idiolect different from that of the academy. What I recognized as poetry, sometimes related to the dissertation topics and sometimes not, fell to the third table behind me.
Starting before the occupation of the dissertation chamber and continuing long after that triangulation, an attempt to repeatedly take resistance and desire, to write not only about them, not issue only from them, and also not ignore them.
I am interested in what prompts and makes possible this process of entering what one is estranged from — and in what disables the foray.
— Toni Morrison*
Perhaps for some an academic discourse is native, without ambivalence, or easy to learn. For me it was none of those.
Help arrived as the learning and re-learning, the consecutive and simultaneous ordering and disassembling of one posture after another — perhaps a brain patterning via the body? — of the t’ai chi form:
Question 4: To withdraw is then to release, to release is to withdraw…but what is “in discontinuity there is still continuity”?
Answer: Discontinuity is the physical form and continuity is the i (mind). It is like a broken lotus root with the fibers still connected. In Chinese calligraphy the stroke may be broken, but the mind is still connected.
— T’ai Chi Classics
T’ai chi arrived as a kind of third apprehension: not poetry, not academic discourse — but linking and partaking of some of both of these, and more. An embodied instruction in sequence and phrase that is and is not sequential. No surprise when you think of the Greek for discourse invoking the body in the act of twice bringing or throwing the discus, thus as a measure, like foot size, diskoura δισκουρα of distance. Or if you listen to the many contradictory definitions for the word discourse in the OED, some excoriating, some invoking the body and the household. Or think of diosakis διοσακις, poet., adv., twice over.
That worked and later unworked — re-broken lotus root with the fibers still connected — writing that became the dissertation, later became a book — not of — but partaking of poetry. The hope to address the requirement and desire to learn a particular vocabulary, taxonomy and comportment of thinking and speaking with its rules of inclusion and exclusion and to simultaneously consider the valences of silence and other kinds of thinking and utterance — these efforts to practice forms of discontinuity in continuity continued beyond the three-desk scene. Training to become an academic or a car mechanic or a ten-year-old cotillion dancer requires practice in particular etiquette, ethics and manners. Usually training to become a specialist makes one a specialist in correct etiquette. Once in a while someone also becomes thoughtful and curious, or a bacchic dancer within or beyond the waltz.
WHAT IS IT YOU HAVE COME TO TELL ME?
Ultimately, the good reason of our refusal to censor or to “correct” is that we seek not to get rid of what embarrasses us or what does not seem true to our lights but to go beyond embarrassment — beyond shame or disgust or outrage — to imagine in an other light, to see in a larger sight what we had rather was dismissed from view.
— Robert Duncan
We might wish for a fugitive writing but all writing, including poetry, must contend in some way with the reign of the discursive — even if only to attempt to ignore or subvert its rule.
Yet maybe this institution and this inclination are but two converse responses to the same anxiety: anxiety as to just what discourse is when it is manifested materially, as a written or spoken object.
— Michel Foucault**
In the realm of our current academic or medical or legal discursives, in which “proceeding by reasoning or argument” is the prevailing use of the word, one who refuses or is unable to be trained to tolerate the rigors of correction, the bit of edification, is often viewed as deficient — or she is regaled as a “real” Poet, having “escaped” via a royal road called “inspiration.” This divide we inherit and in which we live takes me back to one of its origins in the Ion: “for not by art does the poet sing but by power divine … God takes away the minds of poets.” The current discursive trains for meaning minus exhilaration. Thinking minus music.
Poetry and music are both patterns of sound drawn on a background of time. … Whatever refinements and subtleties they may introduce, if they lose touch altogether with the simplicity of the dance, with the motions of the human body and the sounds natural to a man exerting himself, people will no longer feel them as music and poetry. They will respond to them, no doubt but not with the exhilaration that dancing brings.
— Basil Bunting
We could think of poetry and music as elements of a kind of thought that involves voices issuing from bodies in motion. A sequence of actions, something like a dance or embodied incantation. Each step across the page might propose a measure of distance. A foot equals a sound unit or sentence. Invitation to a choreography of relation — the proximity of bodies — in a room doing the t’ai chi form — a call, body to body, like seaweed waving to currents in the air, or following the space of the page before word, each posture a hexagram, a sequence taking letter shapes — a form of thought and address —
What is it you have come to tell me?
— Address —
In the difficulty, there is no other to address but address itself.
If I could begin this is where I would begin.
