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Poetry speaks memory: 3 Korean poets on the art of remembering

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Weekender Staffer

APRIL 07, 2019

Content warning: The following piece includes mentions of suicide and sexual violence.

Poetry, like the other arts, takes many forms that lead to many different ends. Some say that poems are good for compressing huge and difficult ideas into a space where the teeth of the questions are defined and sharpened. Others use poetry to test and bring attention to the very limits and instabilities of language itself. John Berger, a 20th-century British literary critic and poet, differentiated poems from stories, which he posited were about battles. In “And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos,” Berger writes:

Poems … cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.

Perhaps it is especially under circumstances whereby nations and states forget or attempt to disavow the harms they’ve committed and suppress the unheard that poetry listens, remembers, speaks with the greatest urgency. Poetry becomes the historian, speaking the margins and threatening the amnesiac narratives of the powers that be. No life or culture is left untouched by war in a world where senseless violence is made commonsensical and accepted as the order of the day. Some forms of violence are hidden away. Others have become insidiously commonplace as to be invisible. Poetry can expose this established order, show us other possibilities and remember the dead, silenced and vulnerable. Poets often act as the nerves of a nation, composing the conscience of a country.

Don Mee Choi, Kim Hyesoon and Emily Jungmin Yoon are such poets who refuse to forget. The Japanese occupation of Korea until 1945; the Korean War — also known as the Forgotten War — which resulted in the division of Korea along the 38th parallel; the U.S.-backed dictatorships and coups; South Korean involvement in the Vietnam War; the student uprisings in the 1980s; the sinking of the Sewol ferry. These are only some of the events that permeate the work of these poets who approach the task of remembering in their own ways. The work of these three poets confronts the legacy of violence and asks the reader to remember with them.

“What are world memories? It turns out that they are war memories.”  — Don Mee Choi

“Hardly War” (2016) opens with an epigraph citing Gertrude Stein in “Wars I Have Seen” (1945): “It is funny about wars, they ought to be different but they are not.”

Stein’s words are the launching point for Korean American poet and translator Don Mee Choi’s “Hardly War,” a collage-like hybrid work containing photographs, poems, prose and reports. Some of the images in the book are from Choi’s father, a photojournalist who took pictures in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during wartime. In the introductory chapter incisively titled “Race=Nation,” Choi specifies that she hopes to achieve a “geopolitical poetics (in)…disobeying history.” The effect is a volume of poetry with intractable power, commenting without hesitation upon the geographical and political dimensions of war. It rewrites mainstream history by rejecting it. It does not palliate injury but salts residual wounds so they may be felt. Subservient, this book is not. Combining geopolitics and race, Choi aims for a geopolitical poetics that involves “disobeying history, severing its ties to power” in order to allow the faint trace of the suppressed narrative to speak.

Others use poetry to test and bring attention to the very limits and instabilities of language itself.

“Hardly War” is divided into three sections: “Hardly War,” “Purely Illustrative” and “Hardly Opera.” Within each poem, Choi juxtaposes references from varied sources to an often disturbing effect, such as in the poem “Ugly=Nation,” in which imagery of how napalm bombs turn human skin “(l)ike fried potato chips” — ventriloquizing historian Bruce Cumings’ “The Korean War: A History” — is later followed by a line from the 1959 film “Pork Chop Hill”: “And they aren’t just Orientals, they are Communists.”

According to the historian Charles K. Armstrong, the United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs, 32,557 tons of which were napalm, on Korea during the Korean War. The bombings were indiscriminate — there was no homing device for Communists. Even precision bombing in militarized zones took civilian lives.

Mixing such disparate materials together, Choi decentralizes war’s mythologies and blurs narratives of the war into one cloud of associations. Communist, bombs, Korea. There are euphemisms for wartime tragedies, ones that written history or media leave unsaid. Subdued histories emerge as the negative space between drawn battle lines to speak for themselves.

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Choi investigates Korea’s complex history with the United States but does not shy away from critiquing South Korea’s complicity in imperialist violence during the Vietnam War. “Shitty Kitty,” asks whose history the history of the war is. The question is followed by a list of transactional figures:

(CHORUS: Dictator Park Chung Hee and his soldiers in Ray-Bans)

How much?

