A response to 'Gertrude Stein's Translations of Speeches by Philippe Petain'

Fascinating indeed. My own guess — (I guess we’re all guessing) — is that Gertrude, a political naïf capable of only rough calculation re: nuance in current (’39, ’40, ’41 etc) winds of doctrine, and with very genuine affection for Fay — a very affable  gentleman indeed, (if you remember our brief meeting with him in Paris), and his returned affection for her, his persuasion to do a friend a favor and say nice things — stretching conscience no more than her willingness would permit — to help his dear friend by translating speeches that might show him in his best light for Americans (faced with defeat and Nazi military invasion, Petain was, after all, saying nice things to shore up his nation’s continuing pride in itself even in a time of terrible adversity), and not until the reality of the Occupation, the deportations, the clouds of war, and its meaning for her, given her lifelong American at-one-ness did she lose enthusiasm and feel distaste for the task and took occasion to let the obligation sort of fade away. Thinking of the whole incident retrospectively in the Janet Malcolm vein, Gertrude should have bravely and publicly denounced Fay for getting her into this evil, evil business, bravely and publicly denounced Petain as well, and so inviting her own deportation and demise, but after that outcome,  knowing inward reward, moral cleansing, and Pyrrhic victory. The movie version. My guess is — to come back to my guess — that to put political and moral weight on this episode to Gertrude’s shame is to lose all sense of normal human behavior and its moderate demands on political propriety. To ask of private conduct that it be appraised from the perspective of world-historical events is to pretend that everybody is obliged  to behave by  taking into account the perpetual glare of Heaven’s own Book of Political Virtues, and heeding its call, go willingly into the flames. If Gertrude didn’t have pristine political virtue, she did have common sense.

'Gertrude Stein's Translations of Speeches' by Philippe Petain

Gertrude Stein (left) and Philippe Pétain (right).

Carefully stowed and catalogued among the 173 boxes of the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library are three unremarkable folders containing translations of Philippe Pétain’s Paroles aux Français.[1] Alongside Stein’s introduction,[2] the manuscript notebooks and few typed pages they contain are the corpus delicti of her collaboration with the Vichy regime. Despite their centrality to the controversy over Stein’s war years, however, the contents of these folders (thanks probably, in part, to Stein’s more than usually formidable handwriting) have not been extensively studied or understood. It is the purpose of this piece to clarify what they contain and to offer a suggestion as to why Stein translated Pétain’s speeches the way that she did.

Perhaps the most detailed description available of Stein’s Pétain translations is given by Barbara Will in her recent book, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Regime. If I quote Will at length, it is because her words serve as the best introduction:

At the end of 1941, Stein undertook a project to translate the speeches by Philippe Pétain that had been collected in a book edited and introduced by Gabriel-Louis Jaray, a friend of Bernard Faÿ. It was no small endeavor. For the next year and a half, Stein translated some thirty-two of Pétain’s speeches into English, including those that announced Vichy policy barring Jews and other “foreign elements” from positions of power in the public sphere and those that called for a “hopeful” reconciliation with Nazi forces. The last of Pétain’s speeches that Stein translated was from August 1941, but Stein did not cease working on the project until January 1943 — several months after the Germans had occupied the whole of France in November 1942 and long after the United States had entered the war against the fascist forces that Stein was promoting to her fellow Americans. […] The first speech translated is Pétain’s address of 1936, delivered at the inauguration of a monument to the veterans of Capoulet-Junac; the last, Pétain’s 1940 Christmas address. Stein followed the erratic chronology of the original text, Paroles aux français, messages et écrits 1934–1941, translating approximately the first half of the fifty speeches published. Still, she leaves some speeches untranslated, and it is interesting to speculate as to why.[3]

Here, as elsewhere in her absorbing account, Will’s historical research regarding the circumstances of Stein’s project is thorough. Apparently translating until January 1943 when “her friend Paul Genin and the sous-prefet of Belley, Maurice Sivan, urged her to abandon the project,”[4] Stein continued her work for three months after the United States had severed diplomatic relations with the Vichy government. There are, however, two potentially misleading details in Will’s description of the translations themselves which are worth clarifying. Firstly, by my count, Stein translated only twenty-seven full speeches (one of which is separated into five sections).[5] Among these twenty-seven there are abortive attempts at two others, making a total of twenty-nine, not thirty-two. At the beginning of folder 1141 are also typescript copies of part of the second speech and all of four others (listed below as 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6). Since the original French version of these speeches is easily accessible, both in the volume that Stein used[6] and in more recent critical editions,[7] I include here a list of their dates, so that the curious reader may consult their contents:




Number of Speech in Paroles aux Français

Title of Speech in Paroles aux Français and Notes





Le paysan français





Pour l’union des Français



November 1938


L’abandon de la vie spirituelle et de l’esprit national



17th June 1940



Appel du 17 juin 1940



22nd June 1940


Appel du 20 juin

(Misdated by Stein as 22nd June)



20th June 1940


Appel du 23 juin

(Misdated by Stein as 23rd June.)



