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.