'Reported ocean'

One or more voices out loud

Myung Mi Kim in New York City, 2006. Photo by Charles Bernstein.

There are so many ways for something to be unsayable. Reading a poem out loud is one of these ways. From this vantage, consider the prospect of the contemporary American poetry reading for poets who believe that “the text is not the text.” For poets who ask, as Myung Mi Kim is always asking in her work, “Who has authority?” and then are asked to appear at the front of the room and wear their author-ity by reading out loud.

“For which no pronunciation exists”[1]

but exists in the room and later on tape,
offered because asked, asked because written.

Listen to this moment during a 2010 event at the Kelly Writers House. Not long into the reading — about thirteen minutes — Kim invites several audience members (at 13:00) to join her in a “brief experiment.” She asks them to read with her from “fell (for six multilingual voices)” in Penury, encouraging them not to worry about how it turns out, or how fast or slow they go — no performance anxiety, guys! (to paraphrase). She wants several people reading, because for her, this poem “is not the poem unless it’s read by six different voices at the same time.”

The audience-readers, including Kim, read a page together. Mostly, they read the page in unison — find each other’s speed in common.

We come to poetry readings because we like to hear poetry read, but we may not be ready to read.

“Through sameness of language is produced / sameness of sentiment and thought.”[2]

Variant sounds, then, as a way to differentiate feeling and thought.

After they read the page together, Kim interjects (at 15:44) to offer further direction. She says she heard many languages at once when she composed the piece. “Read as openly as possible,” she tells her co-readers, “including associations, possible shadow words, possible translations, mutations.”

The small group of three/four voices resumes reading. Initially, Kim reads with them but soon stops, perhaps to listen better (at 16:05). As before, the readers are in unison, and although invited to improvise, they don’t. Although Kim has given them permission to slip in a “word that isn’t there,” no one audibly takes her up on it. Why not?[3]

Why couldn’t the readers go beyond the fixed text in front of them — even when encouraged by the author to do so? There are more “concrete” answers (including, say, the readers’ lack of time to acclimate to performing the text this way). Beyond such speculation, however, should we feel disappointed that, more abstractly, the unsaid holds sway even in an attempt to give it voice/s?

Here, I turn to something Kim says about “dis-abling” habituated practices of language. “The idea of something not working, something not being sayable or reproducible, (re)printable, carries its own charge,” says Kim.

Even in the face of an invitation to say the unsaid, something unsayable sparks. We don’t know what it is.

Peter Quartermain writes: “Good reading, bad reading: neither is wholly possible; either might bring us to the threshold of speech. Strength of vocables: to bind.”[4]

And if something cannot be voiced, or is voiced only with great difficulty, then let’s say the strength of those un-vocables is in leaving things unbound.

Kim talks about the difficulty of reading aloud with Leonard Schwartz on his radio show, Cross Cultural Poetics. Before she reads “Hummingbird” (from Dura),[5] Kim says, “To some degree part of what [it] wants to ask is: where is the point where you can’t always voice something but it can be read and there is an experience of language, but it happens or takes place on a different kind of register — something that’s not simply attenuated or happening in a caesura or rift, but literally the difficulty of articulation, the difficulty of finding a music for a thinking, or a sort of thinking for which there is no a priori measure. So the poem tests these uncertain and undecidable spaces between measure, between song, between the un-articulable, if that’s a word. So, it’s going to be hard to read it, especially in this kind of format because it’s on the air, or I’m speaking it on the air to you. So we’ll see …” (12:37).

Kim’s description of the poem’s other-register music reminds me of Quartermain’s idea of how a poem’s polyvocality evaporates when it comes to air: “The difficulty in voicing the poem … may also have to do with a kind of tentative polyvocality, a simultaneity of possible tones and interpretations, possible (at least in a general sort of way) inside the head but impossible of public performance — a kind of undecidable music or tune” (221).

How flat we may come out when we open our mouths.

In the case of “Hummingbird,” I see a similar foyer between inner and outer in the spaces Kim writes into the middle of the poem’s lines, lines like these:

The writing hung on the wall]     [whose writing is it[6]


Varied]             [faculty and expression
Sod]     [the first deleted me written over (92)


Wall and sheep            Tell and speak (93)

The wall is the brackets that stave off and scaffold the silence living dead-center of the line. The sheep are what moves between fenced and stonewalled fields. The fields of the poem and the faithful who come to hear it. Kim knocks on/through the wall.

Kim: “I think what I’m trying to perhaps pose here is this: can that space be left undetermined? Would it be possible to disengage the impulse to have art perform an equal translation or transparent rendering into the social?” (Close Listening).

Looking at it this way, I’m glad that the polyvocal reading Kim invited in 2010 didn’t work out. Its not working out carries a charge. Something there is, muffled, unutterable, and singing a messed-up choir off-tunish in our heads. A place where things fall apart or hold their own, terrifically private and out of reach, and where they also, like a reported ocean,[7] form waves.



1. Myung Mi Kim, Penury (Richmond, CA: Omidawn, 2009), 1.

2. Ibid., 27.

3. Full/partial, hazy disclosure: I believe Kim made the same invitation a few years earlier at a reading in Buffalo and I think I was one of the readers. If I recall correctly, I too was unable to improvise any variant readings.

4. Peter Quartermain, “Sound Reading,” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 228.

5. Kim, Dura (New York: Nightboat, 2008).

6. Ibid., 100.

7. The phrase “reported ocean” comes from Dura: “False vocalization of the consonantal text / Rose thorn and reported ocean / The beginning of things” (3).