25th June 1940


Appel du 25 juin



11th July 1940


Appel du 11 juillet 1940



13th August 1940


Appel du 13 août



9th October 1940


Appel du 9 octobre



11th October 1940


Message du 11 octobre



30th October 1940


Message du 30 octobre sur l’Entrevue de Montoire



18th November 1940


Déclaration du 18 novembre aux représentants de la Presse à Lyon



14th December 1940


Message du 14 décembre sur le renvoi de M. Pierre Laval



1st January 1941


Allocution du 1er janvier 1941 au Corps diplomatique

(Stein only translates the first five lines of this speech, before crossing it out.)



19th March 1941


Message de Grenoble



7th April 1941


Message du 7 Avril



11th May 1941


Message du 11 Mai pour la fête de Jeanne d’Arc



15th May 1941


Message du 15 Mai



8th June 1941


Message du 8 juin aux Français du Levant



17th June 1941


Message du 17 juin



8th July 1941


Discours du 8 juillet sur la Constitution



12th August 1941


Message du 12 août



19th August 1941


Discours du 19 août au Conseil d’État



26th August 1941


Lettre du 26 août aux prisonniers libérés



15th September 1940


La Politique social de l’avenir

(Revue des Deux Mondes)



10th November 1940


Le Secours national



30th November 1940


Appel en faveur des expulsés lorrains



24th December 1940


Message de Noël 1940

(Unfinished after two pages.)

As the reader will observe, speeches I, V, XII, XVI–XVIII, XXVII, XXXII, and XXXIV are not translated by Stein. In addition, Stein evidently gave up on Pétain’s New Year speech of 1941 (XXI), as well as leaving the last speech unfinished. Since this speech ends with her notebook, however, Edward Burns and Ulla Dydo speculate that there may have been another notebook following on from it:

The last text translated, a routine speech for Christmas 1940, stops at the end of her manuscript notebook in midspeech, midsentence, a procedure quite unlike Stein, who was orderly and finished what she started; was there another notebook, not preserved, which might have gone beyond and revealed what happened to make her stop?[8]

Burns and Dydo do not suggest a likely answer, writing instead that “The texts and letters preserved do not give us enough facts for interpretation” (409). In what follows, I will have occasion to consider both Will’s question (why did Stein choose the speeches she did) and Burns and Dydo’s (why did she stop so suddenly?). However, taking Burns and Dydo’s warning seriously, I do not pretend to have arrived at a definitive interpretation; any conclusions suggested are speculative.

To return to the second potentially misleading moment in Barbara Will’s description of Stein’s translations. Will writes: “Stein translated some thirty-two of Pétain’s speeches into English, including those that announced Vichy policy barring Jews and other ‘foreign elements’ from positions of power in the public sphere and those that called for a “hopeful” reconciliation with Nazi forces.”[9] From this report, the reader might assume that Stein’s translations involved writing out in English the anti-Semitic and xenophobic portions of Pétain’s new policies. Certainly Stein did translate Pétain’s declarations of support for Adolf Hitler, and his injunctions to the French to collaborate with the Nazis. However, Stein did not translate any specific reference to Jews. This is not because of her selection, but for the simple reason that there are no such references in Pétain’s speeches. Although Stein did translate one speech by Pétain announcing changes in Vichy policy (Oct. 9, 1940), and although this change in policy did refer in part — but not by name — to the infamous Statut des Juifs of October 3, 1940, the speech itself does not mention the specific changes wrought on French policy. (Stein, apparently, did not translate Pétain’s announcement of modifications to this policy on June 4th 1941.) Pétain was remarkably silent on the “Jewish question” in his public pronouncements — a fact which, perhaps, can be explained by suggesting that Pétain wanted his speeches to emphasize national unity and solidity. Here are two samples of such references in Pétain’s speeches to his changed laws from October 9th, 1940, with Stein’s translations below:

