from Myung Mi Kim, And Sing We
If we live against replication
Our scripts stricken
Black ants on tar: ponderous pending change
Fabled voices, fabled voices say to us
And this breaks through unheralded ––
Sardines browned to a crisp over charcoal is memory smell
elicited from nothing
Falling in that way
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
Once we leave a place is it there
p.14, Under Flag (Kelsey St. Press, Berkeley, CA 1991)
What is it to feel at ease in a country? To immigrate but not be whole-heartedly sure about American hegemony? One poet whose work addresses the perils, confusions, joys of immigration experience without sentimentality, and with daring in language, is Korean-American poet Myung Mi Kim of San Francisco. Her Dura (1998), The Bounty (1996) and Under Flag (1991) are all book-length poems of intricate musicality where forms juxtapose, build, form and de-form. But even a small glimpse shows the patterns and tensions she provokes.
In Kim, one finds muscled particles of speech, of American: harsh nouns such as (in another poem) “crab grass.” Though her work is philosophical in its searches, it’s always rooted in concrete language – not fleshed into “images” or “stories” but used as hard vocabulary. “The pump organ’s pedals.” It’s as if language is philosophical and must abscess to be concrete. The nodes of taut nouns are hurts aching inside language’s “fabled voices.” Abstraction is, in Kim, at the heartbeat of human continuity; I love this about her. “If we live against replication” is set against words of such fibrous real density, yet simple on the surface: “black ants on tar,” “sardines browned to a crisp.”
What is it to learn a new language? To learn new names for things? To see things and acts you hold precious be altered in this new language? To see your particularities vanish in it. The immigrant is a butterfly, learning new gestures for the stricken scripts — and Kim conveys in her depths and resonances, the feeling of being stricken, of voices struck off and out, but also beginning, divining and probing memory for what it still holds in the face of fierce change.
How does place make human subjects of us? Where can the “fabled voices” settle? Myung Mi Kim’s work urges us not to take the vast movement of the individual across space and culture lightly. In her work, so much “breaks through unheralded.” Into hurt, but also joy.
Erín Moure's most recent book of poetry is O Cadoiro (Anansi, 2007)... her translation of Chus Pato's m-Talá will appear from Shearsman (UK) and BuschekBooks (Can) in April of this year, and in the fall two books, essays from NeWest, My Beloved Wager, and a collaborative book of authorial impossibilities written with Oana Avasilichioaei, Expeditions of a Chimæra (BookThug). This is one of five pieces to be reprinted here. They originally appeared in the Globe and Mail in 2000.