Investigating these gags and tethers that attempt to keep us from violating the conventions of discursive utterance. That is investigating what we think we know about what thinking looks and sounds like — and should — this is the labor of a reflexive and reflective discourse.
All research is crisis. What is sought is nothing other than the turn of seeking, of research, that occasions this crisis: the critical turn.
— Maurice Blanchot
The turning back to look — to have recourse — does not turn one into a salt pillar.
Looking at the curse as it has been inherited through the social and the family over generations, as in, “You made my grandfather eat his children in a stew [Pelops] and therefore I will now kill you in revenge” and on and on for generations of blood-letting. Discourse as a kind of revenge, inheritance, heritage of bloodletting, that occurs in some academic and other cultural conventions, under the sign of which, the slaughter of what came before, one kind of looking back, is recognizable as the work of correction and improvement called contribution to the present.
Is there a way to talk, read, write within the social fabric, canon, family without continuing blood feud? — Is there a course that doesn’t lead, as it did for the Erinyes, Medea, Antigone, etc., to the punishment and shelter of the law of the polis? The banishment of the speech of the Furies to the hearth safely imprisoned inside the house?
The crisis of “the critical turn” is always present and always collapsing response, call, poetry, criticism, event, recollection. Always looking back at that second of a death, an origin, an invitation.
Marcel said they were incapable of establishing priorities. In fact their priorities were simply different priorities: value was assigned to all events equally but serially; what was going on at the moment — Aziz’s [murder] trial, a stray chicken — had top billing. Neither event would have a lasting hold on them. Special fondness was attached to those incidents and persons with the greatest dramatic possibilities — that is, with a continuing, endlessly repeatable and improvable life in the imagination: memory of a kind.
— Isabel Fonseca
In place of subordination, imagination. Like incantation — not without cause and effect as one can repeat one thing and something else may occur as a result. One could engage a telling memory of the remembered unfolding present that prioritizes that of “greatest dramatic possibility” and enacts the critical turn as ratiocination of a kind. Lyric might be of high priority in a response to the continual crisis of seeking.
Lyric has no sound but recalls sound. … The way a promise is an action made in speech, not in the sense of something scriptable or repeatable, but something that “happens,” that “occurs” as an event and can continually be called upon … in the unfolding present.
— Susan Stewart
At that second of the sound of the call, writing poetry is a promise that involves the desolation of the impossible charge. The enactment of a coherent public face that the discursive seems to demand puts me in a different state of desolation.
I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face.
— Michel Foucault
In some poetry the writer dwells on the desolation wire of the impossibility of writing within/while writing. Passing from premises to conclusions in the discursive mode we are taught to act, to masquerade as if writing is possible — without obstacle, as if we are not our own obstacle — as if the assignment to convey meaning, argument, language as tool in service of that, can be met.
Is the desolation wire the phatic place where the song eclipses, overshadows, devours, extends beyond the call? Phatic as in phanein φανεροs to show, to appear visible — even if in disguise. Does, can, a wounded and double-faced, doubt-filled, unfaithful to orders, faceless, full frontal critical writing exist?
If it could, would we be able then to burn the need for the distinction between the discursive and other writing?
What is always at work in discourse — as in everything else — is desire and power. … This is why discourse, at least since the rout of the Sophists by Plato, always unfolds in the service of the “will to truth.” Discourse wishes “to speak the truth.” but in order to do this, it must mask from itself its service to desire and power, must indeed mask from itself the fact that it is itself a manifestation of the operations of these two forces.
— Hayden White
Whose “truth” does which discourse wish us to speak, to serve up, to write?
— Third Apprehension —
All reasoning is carried on discursively; that is discurrendo, — by running about to the right and the left, laying the separate notices together, and thence mediately deriving some third apprehension.
Plucking from the definitions which themselves are laden with so much contradiction: invoking the inherent of the incoherent.
A subject of ‘discourse’ or reasoning (as distinguished from a subject of perception)
Perception as a kind of reason?
To lift the ancestral curse from this House of Atreus and turn it on itself.
Here the reflective recursive appears as the chorus that provides “another side to … conception,” even another kind of conception.
And, of course, s/he might begin with the writing. S/he might try to put the whole dialogue in new writing, the field of another kind of voice than those we have heard before. A help-ful, in-forming voice, a voice eager to reach and accept the other’s voice. Already in chorus, or eager to reach for chorus. It might get started like that. Any day, it could begin like that. Any day it could begin.