Un statut nouveauprélude d’importantes réformes de structure, déterminerales rapports du capital et du travail. Il assureraà chacun la dignité et la justice.[10]

A new law a prelude to important constructive reforms will decide the relation of capital to labor. It will assure to each one justice and dignity.[11]

Dans un message que les journaux publieront demain et qui sera le plan d’action du gouvernment, je vous montrerai ce que doivent être les traits essentiels de notre nouveau regime. National en politique étrangère; hiérarchisé en politique intérieure; coordonné et contrôlé dans son économie, et, par-dessus tout social dans son esprit et dans ses institutions.[12]

In a message that the newspapers will publish and which will be the plan In the of action of the government I will make evident to you what should be the essential character of our new regime government. National in foreign politics, hierarchic in home politics affairs, coordinated and controlled in its economy, and above all social in its spirit and its institutions [?] institutions.[13]

Pétain, it seems, was careful to keep explicitly discriminatory statements out of his speeches. His euphemism for the revised polity was the “hierarchization” of France.

In 2010, a newly released draft of the 1940 Statut des Juifs revealed that Philippe Pétain was not only personally willing to propagate Nazi anti-Semitic policy in France, but went beyond Hitler by making his already appalling strictures more comprehensive.[14] However, before the discovery of this document showing the extent of Pétain’s anti-Semitism, his personal involvement in French anti-Semitic policy was debatable. Arguments to the opposite end were common: that under German pressure Pétain was forced to instigate anti-Jewish laws, but tried to temper them in France.[15] In trying to understand Stein’s actions, it is important to note that translating Pétain’s speeches would not, in itself, have brought her familiarity with the nature or extent of his involvement with the anti-Semitic policies introduced on October 3rd 1940 and June 2nd 1941. Indeed, the fact that Pétain, through the mediation of Bernard Faÿ, accepted Stein as the translator of his speeches into English may have suggested to her that he was not prejudiced against Jews. Moreover, in one of the speeches that Stein translates (30 Nov. 1940), Pétain defends the refugees from Alsace-Lorraine, of which a large portion were Jewish. Since the publication of this speech was banned by German authorities in occupied territory,[16] its translation may have seemed to Stein a long way from a pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic act. (Stein’s translation is included in the note below.)[17]

If insisting on the contemporary representation of Pétain’s person here seems like quibbling (there is, after all, no denying the fact that Stein translated speeches from the leader of a regime that contributed to the Holocaust), it is an ad hominem focus suggested by Stein’s introduction to her project. Pétain, to the Stein writing this introduction, was a mythical hero above suspicion:

Like George Washington [he] has given [his countrymen] courage in their darkest moment held them together through their times of desperation and has always told them the truth and in telling them the truth has made them realise that the truth would set them free.[18]

… one thing that was certain and that was that like Benjamin Franklin he never defecnded [defended] himself, he never explained himself, in short his character did not need any defence.[19]

everybody had feelings about the Marechal, about one thing they were all agreed and that is that he had achieved a miracle, without arms without any means of defense, he had succeeded in making the Germans more or less keep their word with him. Gradually this miracle impressed itself upon every one.[20]

I must say little by little the most critical and the most violent of us have come gradually to do what the Marechal asks all French people to do, to have faith in him and in the fact that France will live. And this is to introduce the actual words said by the Marechal when it was necessary for him to say something and it is a convincing and moving story.[21]

One might theorize that it was Stein’s own explorations of celebrity and identity in works such as Lectures in America or Everybody’s Autobiography that led her towards this stance of hero worship. Stein’s enthusiasm for Pétain in this introduction appears to have had much more to do with his personal aura than the specificities of his policy.

Looking at Stein’s translations through the optic of her cult of personality for Philippe Pétain offers a potential motivation for Stein’s choice of speeches to translate. Stein, it seems, was often more interested in those speeches in which Pétain’s rhetorical persona as the savior of France was most prominent. Thus she omits speech XVIII “Discours du 18 novembre a la Chambre de commerce de Lyon” about the organization of the state and its departments, but includes, from the same day speech XIX “Declaration du 18 novembre aux représentants de la Presse à Lyon,” which is Pétain’s response to those who have accused him of shying away journalists. The choice is not unreasonable, considering the purpose of her translations: to introduce Pétain to readers in the United States. Likewise, Stein omits speeches with distant subjects. Thus speech V, Pétain’s  message on the “moral example of Canada” and speech XVI addressed to the colonies are left out, while III — “Pour l’union des Français” is included, perhaps because it foregrounds Pétain’s rhetorical role and immediate presence.

