Epic silence

On Myung Mi Kim's 'Under Flag'

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

When the feminist poetry press Kelsey St. published Myung Mi Kim’s 1991 epic work Under Flag, a publicity blurb described it as a book that “documents” the “struggle to learn English,” an experience, the blurb goes on to say, that “resembles the experience of innumerable other US citizens in a century that has been shaped by wars and vast human migrations.” The blurb seems to take care to describe the century as the thing that is shaped by wars and human migrations, while the struggle belongs to its citizens.

But in use of the phrase “struggle to learn English” to describe Kim’s epic, the Kelsey St. blurb also points us to ways in which the individual lyric moment lies in tension with the larger historical and political structures of Kim’s epic work. Under Flag can be read against other instances of twentieth-century modernist verse epics that insist on providing the kind of inductive assemblage that can fuse discrete perceptions and historical particulars while resisting the totalizing operations of linear narrative. At the same time, these modern epics contain within them, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis suggested at the University of Sussex conference on the long poem in 2008, the “ghost” or “mark” of lyric: the problem of the subject set against the social, to cite Adorno. Even within those historically ambitious modernist epics we have, for example, in Pound’s Pisan Cantos what Richard Sieburth calls the “internalized or subjective” sort of “anamnesia” within the epic vision of the greater scheme of the poem, or William Carlos Williams’s lapses into compressed bits of verse in the midst of the philosophically meandering Spring and All. The opposition of lyric and epic appears to be constitutive of the twentieth-century long poem.

In Myung Mi Kim’s work, the tension between lyric and epic is legible in concentrated moments where forms and facts of speech are contested, and in moments when they become foreclosed into moments of silence. To read this so-called “struggle,” then, is to pry apart the way this poetry uses silence to stage an argument about individual citizenship against the backdrop of history. In Under Flag, sound and silence articulate the problem of place.

One provocative way to read this articulation is through the recurring image of the mouth. Images of the mouth recur frequently throughout Under Flag: mouths of infants and children, but also related images of throat, larynx, and face. Mouths in this work are full of speech and other objects; they also appear empty and silent. This emphasis on the mouth places Kim’s book in dialogue with Theresa Cha’s Dictee, which highlights organs of the body and their connections to sound via the inclusion of anatomical diagrams and figures, an acupuncture chart, and descriptions of the mouth changing shape as it takes on a new language.[1]

The first section of Under Flag, “And Sing We,” invokes a citizenry against the spaces of contested sound. (Many of these passages can be heard online at Myung Mi Kim’s PennSound page.) Sound emits from the throat before mirroring the distance between voice and subject against the distance between two continents. Kim writes:

Must it ring so true
So we must sing it
To span even yawning distance
And would we be near then
What would the sea be, if we were near it
It catches its underside and drags it back
What sound do we make, “n”, “h”, “g”
Speak and it is sound in time[2]

Several discrete moments in this passage emphasize the links between voice and place. Punning on the notion of “yawning” as something that both mouth and land do, Kim then asks how we would understand the body of water the “we” is no longer near to. That unknown sea is followed by the word “Voice,” set on its own line. “Voice” behaves as an object as well as a command, linking the question about action in the line that comes before with the objectified “it” in the line that comes after: “It catches its underside and drags it back.” The voice, in a way, never leaves the mouth: we are always acutely aware of its belonging to the body. The voice goes on to make a sound that is dissociated from sense: the disaggregated letters “n,” “h,” and “g” can only be provisional. Later in the book, Kim will ask, “Who is mother tongue, who is father country?” (29), drawing a provocative contrast between gendered notions of geography and the voice.

These links between geography and the voice are further explored in the section “Food, Shelter, Clothing,” which opens with a ballad-like stanza of four lines that suggest a generalized perspective on landscape. The stanza ends by pointing us in multiple directions at once. Kim writes:

And of isolation, rock salt, jars preserving
Oxen returning on paths they themselves have shaped
Line of vision heeding lines of hills stretching
Farther west, farther east, than one had thought (20)

Recalling in its title Thoreau’s suggestion in Walden that the necessities for man “may be distributed under the several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel,” the poem enters the discourse of social philosophy. The passage begins paratactically, its initial word “And” shaping a sense of ongoing motion as well as uncharted land on the next page, as the “one [who] had thought” has shifted into a particularized “she” who confronts the mouth as the source of legibility:

She could not talk without first looking at others’ mouths (which language?)
(pushed into) crevice a bluegill might lodge in (21)

Here we begin with a silent speaker — “she” — who instead of waiting to hear language issued from mouths before speaking must actually look inside those mouths, as if the language were visible there. The second line of this stanza might suggest how a language can fit uncomfortably inside a mouth, concretizing the image as that of a fish lodging in a crevice.

Near the end of the poem, after intervening passages that depict scenes of war and arrival, the mouth returns to its struggle, but the poem has done away with its subjective energies, instead suggesting a general experience with language difference. Kim writes:

Stricken buoys
Span no tongue and mouth
Scripting, hand flat against the mouth (26)

The voice here is quieted by an authoritative, “scripting” hand. More important perhaps is the way the first two lines suggest what happens when language is absent, when there is no tongue or mouth: speakers go adrift, and silence is perceived as geographical distance. On the following page, the buoys echo in a line that suggests struggle by a generalized mass. Kim writes:

Up against bounty and figured human
                             allaying surge (27)

The human here gets figured, “counted,” scripted by citizenship. And if language has earlier been lost, it resurfaces here as gibberish. Kim writes:

As contour
ga ga ga ga

This line of abstract sound, hurled from a place of some hardness, could instantiate the “struggle to learn English”; it could also simply be the sound that accompanies the theme of flight in the poem. We see a scene of wartime Korea, but we also hear echoes of the memory of that time throughout the poem. Rather than settling into the trope of the poet’s mouth to issue forth, Kim suggests a tongue that belongs to everyone.