— Nathaniel Tarn
The intolerable restrictions of the drama could be loosened, however, if a means could be found by which what was general and poetic, comment, not action, could be freed without interrupting the movement of the whole. It is this that the choruses supply; the old men or women who take no active part in the drama, the undifferentiated voices who sing like birds in the pauses of the wind; who can comment, or sum up, or allow the poet to speak himself or supply, by contrast, another side to his conception.
— Virginia Woolf
As legend has it the first actor, the “hypocrit,” was Thespis, the first to appear on stage as a “character” of a written play instead of as “himself,” as a writer. He was also the first to exchange words with the leader of the chorus. The υποκριτηs, the hypocrit could be enlisted to appear on our current discursive stage as the figure who addresses and provokes “the undifferentiated voices who sing like birds in the pauses of the wind; who can comment, or sum up, or allow the poet to speak himself or supply, by contrast, another side to his conception.” Hypocrit from Hypokrisia Υποκρισια — of stringed instruments, answer in sound, i.e. sound in harmony with, to play an accompaniment. This hypocrit, being (at least) two-faced, could begin to “in-form” as Tarn suggests, begin to reach for a chorus that has already begun, to seduce and aggravate that chorus into more comment, summary, and more sides to conception.
The hypocrit talks with the chorus who talks to the audience. They all need each other to stay with/in the play. When the reader talks with the writer, is the reader the hypocrit or the chorus or the audience? The performance by all involves answering, harmonizing, assessing, contradicting: in short, interpretation — critical turns, a turning into, and turning from and toward heard and written passages.
One must be able to pass easily into those ecstasies, those wild and apparently irrelevant utterances, those sometimes obvious and commonplace statements, to decide their relevance or irrelevance, and give them their relation to the play as a whole.
We must be able to ‘pass easily’; but that of course is exactly what we cannot do. … But we can guess that Sophocles used them not to express something outside the action of the play, but to sing the praises of some virtue, or the beauties of some place mentioned in it.
— Virginia Woolf
It might not be possible or desirable to resuscitate, reconstitute, or intervene in the orders of the discursive under whose reign we live, but it could be possible instead to enlist it, turn it into, turn to it as a recursive chorus that doesn’t express something “outside the action of the play” (or the poem, or thinking) but reflects on and joins in singing “the praises of some virtue, or the beauties of some place mentioned in it” and examines its ethics and aesthetics, in order “to decide their relevance or irrelevance, and give them their relation to the play.” And we could ask the hypocrit to digress from the narrative, as the aria singer does, to invite the pets, the gospel mass choir, the recitative, the dolphins and circadae who comment on us and make a place (chorus also invoking an enclosed place, χορτος, a feeding place, a farmyard in which cattle were kept) between speech, song, premise, conclusion, thought, and law.
This recursive chorus would not be performing a meta-function of poetry, as poetry is always in “the play as a whole.” A whole? Where is the inside or outside of the play? Why do we even need to call this writing that enlists the wounded, double-faced, doubt-filled and faceless, something other than poetry? I think that is because we cannot ignore or pretend that we do not still live under the Pythagorean. And in the territory of address of the upper class, male only citizens, playwrights, actors and members of the chorus.
DUALISM: Under the good the Pythagoreans ranged light, unity, understanding, rest, the straight, male, right, definite, even, and square; and under evil as contraries, darkness, plurality, opinion, movement, the curved, female, left, indefinite, odd, irregular.
Promethean aspiration: To be a woman and a Pythagorean feminine. I go in disguise. Signification, Soul under stress, thread of connection broken, visionary energy lost.
— Susan Howe
The recursive might let us don the disguise of “Promethean aspiration: To be a woman and a Pythagorean” — to be a poet hypocrit, and keep “the thread of connection” — “broken lotus root with the fibers still connected” — as inside the wheel of the critical turn we keep researching the curse and walking the desolation high wire.
4. To come back or return (into, in or to) one’s thoughts, mind or memory.
Recurer (obs. rare)
One who helps or aids
Throughout his annual and recurring race he never stops but always changes place
recurring utterance, a form of aphasia marked by the repetition of certain words or phrases
1597 The muscles which are serviceable to the speech or voice, as are the recurrentes, or retrograding muscles.
Of an eagle: Having the back towards the spectator
who sing like birds in the pauses of the wind
with their back to the spectator as a form of address
I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.
— Michel Foucault
Dream in which my charge is to write an essay about silence. And so I attempt.
“To speak is to do something.”