Stein’s enthusiasm for Pétain’s person has also been used, by Barbara Will, to suggest an explanation for the style of her translations. As the reader will have noticed from the samples given above, Stein’s translations are often extremely literal. Thus Will writes,

what is most striking about the text is its almost stupefyingly literal rendering of the French original. Translating word by word, Stein completely ignores questions of idiom or style: “Telle est, aujourd’hui, Français, la tâche à laquelle je vous convie” becomes “This is today french people the task to which I urge you.” An idiomatic phrase such as “Le 17 juin 1940, il y a aujourd’hui une année” becomes “On the seventeenth of June 1940 it is a year today.”[22]

One conclusion we might draw would be Stein’s own ineptitude. However, as Will points out, Stein had already composed original work in French, and had allegedly translated Flaubert’s Trois Contes, as well as Georges Hugnet’s poem cycle Enfances.[23] (Reading her literalism as incompetence, one might add, is to run the risk of sounding like “the director of the Grafton Press” in the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, who was “under the impression” that perhaps Stein’s “knowledge of english” was at fault.)[24] “Hence,” writes Will, “the striking literalism of Stein’s Pétain translations seem[s] to point to a deeper issue than linguistic ineptitude.”

Stein’s attempt to render the French original into English through a one-to-one correspondence between signs seems to be conceding authority, interpretation, and interrogation to the voice of Pétain. This compositional submissiveness suggests a subject in thrall to the aura of a great man: the savior on a white horse, as Stein describes Pétain in her introduction to his speeches. In an interview with her local paper Le Bugiste in 1942, Stein is in fact described in a curious state of ravishment: “she abandons herself to her subject, to her hero, she admires the importance of his words and the significance of the symbol.” To invoke Susan Sontag: Stein appears “fixated” or “fascinated” by Pétain, mesmerized and rendered passive by an almost masochistic desire for the figure of the authoritarian dictator.[25]

I find this conclusion highly suggestive in the ways that it makes us think about the queerness and erotic charge of much of Stein’s writing. But when one considers the kind of portrait that Will paints of Stein, one is confronted with a counterintuitive image. Stein, the author of “Patriarchal Poetry,” as a meek woman rendered passive and incapable of personal expression by her “ravishment” for the strong male dictator? Of course, more “unlikely” things have happened; beside the fact of Stein’s collaboration, such a submission to patriarchy is not inconceivable.

Rather than multiplying unlikelihoods, however, I suggest a more mundane option. In most cases, Stein, I think, used a literal translation because she thought that this was an appropriate way to translate prose. (In 1928, she apparently insisted that Bernard Faÿ and Georges Hugnet render The Making of Americans into French through what Ulla Dydo calls “sentence sense, as it were, word-for-word meaning.”[26] When Stein’s translation of Pétain’s speeches becomes so literal as to be sloppy, I think it is because, given the project by Bernard Faÿ, Stein rapidly lost interest in her task, and yet continued out of a dogged determination. As Burns and Dydo suggest, this would be characteristic of her, since although she often set out on projects with which she grew disillusioned, she also “finished what she started.”[27] This interpretation is supported by the fact that Stein’s translating is not ubiquitously literal. Passages where her interest was apparently more strongly engaged, particularly towards the beginning of the project, show evidence of numerous revisions, which carry the English version away from the literal French version rather than towards it. So, for example, in translating Pétain’s most memorable speech, that of his assumption of power on June 17, 1940, Stein used both sides of the notebook pages, going over multiple options for possible versions. Pétain’s line, “je fais à la France le don de ma personne pour atténuer son malheur,”[28] goes through at least ten variations. I transcribe only those that I can read:

(click here to view a high-resolution scan)

I give to France myself

 I make a gift to France of my person to attenuate its misfortune

                                                      to help it out of

                              of all of me myself to weaken its unhappiness


 I make a present to France of the whole of me to attenuate

                                                        me myself to diminish its misfortune



                                                                               calm its distress

 I now make a present to France of myself in order to strengthen it in its
misfortune trouble misery. I dedicate the all of myself to the country France to
appease its misery agony.