$7.5 million=per division

or Binh Tai Massacre=$7.5 million

or Binh Hoa Massacre=$7.5 million

or Dien Nien-Phuoc Binh massacre=$7.5 million

or Go Di massacre=$7.5 million

or Ha My massacre=$7.5 million

or Phong Nhi & Phong Nhat massacre=$15 million

or Tay Vinh massacre=$7.5 million

or Vinh Xuan massacre=$7.5 million

or Mighty History?

The list lines itself up in uniform body counts — a receipt of war, paid for in lives. A truth not commonly acknowledged is that one of the reasons for South Korea’s precipitous economic rise was the massive sums of U.S. aid during the Vietnam War in exchange for about 320,000 South Korean soldiers. In the poem “Are you OK, ROK?,” Choi points to an example of the horrors committed upon Vietnamese civilians by the South Korean marines: “O war-breasts cut out and woman shot by ROK marines / O US marines transport her to the hospital but she died soon / O war-executed young women’s bodies.”

One might wonder how short memories of wars are. Just a few years before the Vietnam War, more than 2 million Koreans were estimated to have been killed for the same U.S. mission of containing the threat of communism. An estimated 200,000 comfort women — a euphemism for girls and women forced into sexual slavery — mostly Korean, suffered during the Japanese occupation, their bodies brutalized as fodder for wartime cruelty. Choi’s poetry does not allow history to forget. For all their supposed assistance, South Koreans were still referred to as gooks, a derogatory term Americans used for Koreans during the Korean War and then also applied to the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. In the poem “The Hydrangean Candidate,” Choi calls attention to the slur, which is from the Korean word for “America,” “migook,” meaning “beautiful nation.”

“Yes, ma’am, Beauty=Nation is not an American word. Me=Gook, born miles from here.” Choi writes. The word encompasses a one-sided relationship. While Koreans praise America as a beautiful nation, a land of promise and salvation, Americans, the supposed allies and saviors, know them only as gooks. Whether in the Korean War or the Vietnam War, perhaps it didn’t matter to the United States which “Orientals” were dying — just as long as they were dying.

“Hardly War” denies easy consumption with its nonlinear structure. It challenges the power dynamics in historical narratives and the neatly packaged war narratives deployed, decentering the voices of the powerful and demanding critique.

Though written in a fragmented, dizzying form, the book never loses sight of the words of Choi’s father, recorded within the notes in the concluding chapter : “(T)he real victims of war are the civilians.”

“…the structure of death, that we remain living in…” — Kim Hyesoon

Prominent South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon is known for her visceral, often disturbing imagery and innovative wordplay. The winner of numerous accolades, she was the first female poet to receive her country’s prestigious Kim Su-young and Midang awards for outstanding literary achievements. In the United States, her poetry has garnered fans from students in verse to such figures as the former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass. She explores death in both personal and collective contexts in her recently published “Autobiography of Death” (translated into English by the aforementioned Choi).

The book grew out of Kim’s preoccupation with the 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy, in which 304 of 476 people on board (mostly high school students on a field trip) perished. The children were told to wear life jackets and stay onboard as the ferry capsized, while most of the crew members abandoned ship. Then-president Park Geun-hye and her administration were slow to respond to the tragedy, and the government failed to rescue the 304 passengers and crew members who died.

Furthermore, one of the suspected reasons for sinking is that the ferry had been overloaded with cargo by 1,228 tons, 410 of which were iron bars. 278 tons of the iron bars were for the construction of the naval base on Jeju Island, which was itself a controversial project opposed by the island’s residents and activists out of environmental concerns and fear of the eventual use of the base by the United States in an arms race with China. After the April 3, 1948 Jeju Uprising by left-wing and supposed Communist insurgents, the United States ordered a scorched-earth policy against guerrilla forces that resulted in 30,000 civilians being killed or going missing.

One might wonder how short memories of wars are.

The themes on indiscriminate killing in Choi’s poetry resurfaces once again. War seeps into the most unsuspecting corners of time.

The poem “I Want to Go to the Island—Day Twenty” is dedicated to the students’ death. The “you” of this poem addresses all the victims of the tragedy and is plural in nature. It makes a character out of second-person address. “You” are stuck in a cycle on the ferry, where for “the thousandth time you don’t reach the island. / You won’t be able to reach the island anytime soon.” “You” go out on the deck for the thousandth time to see that the “vast sky and ocean are a black mirror” where the face of death is located.

