The plasticity of our pagelessness

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

Building is a Process / Light is an Element: Essays and Excursions for Myung Mi Kim
Andrew Rippeon and Michael Cross, editors

In my language of Tagalog, the word “dura” means spit. In this way, Myung Mi Kim’s Dura is potentially a circumstance of utterance as much as it risks the gesture of contempt as much as it attempts to manage one’s digestion as much as its perceptions clarify cultural practice as much as it risks the evanescence of spitting. Zhou Xiaojing’s essay “The Nomadic Poetics of Myung Mi Kim’s Dura elaborates further on the word’s plasticity as it exists in the present:

“Dura” “is the name of a critically endangered language of Nepal, [and] of the ethnic group that historically spoke it” (Wikipedia Encyclopedia 2006). But the meaning and spelling of the word vary and multiply with geographical and historical differences, evoking “translinguistically” (Kim’s word 2007) the nomadic and rhizomatic movements of Dura. According to Standard College Dictionary, “dura,” or “durra,” is a variety of sorghum of southern Asia and northern Africa. It is also “spelled dhoora, dhourra, doura, dura,” and “called Guinea corn.” Another variation of its spelling is “durr,” or “dhura” in Arabic (1963). In addition, “dura” has yet another rhizomatic line of mutation: as [Josephine] Park notes, “dura” in Spanish is the adjective “hard,” which modifies “a feminine noun.” And in Western medicine, the phrase “dura mater” has evolved from the Latin “tough mother.” According to OED, “dura mater” refers to “the dense, tough, outermost membranous envelope of the brain and spinal cord.”[1]

Movement created by the sensation of recession and advancement is at the heart of one’s pronominal constitutions. Kim’s poems are dwellings in constant states of contraction and expansion akin to breathing and, by extension, flesh out the responsibility of reading amid the plastic states of language on the page in the here and now.

Kim states the complexity of this dwelling in an interview with Yedda Morrison titled “Generosity as Method”: “I’m interested in augmenting or complicating that model of change by opposition, by friction, by overthrowing the law of the father, in order to embrace a model of radicalization that doesn’t solely rely on that kind of direct opposition.” In this way, Kim’s works also attempt to question my capacity to utter the aforementioned potential of “dura,” which makes inquiries on her work, published or otherwise, necessarily a part of her work.

A relentless refrain heard all throughout Building is a Process / Light is an Element: Essays and Excursions for Myung Mi Kim, edited by Michael Cross and Andrew Rippeon, comes from a line in Dura: “Propose: constant translation.” This proposal fills the book with those attempting to document their own impressions of Kim’s inquiries of, off, and on the page. By enacting this end on the page, Kim’s poems question the terms of their arrival in our reading:

Propose: constant translation. Propose: the

application of the compass to navigation. Propose: from

a settlement, a capital grows. Propose: foray, expansion.

Propose: as relates to an America. Propose: as relates

to immigrant. Propose: knowledge becomes the parlance

of the state. Propose: sound combinations. Propose:

nameless days.[2]

The anaphoric repetition of “Propose:” creates an experience of motion rooted on the etymology of the word “propose” and the spatial movements it proposes inasmuch as it becomes an attempt to redefine the word “propose” in Dura. According to the OED, the Latin propositus “put or set forth” and Old French poser “to place” influence the word “propose.” One can read the first “proposal” in three ways: 1) a call to put forward or set in motion the act of constantly translating (or carrying across from the Latin translatus), 2) a redefinition of propose as “constant translation” and 3) an attempt to reconstitute the event of proposal in relation to the various spatial configurations the poem posits.

In Building is a Process / Light is an Element, Michael Cross, a coeditor of the book, states the struggle of the question in his essay “Becoming-Subject”:

As the opening volume in a long poem including both Commons (2002) and Penury (2009), Dura [1998] signals a mode of listening that, most importantly, takes the diaphanous nature of legibility as its premise — that legibility must be practiced or maintained — that our whole bodies must listen, and, in turn, struggle to respond.[3]

Yet, what is at stake in this struggle? And, how is this struggle not merely a way to postpone a writer’s responsibility to make legible the circumstances and conditions of our dwelling today? These conditions of legibility are discussed in Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain:

We were never born to read. Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience. The plasticity at the heart of the brain’s design forms the basis for much of who we are, and who we might become.[4]

At the same time, Walter Benjamin states the following in the seventh thesis from his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: “The nature of this sadness stands out more clearly if one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathize. The answer is inevitable: with the victor.”[5] We were never born to read, yet the reading and justification of history is inextricably woven into the violence in history. The interaction between the page and our pagelessness has informed our sense of humanity as much as it has been used to violently revise it.

The struggle to respond to Kim’s work is a circumstance of how her work attempts to enact and resist this interaction. It attempts to recognize the ways in which we as readers are already implicated in these processes inasmuch as there is a belief in the capacity of reading to affect these processes. Her poetry is a circumstance of rendering legible the implications of her being a Korean-American who participates in the revolving door of language as it pertains to history. The proposal for constant translation becomes a form of attuning the selfsame movement that diaspora creates on the page and, by extension, its interrogation of history inasmuch as it can also be observed in pedagogy. Kim’s interrogation is one that implicates itself by the fact of its taking place on the page and the weight of history inextricably woven into the page. In this way, the act of reading her poems is in constant motion as it enacts and interrogates history thereby changing the conditions of the reading inasmuch as her work interrogates the terms in which we as readers are historical. This can be seen in her poem “311” from Commons

Hours whose length varied with seasons

Hours held by mechanical clock

An abstract metric to gauge daily time

Compendium to dispersals of currency

Farm and factory, bank and municipality

travel       .       athwart

What would identify the speakers of the idiom[6]

The conditions of our historicity begin with the way we participate in rendering time legible. The poem “311” belongs to the section “Lamenta,” where enumerated poems unfold chronologically albeit fragmented while interspersed with poems composed of historical accounts of dissection all titled “Vocalise.” Between the numbered poems and the “Vocalise” poems, the logic of the number to create value as it is vocalized is consistently present.