 I dedicate all of myself to France to appease its agony.[29]

One can see here a general trend away from the French constructions to less literal, and more natural-sounding English constructions. Thus with “je fais le don,” Stein settles not on “I make a gift” but on “dedicate”; and “atténuer son malheur” becomes not the stilted “attenuate its misfortunate” but the much more expressive “appease its agony.”

In contrast to this speech of June 17, 1940, Stein’s translations in folder 1142 show fewer traces of revision. The work that she probably did during the last three months of her translating — that is, during the period after the US had severed diplomatic relations with the Vichy government — appears half-hearted. A glance at the broad sweep of her handwriting in the unfinished final speech from December 1940 suggests that she was working rapidly. In the following passage, Stein seems to have always opted for the first word that came to her. The French word order is unchanged:

In many homes, there are empty places — the places of dear ones. Many will never come back, who were seated there joyously last year, on leave for ten days around the family table; that our first thought should be is for them: they have saved their honor. Others await far from you prisoners in foreign lands; perhaps they will hear this evening mass said in their camps? Perhaps they will open with love the beautiful packages that you have sent them? Never than in their xile and in their solitude They have they never been nearer to us than in their xile and in their solitude: I think this evening night of all who suffer, of those who have not in their fire-places neither wood or coal, of those who have heard, in past times in past times, spoken of in past times of Christmas eve and who do not spoken of and who do not know if they will eat to-morrow; of children who will not find toys[30]

The infelicitous phrase “they have saved honor” in French reads, “ils ont sauvé l’honneur.”[31] Likewise, the double negative “I think this night of all who suffer, of those who have not in their fire-places neither wood or coal” reproduces a French grammatical construction: “Je pense aussi, ce soir, à tous ceux qui souffrent, à ceux qui ne mettront dans leur cheminée ni bûches, ni charbon.”[32] This perfunctoriness does not seem to be the work of a translator in awe of her author; it is, however, quite possibly the work of a creative artist disheartened by a task, and one increasingly uncertain of its virtue.

Before we leap to the conclusion that Stein realized the error of her ways midway through her translations, it is worth considering that her disillusion with the project, as I sketch it here, need not have been purely due to a sense of impropriety aroused by changing historical circumstances. If one reads Pétain’s speeches in the order in which they are presented in Paroles aux Français, one cannot help feeling that the earlier portions of the work are more interesting: the narrative of Pétain’s ascent to power, his arrangement of an armistice with Nazi Germany, and his meeting with Hitler, make for more compelling reading than do his later pronouncements and struggles to maintain order. I think it is possible that Stein, regarding the political ramifications of her task as secondary, was primarily motivated by such concerns over readerly interest. This, at least, would explain why she revised the translation of Pétain’s speech explaining the meeting with Hitler at Montoire on October 30th, 1940, almost as rigorously as she did that of June 17, 1940. And, in this context, it is also plausible that when Stein reached the end of her third notebook, she did not begin another one for the simple reason that she was no longer sufficiently interested.

These are only speculative suggestions attempting to understand the scope and style of Stein’s translation of Philippe Pétain’s speeches to the French. Others, I hope, will approach the same material in a different manner. For, if anything, it seems to me that “setting the record straight” when it comes to Gertrude Stein’s war years is a misnomer. She was a queer writer adept at getting by and always capable of surprising her readers; it would be interesting to see radical readings which responded to her provocation. Rather than dismissing her collaboration as purely negative, in contrast, say, to Samuel Beckett’s war years, one could, for example, place Stein’s writings for the Vichy regime beside works such as Funeral Rites by Jean Genet. Stein’s translations of Pétain’s speeches, like her other work, present a diversity of possible interpretations. If we are to understand them, we do well to reserve a priori judgments about their meaning and to pay attention to their range and peculiarity.



Quotations and the holograph reproduction from the Stein translations are used without objection from the Beinecke Library, Yale University, and the estate of Gertrude Stein.

1. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, MSS 76, box 64, folders 1140–1142.

2. YCAL MSS 76, box 64, folder 1139 (in English) and folder 1143 (in French translation). Stein’s introduction has been printed in Edward Burns and Ulla Dydo’s appendix to The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, ed. Edward Burns, Ulla E Dydo, and William Rice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 406–408, as well as in Modernism/modernity 3, no. 3 (September 1996): 93–96.

3. Barbara Will, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 138.

4. Edward Burns, “Gertrude Stein: A Complex Itinerary, 1940–1944,” Jacket2.

5. The speech with five sections, for each of which Stein begins a new page as if beginning a new speech, is dated 11 Oct. 1940. The speech was actually given on 10 Oct. 1940.