Kim, in her book, also pays close attention to the gender dynamics of the Korean language. She makes the point that written literature used to be dominated by men, and women were associated with oral traditions and folk songs. Classical Korean literature was written in Chinese, and women were mostly excluded from writing literature until after Hangul, the Korean alphabet, was invented by King Sejong the Great and his scholars in 1446. And even then, Hangul was not immediately embraced by the Korean elites and literati, precisely because of its original association with uneducated commoners and women.

Considering this history, Kim engulfs the book with women’s language, “a language of death” that “begins from a place of emptiness/nothingness, a place that’s full with the presence of absence.” In contrast to the name of the Father, God, whose name is said to be composed only of consonants, women’s language consists of vowels, of bodily speech and holes. Born at the point where the body “becomes anonymous, disenfranchised, and expelled,” women’s language, Kim asserts, is that which must resist the patriarchal confines of language as is and make space for multiplicities.

In February, I attended a Green Apple Books on the Park event at which Kim and her translator, Choi, read excerpts from “Autobiography of Death” in Korean and English respectively (Hass, now a UC Berkeley distinguished professor in poetry and poetics, was also in the audience). Both read part of “Lord No—Day Thirty-Six.” In Korean, the poem took on the musical quality of a chant, and Kim finished quickly, the rhythm a roll (“annim” being the common word/sound and the portion ending with “-io”).

Read in English, the poem took much longer, the words drawing attention to a more labored hop over the hurdles of consonants: “Lord No does not Lord No and none and not at Lord No thus Lord No does not / Not none never Lord No nevertheless / Lord No who is not Lord No is never Lord No thus Lord No is Lord No of Lord No…”

The “O,” the hole of the vowel, punctures the words. Women’s language, the language of death, addresses and undoes the patriarchal “Lord No,” puncturing him from within.

Kim’s language is itself a structure of death. In Korean Buddhist tradition, the spirit, after death, lingers for 49 days before reincarnating. Kim’s 49 poems (plus “Face of Rhythm”) are written in a way that emulates this lingering. The Sewol ferry deaths made the poet think of the other unjust deaths that occurred around her. In an interview with Choi included in the chapbook, Kim said she felt the need to “sing death, perform a rite for death, write death, then bid farewell to it.”

Her comment evokes the image of a Korean shaman, usually a woman, performing a “gut,” or ritual. Kim’s use of the plural “you” in her poems gathers these unjust or untimely deaths, creating, as Kim put it, a “ghost of collectivity.” By experiencing the displacement and death of the “I,” Kim is able to perform her rite, speaking from that place between life and death.

Some of Kim’s poems depict the death of the singular, such as in “Commute—Day One,” in which a woman dies, and her spirit, “you,” continues the commute “on your way to work as before. You go without your body. / Will I get to work on time? You head toward the life you won’t be living.” Others feature the deaths of animals such as rabbits and pigs.

Though many of the deaths are freed from specificity, some refer implicitly to the unjust deaths that experienced the brute force of state violence or incompetence. For instance, in the poem “Autopsy—Day Twenty-Four” a survivor of the Gwangju Massacre, in which then-dictator Chun Doo-hwan ordered the military suppression of pro-democracy student protestors, sees his siblings crying over him. The spirit of the survivor remembers: “Under my blanket soldiers in blue outfits march with guns with bayonets / Bloodshot eyeballs roll around in my crotch / The soldiers’ yelling lives inside the cast of my broken arm.” Alcohol makes him hit his mother and siblings. He hurts even with the sleeping pills. His loved one’s wails wake him, only for him to hear of his suicide.

War seeps into the most unsuspecting corners of time.

One may believe that memory stops with death. But in Kim’s poetry, the dead come back to haunt us, asking us to consider the deaths that gave birth to us. Memory troubles us, makes us face the “black mirror” of death, makes us “you.”

“Poetry is not just relief; poetry is tension. Poetry is departure. Poetry is return. Poetry is memory.” — Emily Jungmin Yoon

On Sept. 22, 2017, I was present at the unveiling ceremony of the Comfort Women Memorial in San Francisco. The bronze memorial depicts three young girls on a platform, representing the Korean, Chinese and Pilipinx victims forced into sexual slavery by the Empire of Japan’s armed forces. The sculptures form a ring, linking hands, while a statue of Kim Hak-sun — the first Korean comfort woman to testify — in a “hanbok,” a traditional Korean outfit, gazes at them from below. One of the South Korean comfort women survivors and “halmeonis,” or grandmas, Yong-soo Lee, spoke at the ceremony.