Or to not speak is to take care. Later, to “speak up” is to “tend”
Want, Guilt, Need, Care — the four gray hags
— Christa Wolf
To care is the work of the chorus not to express “something outside the action of the play” but to arrest the dialogue without stopping the action in order to reflect or reflect on actions. The noise of the recurrentes or retrograding muscles in a dance, gestures of utterance issuing from no single character — so, speechless in full speech, masked — on behalf of, to care for, the players in the play, the audience as character in the play — the child at play is in the play
Heart affluence in discursive talk from household fountains never dry
— Thomas Hardy, definition of discourse, OED
On the waterways the night house becomes a neutrality, not a contested space of subordinates. It apprehends a different relation to the animate objects in its hold — silently M and I make lists while the children sleep rocking in their bed boats.
The domestic stage, farmyard, feeding place — open air — public:
Behind the closed door a child moved furniture
Written In Furniture
A message arranged
But the recipients unaware of the legibility of this medium
What is it you have come to tell me?
When the angel of death passed over the houses of the Israelites marking doors — dispensing the pharaoh’s rule [as discursives of moral good and evil, just, unjust] to some, and sent (and saved) others under the sign of the bloody X that became wandering in the desert [running hither and tither: passing irregularly from one locality to another], exile, on others — my forehead — the forehead of my house, received an X. Sent to the lions, the snakes by the river who secretly romp together disrupting [passing from premises to conclusions; by ‘discourse’ of reason; ‘ratiocinative’] the believed order of the nature of animal behavior, I departed [running about to the right and the left, laying the separate notices together]
Here I dwell
Gather round children of circumstance
while I pass the plate
Let chance, occasion, contingency, condition, happenstance, the circling stars, the odds, hazard,
mistake, incident, be our debtors
take us hostage
so we have no choice but to pack up and climb out the window
That is to run away, to write, to run back into the burning house
Glory to the combination lock
with its lost numbers
And the way we look up at story time
thinking the face of the teacher is the book
and our circle the story clock
Come diverge perplex tell ask spoken for speak with quotation, juxtaposition, diagnosis as proposition — braid doom dwellers, wanderers and the able unable — which dys is it keeping us doubters, dancers, the aimfully inarticulate, aphasic, estranged, chronically embarrassed, those who cannot leave the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, weepers, the exhilarated, army of archers — Turn, bend, twist, spin, brush-the-knee-and-strike
From COMING EVENTS (Collected Writings), Nightboat Books, Callicoon, New York, 2013.
Thanks to Myung Mi Kim for years of conversation. Thanks also to Nathaniel Tarn, whose writings about the choral contributed to my thinking.
And thanks to all of those in whose work I first encountered the possibility of something that might be called the recursive: through letter writing (before computers); in the 1987 issue of ACTS journal called “Analytic Lyric”; in the work of Norma Cole; Benjamin Hollander; in Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson; Luce Irigaray; Hélène Cixous; Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body; Barbara Guest’s Rocks on a Platter, Forces of Imagination, Dürer in the Window, and more recently in the work of Eleni Stecopoulos, Christa Wolf, and Gustaf Sobin, and Impasse of the Angels by Stefania Pandolfo. I’m sure there are many more examples unknown to me or forgotten.
Many thanks to George Albon for his invaluable comments on “Outer Event.”
Thanks to Martin Inn, t’ai chi teacher, acupuncturist, friend, for comment on this writing and many years of wisdom, healing, and friendship.
Thanks beyond possible thanks to Steve Dickison for his repeated readings and indispensible responses to this piece.
I am interested in what prompts and makes possible this process of entering what one is estranged from — and in what disables the foray, for purposes of fiction, into corners of the consciousness held off and away from the reach of the writer’s imagination. My work requires me to think about how free I can be as an African-American woman writer in my genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world. To think about (and wrestle with) the full implications of my situation leads me to consider what happens when other writers work in a highly and historically racialized society. For them, as for me, imagining is not merely looking or looking at; nor is it taking oneself intact into the other. It is, for the purposes of the work, becoming.
Inclination speaks out: ‘I don’t want to have to enter this risky world of discourse, I want nothing to do with it insofar as it is decisive and final. … All I want is to allow myself to be borne along, within it, and by it, a happy wreck’. Institutions reply: ‘But you have nothing to fear from launching out; we’re here to show you discourse is within the established order of things .… and if it should happen to have a certain power, then it is we, and we alone, who give it that power.’ … In a society such as our own we all know the rules of exclusion. We all know what is prohibited. We know perfectly well that we are not free to say just anything, that we cannot simply speak of anything, when we like or where we like; not just anyone, finally, may speak of just anything.
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).