6. Philippe Pétain, Paroles aux Franc̜ais; messages et écrits, 1934–1941 (Lyon: H. Lardanchet, 1941).

7. See, e.g., Pétain, Discours aux Français, ed. Jean-Claude Barbas (Paris: Albin Michel, 1989).

8. Stein and Thornton Wilder, “Appendix IX: Gertrude Stein: September 1942–September 1944,” in Burns, Dydo, and Rice, The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, 409.

9. Will, Unlikely Collaboration,138.

10. Pétain, Discours aux Français, 73.

11. YCAL MSS 76, box 64, folder 1141, Speech 10.

12.Pétain, Discours aux Français, 76.

13. YCAL MSS 76, box 64, folder 1141, Speech 10.

14. Information on this document is available from a number of new reports describing its discovery. See, for example, the Lizzy Davies Guardian article; see also the French Wikipedia page “Lois contre les Juifs et les étrangers pendant le régime de Vichy” for a discussion with more context.

15. See, for example, Monique and Jean Paillard’s Documents secrets pour servir à la réhabilitation du maréchal Pétain (Paris: Editions du Trident: Diffusion, Librairie française, 1989). Versions of this argument are common in nonacademic writing. One made by “VSA” is available online.

16. Pétain, Discours aux Français, 99.

17. Stein’s translation:

Appeal inform [?] of the Lorraines

French People.

Seventy thousand Lorraines have come into the free zone¨, having had to abandon everything; their houses, their goods, their villages, their church, their cemeteries where sleep their ancestors all in short that makes life worth living.

They have lost every thing, and they have come to ask sanctuary from their brethren in France. Behold them in the threshold of winter, without resources, having nothing left of wealth, except their pride in being still french[.] they accept indeed their evil plight without complaint and without recrimination. They are the french people of a great race of energetic souls with souls full of strength and valiant hearts. A great number of them are peasants. Living in the vicinity of a  frontier they have throughout the centuries suffered more than all others the hardships of war. I feel as you feel yourselves all their agony suffering agony. The government is doing all in its power to comfort their misfortune to furnish them the means of living and worship. But the Lorraines deserve better; it is necessary that the feeling welcome they receive is the feeling welcome of the heart such as one shows to brothers and clansmen whom one loves. That ever one thinks of a way of showing that there where they are seat they will find a home the sweetness of a home and the gentleness comforting of the the great entire friendship of the french people.

Already there have been many offers of properties, houses, [word?] to be placed put found to the put at the disposition of the refugees. It is necessary that these shall be more and that each department which welcomes receives them should discover search out everything ways which, will can soften palliate their fate. situation. Forced to leave with little but their skin and a very small possesions, they need everything.

That  every one of you make an effort to help them, to comfort them, to given them work, in all ways in which they can be employed. That all this should will be done with an ardent enthusiasm ration: underline;">in short is that they feel all about them sympathy and affection.

With this effort at helping united effort in helping our unhappy compatriots we will come not make us better and more united.

(YCAL MSS 76, box 64, folder 1142, Speech 28)

18. Stein, “Introduction to the Speeches of Marechal Petain,” Modernism/modernity 3, no. 3 (1996): 93.

19. Ibid., 95.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Will, Unlikely Collaboration, 139.

23. For an excellent discussion of the complex story of this translation alongside Faÿ and Hugnet’s translations into French of The Making of Americans see Dydo, Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises, 278–374.

24. Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 68.

25. Will, Unlikely Collaboration, 139–40.

26. Dydo, Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923–1934 (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2003), 299.

27. Stein and Wilder, “Appendix IX,” 409. The classic example is The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995), in which Stein’s narrator often bewails having to keep writing: “Mostly then I have to tell it” (323), “I am all unhappy in this writing” (348), “It is so very confusing that I am beginning to have in me despairing melancholy feeling” (459), “I am altogether a discouraged one. I am just now altogether a discouraged one. I am going on describing men and women” (548), “I am in desolation and my eyes are large with needing weeping and I have a flush from feverish feeling … I tell you I cannot bear it this thing that I cannot be realizing experiencing in each one being living … I am filled then with complete desolation” (729).

28. Pétain, Paroles aux Français, 41.

29. YCAL MSS 76, box 64, folder 1141, Speech 4.

30. YCAL MSS 76, box 64, folder 1142, Speech 29.

31.Pétain, Paroles aux Français,179.