The memorial’s installation drew the ire of Osaka’s mayor, Hirofumi Yoshimura, who ended Osaka’s “sister city” tie with San Francisco. In a letter to the city’s mayor, London Breed, Yoshimura wrote that the memorial’s inscription makes claims that “lack historical evidence.”

The Park Geun-hye administration in late 2015 struck a deal with the Japanese government on this issue without properly consulting the victims or including them in negotiations. Park’s impeachment further throws the legitimacy of the deal into question. The current Moon Jae-in administration and the Shinzo Abe administration of Japan are at a tense impasse regarding this 2015 accord, as Moon demanded “a heartfelt apology” from Japan. Abe rejected this demand and claimed that the matter was “finally and irreversibly” resolved. The number of living survivors dwindles, as many of them are in their 90s. Fewer than 25 registered South Korean halmeonis remain.

In the author’s note of her debut poetry collection “A Cruelty Special to Our Species,” poet Emily Jungmin Yoon honors the Korean comfort women who gave their testimonies — even, in the poem “Testimonies” from the collection, naming sections of the poem after each survivor. She makes clear her intentions: “I’d like my poetry to serve to amplify and speak these women’s stories, not speak for them.”

Yoon refers to the 2015 accord between the Park and Abe administrations in “Notes” which begins with the description of two men, former Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida and former South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se, shaking hands. In the accord, the South Korean and Japanese governments agree on 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) reparations for comfort women. The government of Japan “confirms that this issue is resolved finally and irreversibly.” As Choi does, Yoon appropriates words from news reports:

Video of Yi Yongsu, to junior foreign minister Im: Why are you trying to kill us twice? Did you exclude us because we’re uneducated, too old? Because you think I don’t know anything?

Will you live this life for me?

Wall Street Journal posts translated agreement. One person comments.

Korea must realize that the offensive statues of the comfort woman have been and will be the symbol of S. Korean perjury and calumny. Comfort women dedicated to raise soldiers’ morale and spirits, and to prevent rape crimes in countries.”

*(Rape to prevent rape, prevent disturbance of peace, impairment of dignity)

The materials from the articles alongside one halmeoni’s words highlight the cruelty of two male representatives of states agreeing upon what will suffice as an adequate apology. The poem suggests the injustice of others deciding what a proper apology looks like, the value of a sufficient monetary compensation, of others proposing the solution to rape. “Will you live this life for me?” captures the sense of betrayal the halmeonis must have felt. But it also serves as a call to the reader. Imagine, in the space of this poem, how it must be to live like this.

Yoon’s chapbook focuses on many different forms of cruelty and violence — those of war, rape, imperialism and colonialism. Gendered violence is central to the collection. The core of “A Cruelty Special to Our Species” builds off of the recorded testimonies of some of the survivors combined with Yoon’s poetic language, strengthening the pathos of the halmeonis’ experiences. In the section of “Testimonies” called “Kim Soon-duk,” Kim’s voice says, “(T)hey took us they took us to Shanghai to a ruined village / my body a ruined village a damaged house.”

The sculptures form a ring, linking hands, while a statue of Kim Hak-sun … gazes at them from below.

Scattered throughout the chapbook are prose poems that share the same title, “An Ordinary Misfortune”; each poem challenges the “ordinariness” of violence, the content varying from a woman being coerced to put out to an indictment of Korean men’s sex tourism in the Philippines and their abandonment of the women who become their “guiltless fuck” and the children they father.

In one, the poem’s voice recalls a misfortune in the form of microaggressions:

This statement by an American man at the bar: Your life in Korea would have been a whole lot different without the US. Meaning: be thankful. This question by a Canadian girl, a friend: Why don’t you guys just get along? The guys: Japan and Korea. Meaning: move on. How do I answer that? Move on, move on, girls on the train. Destination: comfort stations.

History is a battlefield, a point of contention. When states and nations so often fail their marginalized, whose task is it to keep history? If, to arrive at a clearer picture of truth, history must be detached from power and reconnected with lost memory, perhaps poetry is one such place we can visit to hear the cries of those who ask us to remember. Choi, Kim and Yoon confirm the possibilities of a poet as rememberer and historian.

Long live poets and poetry. Long live memory.

Contact Kris Shin at [email protected].

APRIL 16, 2019