Penury by Myung Mi Kim
(Omnidawn Publishing, Richmond, CA, 2009)
Myung Mi Kim’s biography is about as opaque as her poetry. Given that her first book, Under Flag, was published by Kelsey St. Press in 1991 and has been reprinted twice -- in 1998 and again in 2008 -- you would think that there would be a plethora of information about her. You would be wrong. The most extensive source is Wikipedia which provides the following:
Myung Mi Kim (born December 6, 1957) is a Korean American poet noted for her postmodern writings.
Kim and her family emigrated to the United States following the Korean War, when Kim was 9 years old. She holds a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa and lectured for some years on creative writing at the San Francisco State University. She is currently Professor of English at the University at Buffalo.
That great anthology put out by Wesleyan University Press in 2007, American Poets in the 21st Century, merely provides a list of publications along with the statement regarding her professorship at the University of Buffalo.
Perhaps this is as it should be as it allows her poetry to speak for itself – in an extremely sotto voce laryngitic sort of way. Warren Liu, in ‘Making Common the Commons: Myung Mi Kim’s Ideal Subject’, found in the above-mentioned Wesleyan publication, begins his essay in this manner:
One salient feature of Myung Mi Kim’s poetry that general readers and academics alike agree upon is its intense and at times unrelenting opacity. In her first three books, Under Flag, The Bounty, and Dura, the poems concede very little to a reader in search of either narrative, speaker, subject, or even location; instead, they construct meaning through accretion, fragmentation, translation (and mistranslation), and disjunction.(252)
Kim, in a Youtube video, refers to Penury as a “mourning book”. She indicates that the period of creation was from February 2003 to February 2006 which was the period during which “America has been in Iraq.” She describes the book as proceeding
by accretion, by adumbration, moving around different elements, there is a lot of transcription which are me literally transcribing whatever it happen to be, whether it’s spoken, whether it’s document, whether it’s...something that is archival material...I’m also trying to pose the question “What is the necessary work of mourning both as bodies in social space trying to, in some sense, negotiate...the violence of militarism on human bodies, the notion of war and ecological degradation, my continuing concern about linguistic oppression or a certain attempt to address the...problematic of the ideology of monolingualism.
In an interview conducted by Yedda Morrison in December 1997 titled ‘Generosity as Method: An Interview with Myung Mi Kim’, Kim discusses poetry as liberation and the authentication of a writer’s experiences:
I think there is always some kind of invisible, constant, millisecond-by-millisecond negotiation between the form and its divestment, between the poem and the world, that you’re engaging every time you decide to write anything. However, any poem having any kind of cultural translation in the Twenty-first century – frankly, it isn’t going to happen...
It’s so problematic for writers in our historical moment. Again, I think that I would answer that concern by saying that there’s some awareness on my part, different from even five years ago, that we need two actions simultaneously. The first task is undertaking the kind of devotion and conviction towards authenticating the work you must do, the work we each must undertake, and that forms the basis for a much larger vision for a mobilizing potential for poetry...The second thing is to work out as many different models of where poetry can exist, where poetry can be inserted, can be read, experienced, performed; what are the various different ways that we can make poetry have contexts...Poetry is simply how you participate in language, and we all do that.(4-5)
She goes on, on p. 10, to discuss the response to her poetics:
It’s so disturbing to me that when the surface of the poem behaves in a way that signals no single, clear, traceable narrative strategy, the text suddenly becomes alarming. It immediately becomes an issue of ‘what are we being told?’ or ‘I don’t understand.’ Meanwhile, if the reader would simply remove that initial response and ask what is there to be understood, then there would be no impediment to receiving the story, because the story is larger than the issue of not understanding the strategies by which the story is being told. The story is there, it has a kind of enduring quality, a permanence and scale, a specific weight of history and experience which will be communicated. We need to get beyond the anxiety around not being told in a way were accustomed to and discover new ways of listening.
Take all the white space on Kim’s pages – and there is a lot – as a sea of silence or of white noise, it’s all the same, and each is an interrogation technique, a means of torture, out of which soundbites emerge like eruptions to disrupt the surface, disturb the shadows, ripple across the ideology, rip the curtain shielding hegemony. The story is in the silence - the way Myanmar’s military regime attempts to silence Aung San Suu Kyi, the way Iran’s Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani attempts to quell dissent, the way the Bush regime attempted to hide the ignominies of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, attempted to squelch the release of the photos, attempted to silence dissent by creating an artificial divide “You’re either for us or against us!” And so we receive only fragments of voices attempting to emerge from the swirling miasma of conformity before they are quickly struck down. The voices of the minority seeking to announce identity, seeking to shout “This is who I am!” before they merge back into the masses.
Examine the instances. There is the staum │ stam which brings to mind the term ‘sturm und drang or stammer implying the way one walks after being hit by a sturm und drang which, of course, brings to mind ‘Desert Storm’. Kim operates on the level of multiplicity, each fragment capable of a multiple of interpretations. She offers no guidance, which is as it should be for to extol one is to silence others and would not fit into her postmodern perspective. There are no titles to announce, to disturb the meditation.
This minimalism expands to fill the mind. Take “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) ‘It’ defines the perceptual space as mechanistic. ‘It’ also defines the gender divide. Why “catalogue of books’? Is this a reference to the canon? A refutation? And in this era of expanding and alternate canons, which? Why ‘space’? What ‘space’? ‘Inserted’ as a mechanistic process such as programming a robot? Kim provides only questions. We, the readers, are forced to accept responsibility for the answer(s).
Is that a good thing?
John Herbert Cunningham is the host of Speaking of Poets – a half-hour radio show on Sundays on CKUW 95.9 FM. He resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where he writes poetry, reviews and interviews. He publishes regularly in half a dozen literary magazines in Canada and the same number in the U.S. He is also a multi-instrumentalist with the free jazz group ECMW – Experimental Creative Music Workshop. He is currently studying the alto sax, the Chinese flute and the darbouka.