32. Ibid., 180.

On 'Penury'

Myung Mi Kim at a Belladonna* reading series event, 2006. Photo by erica kaufman.

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),[1] 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

alyssum (22)

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.

Coda/End repeat

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:

Gates — Gateway
               (? What are the Latin
                     terms for Gates
                     — Gateway?)
Antes — (square pillars
                       on each side
of the entrances
of temples &c)

                     "        to you
To you

[corner cut out here]





1. The former is a pamphlet containing what in the Omnidawn version is the poem “fell,” and the latter is a chapbook that includes a series of trifold spreads.

'Languaging' the third space

Language as activity in the prosody of Myung Mi Kim

Myung Mi Kim. Photo courtesy of Norma Cole.

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”[1] 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.[2]

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[3]

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.”[4] 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).[5] 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,”[6] 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”[8] (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” [91]) 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



alter           primacy









brush    mound   and   gravel









unruly enter



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
                    ranges   lingering
Funnel   thirty
                    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

broken participle

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.

3. Myung Mi Kim, Under Flag, 14.

4. From James Kyung-Jin Lee’s interview with Kim included in Words Matter: Conversations with Asian American Writers, 94. Hereafter cited as JKL.

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.

6. Kim, Commons, 110.

7. Kim, The Bounty, 91.

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.

Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. “Images of Form vs. Images of Content in Contemporary Asian-American Poetry.” Critical Inquiry 22, no. 4 (1996): 764–89.

Chiu, Jeannie. “Identities in Process: The Experimental Poetry of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Myung Mi Kim.” In Asian North American Identities Beyond the Hyphen, edited by Eleanor Ty and Donald C. Goellnicht. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. 84–101.

Jeon, Joseph Jonghyun. “Speaking in Tongues: Myung Mi Kim’s Stylized Mouths.” SLI: Studies in the Literary Imagination 37, no. 1 (2004): 124–48.

Kim, Elaine. “Korean American Literature.” In An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature, edited by King-Kok Cheung. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 156–91.

Kim, Myung Mi. Under Flag. Berkeley: Kelsey Street Press, 1991.

———. The Bounty. Minneapolis: Chax Press, 1996.

———. Dura. New York: Nightboat Books, 1998.

———. Commons. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Lee, James Kyung-jin. “Interview with Myung Mi Kim.” In Words Matter: Conversations with Asian American Writers, edited by King-Kok Cheung. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000. 92–104.

Liu, Warren. “Making Common the Commons: Myung Mi Kim’s Ideal Subject.” In American Poets in the Twenty-First Century: The New Poetics,edited by Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007. 252–66.

Park, Josephine Nock-Hee. “‘Composed of Many Lengths of Bone’: Myung Mi Kim’s Reimagination of Image and Epic.” In Transnational Asian American Literature: Site and Transits, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim, John Blair Gamber, Stephen Hong Sohn, and Gina Valentino. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. 235–56.

———. Apparitions of Asia: Modernist Form and Asian American Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Xiaojing, Zhou. “‘What Story What Story What Sound’: The Nomadic Poetics of Myung Mi Kim’s Dura.” College Literature 33, no. 4 (2007): 63–91.

———. The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006.

———. The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006.

Myung Mi Kim's performance of language

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

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

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

Disjunctive narrative and a place for artifacts

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

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

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

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


 you speak English so well transcript[3]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          Tablet VI Panel 53[6]

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

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

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

     One Arrow transcript[7]

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

Action follows image which leads to another action:

stinging nettles
wild scythe swing

machines hunch
vehicles in and out

     One Arrow transcript[8]

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

Formal and sonic structures

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

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

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

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

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

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

       beris beryl barris rose[10]

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

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

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

     maim trough


        goods have mutual fit martial hand


                  heady courtesy[12]

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

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

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

: |  Tree       frog       toads

: |  I send them candy wrapped in socks

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

: |  Boulders hang from my shoulders

: |  Scorched earth tactics

: |  Nights spent askew in a cauldron[13]

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

2. Ibid., 341.

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

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

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

6. Kim, Penury, 13.

7. Ibid., 69.

8. Ibid., 85.

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

10. Kim, Penury, 105.

11. Ibid., 5.

12. Ibid., 53.

13. Kim, Penury, 58.

14. hooks, Teaching to Transgress, 171.

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