This notion of collectivity is undone by the beginning of “Into Such Assembly,” in which Kim reproduces an exam designed to assess both language and citizenship:

Can you read and write English? Yes _____. No _____.
Write down the following sentences in English as I dictate them.
            There is a dog in the road.
            It is raining.
Do you renounce allegiance to any other country but this?
Now tell me, who is the president of the United States?
You will all stand now. Raise your right hands. (29)

The gaps that follow the first two questions textualize the gaps and fissures in the rest of this text, revealing the citizenship ritual as something that cannot fully contain silence. The passage also makes starkly clear the way language acquisition is tied to the assimilating operations of citizenship: to be naturalized is to renounce allegiance to any other country, and, implicitly, to any other language.

The effect of this renouncing on the body is explored in “Body As One As History,” which begins with a description of “the body feigning,” undergoing an “inaudible collapse” under the weight of its various illnesses. Kim writes: “Gurgling stomach sack / Polyps, cysts, hemorrhages, dribbly discharges, fish stink” (35). The poem makes repeated references to the body being “large as I,” in a kind of reverse Whitmanianism: the body is big enough to contain the I, rather than the I being big enough to contain the people of the world. This seems especially apparent when Kim writes: “This is the body and we live it. Large as I. Large as” (36). The poem locates the multiple subjects within the body of the poem, which has just issued one of the book’s most violent and troubling scenes of war, but is finally unable to complete the explication of its link to the speaker.

The next instance of “As large as” (which lacks specific reference to the body) comes just after a moment when the mouth again holds language as a tangible object, this time in the service of self-preservation. A line of women on a clover field remain still to evade some danger, but inside their bodies there is resistance, there is life. Kim writes: “In their mouths, more than breath more than each sound buzzed inside / the inside of the mouth” (36). The language inside these mouths must be different from what we’ve seen before: there’s something more functional about whatever it is that is more than breath. Yet there is also something figurative: the women are frozen, but their muscles are moving, and one imagines that the muscle of the tongue continues to move against the oppressive silence.

Under Flag renders vividly physical the process of learning to speak a language. The mouth here inhabits its own multiple meanings — including mother tongue, suckling mouth — as a way to resist the easy binarisms of language acquisition models and move us instead to a larger consideration of history’s writing on the body, inside the mouth. In an interview with Yedda Morrison, Kim links “texts that […] allow for the impossibility of speaking” to the need for a politics that goes beyond opposition. Kim has spoken more than once on her desire to locate a radical politics that does not depend on opposition, which she sees as dangerously evocative of empire. For Kim, the oppositional mode leaves little room for ambiguity, which is at the heart of her approach to silence and language. She tells Morrison:

And Paul Celan, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. With these writers we are in the company of language that has been met with potential erasure; what happens in that kind of collaboration between the impossibility of utterance and finding the means by which to utter? […] For me those works that keep re-invigorating that space of silence and erasure, the space of the seemingly untranslatable, are the ones in which you really feel some sort of endurance and power.

It’s especially apt that Kim would mention Celan here, whose reference to “two / mouthfuls of silence” has crystallized our notions of the loss of speech under the Holocaust.[3] Celan figures mouths that have caught something in their grasp but are unable to release it, for fear that they would turn up empty.

Because this is an essay that is about epic citizenship but also about sound, I want to end by reading Kim against an earlier instance of modernist silence in which sound breaks away from language and becomes embedded in landscape. This is from Lorine Niedecker’s 1928 poem “Mourning Dove”:

The sound of a mourning dove
slows the dawn
there is a dee round silence
in the sound.[4]

The poem begins by collapsing the sound of the mourning dove into the experience of time passing: the dove’s call “slows” the dawn, where “dawn” could indicate the time of day as well as the sight of the sun breaking over the horizon. The following lines then extricate bird sound as if it were something material, a concrete object in the landscape, identifying a “silence” within the sound itself. That sound is broken apart into its discrete parts according to its orthography: “dee” could represent the whistling call of a killdeer, a bird also native to the mourning dove’s habitat, but on the page also recalls the “d” in “dove,” as if the dove were circling silence.

If Niedecker offers a site-specific vocality in which subjects and voices recede into the landscape, for Kim, that landscape is always charged with subjective pressures, even in its silence. Kim’s diverse language textures move beyond habits of citation and toward a politics of language acquisition: the poetry maps the linguistic trauma of migration, identifies language as a tool of assimilation, and cites the frustrated work of language to map nation and subject. Using fragments and gaps in speech, Kim’s work suggests the inability of epic to articulate a coherent model of citizenship, suggesting instead the “articulate silence”[5] of postwar American poetry. In this way, Under Flag, as well as subsequent work in Commons and Penury that breaks communication into discrete elements, inaugurates an epic that confronts the sonic fallout of displacement, as when Kim writes in Under Flag: 

And when we had been scattered over the face of the earth
We could not speak to one another (31)



1. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (University of California Press, 2001).

2. Myung Mi Kim, Under Flag (Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 1998), 13.

3. Paul Celan, “Speech-Grille,” in Paul Celan: Selections, ed. Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 64.

4. Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, ed. Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 23. The stanza that follows serves as Niedecker’s critique of imagist poetry exceeding its methodological limits: “Or it may be I face the full prospect / of an imagist / turned philosopher.”

5. For a discussion of “articulate silence,” Myung Mi Kim, and poetics of otherness, see Xiaojing Zhou’s The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006).