The poem’s first two lines engage with the development of time harnessed from the seasons and inevitably constituted as technology (i.e. “mechanical clock”) to manifest repetition that is similarly enacted in the repetition of “Hours” on the left margin. These repetitions are understood as abstract in the third line once hours are translated from designating the passing of seasons to numerical repetition in the mechanical clock’s organization of a day. The figurative use of “compendium” in the fourth line highlights the relationship of valuation created numerically with the clock and currency, yet it is also a way to address the legibility of the two in relation to the pagination of the book.

These inquiries in value are explicitly addressed in the development of spatial centers that harness and manage the relationship between clock and currency in the fifth and sixth line. Here, measurement (i.e. work hours of “farm and factory” and money of “bank and municipality”) implicates space by creating its mobility within the frames of measurement’s fluency. The poem ends with the question and explanation of fluency created by these mutations in measurement through time. These abstract metrics become fluencies that become idioms that are vocalized in order to create the enclosures of historicity.

We were never born to read, yet these movements and inquiries on legibility serve “To mobilize the notion of our responsibility to one another in social space,” which is the last line from Commons. The capacity to think through the responsibility of reading is inextricably woven into Kim’s vocation as a teacher. Andrew Rippeon, the other coeditor of the book, observes this practice in his essay “‘Once we leave a place is it there’: Radical Pedagogy”:

To say Myung’s practice is radically pedagogical, then, is to say that it wants to make the primary scene of pedagogy — that dislocation of the plural subject by positioning it in a spatial-temporal interval, rather than at a particular location and time — the very place to which we’re being taken, the very matter of the way we’ve set out upon: “A time of writing as a time of reception. Relativizing” (Spelt, np). The epistolary Spelt, with Susan Gevirtz, is one example, in more ways than one, of this bringing of the interval to itself. Writing as on the way to each other. Writing as the ground upon which each sets out with the other. Writing as on the way to itself … In such a gesture as Spelt is in its entirety, the writing becomes the paidagogos: plural, restive, led and leading, facilitator of later transformations for other subjects.[7

Rippeon’s theoretical engagement with Kim’s pedagogy continues Kim’s proposal for constant translation as much as accounts of Kim’s pedagogy are encountered time and time again in Building is a Process / Light is an Element, especially Zack Finch’s account from his essay “Among Passages: Studying with Myung Mi Kim”:

Myung offered her own metaphor on that first day of class: what if we modeled our meetings in terms of the studio rather than the workshop? ... Whereas only one activity takes place in a workshop, devoted strictly to production, a studio is a space where an artist works, studies, eats, sleeps, and idles. It’s also a place where one welcomes friends and visitors every so often for a studio visit. Entering into that space, one often finds the margins to be just as interesting and informative as whatever’s being framed as “the work.” Every fragment, every clipping, every piece of kindling speaks of a world of material potential, a practice very much in progress.[8]

Kim proposes the form of this potential at the beginning of her work “Fell (for six multilingual voices)” from Penury:

: | 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[9]

Each multilingual voice posits a pattern that vocalizes the space it disperses. The private and public, through the process of their interactions, create a dwelling as the aforementioned model of radicalization observed in the reorientation of the workshop to the studio. Here, dwelling is manifested as pedagogical practice, where one’s thinking in the present progressive is the space in which others can reside.

From the streets and uniforms as echoes of the public it aims to account for in the first voice to the valences of noise sounded out by the demands of the body (i.e. hunger, thirst, and fear) that harmonizes with “Inside acts conducted outside” in the third and fourth voice to forms of technology that impose voice (i.e. weapon) and space (i.e. deed) in the sixth voice, every line renders a sensation of recession and advancement in the revolving door of language framed by the potentiality of multilingual voices. This sensation, much like my experience of the word “dura,” the book Dura and the utterances in Kim’s oeuvre renders the word legible the moment it disperses and is carried.



1. Zhou Xiaojing, “‘What Story What Story What Sound’: The Nomadic Poetics of Myung Mi Kim’s Dura,” College Literature 33, no. 4 (2007), 67–68

2. Myung Mi Kim, Dura (New York: Nightboat Books, 2008), 72.

3. Michael Cross, “Becoming-Subject in Myung Mi Kim’s Dura,” in Building is a Process / Light is an Element: Essays and Excursions for Myung Mi Kim, ed. Michael Cross and Andrew Rippeon (New York: P-Queue/Queue Books, 2008), 119.

4. Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008), 3.

5. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations ed. Hannah Arendt trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 256.

6. Myung Mi Kim, Commons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 15.

7. Andrew Rippeon, “‘Once we leave a place is it there’: Radical Pedagogy,” in Cross and Rippeon, Building is a Process / Light is an Element, 32.

8. Zack Finch, “Among Passages: Studying with Myung Mi Kim,” in Cross and Rippeon, Building is a Process / Light is an Element, 103–104.

9. Myung Mi Kim, Penury (Richmond, California: Omnidawn Publishing, 2009), 51.