A Lesser Love, by E. J. Koh, Pleiades Press, 88 pp.
Is there a difference between, say, looking at your drunk self in the mirror and being put under government surveillance? E. J. Koh has a poem for each, yes, but there’s also more. In “Showtime,” the opening poem of the collection, Koh stands before a mirror, pleading with herself. “Jal butak hapnida,” she seemingly whispers, translating herself,
In the mirror, it means:
Even inside my greatcoat
of conscience, drunk and white,
please be kind to me.
In the poem “Clearance,” the mirror has transformed into a screen, before which Koh imagines herself combing through her own CIA file. As before a mirror, however, Koh watches herself being watched:
I watched more porn than most women.
I wrestled and, upon demanding
an opponent two weight classes up, was
I drank a cup of holy water at a wedding.
The list goes on, unkindly, unforgivingly:
A Davis high school baseball team bullied me,
flipping my chair and making squinty eyes.
I tried to choke one of them
and was removed from class.
I laugh at racist jokes.
I feel responsible for the death of my two parakeets
and my grandmother.
What is left after this litany is not exactly a self. To characterize Koh’s poems as expressive would, paradoxically, do injustice to their quiet, devastating power, both numbing and benumbed. A sonic mirror, Koh’s poems problematize their own “I”: others speak through it, but it also speaks for itself. It reads what others have written about it – in its own voice. Think of an eolian harp (certainly not Coleridge’s). Better, perhaps, think of Koh’s own work as a translator of Korean poetry. In an essay accompanying her translation of Kim Myung Won’s poem “Dabi,” Koh writes about what she calls “the mythology of ‘I’ in translation.” “Rather than override her subjects of faith, love, and her father with verbosity,” she writes of her translation of Won’s poems, “I hope to be a vessel for them.”
To be a vessel for poems, of course, is much more pleasant than to be one for the CIA. But maybe poetry is nothing if not being this vessel, this shape for sounds to pass through. This is certainly true enough for me as a reader of Koh’s poems. The vessel even cracked a little, as I came across these lines in the poem “Confession”:
Older now I must dress myself.
You cannot pity a baby.
Like innocence and fat
I have never been on time.
Before willfulness, I ate stucco
dropped from the ceiling to my face.
I started to tell stories because
my parents lived so far away.
With these stark, sparse lines, Koh lays bare the temporal and spatial disorientation of transnational separation, something I experience personally as an Indonesian international student in the United States. The sense of untimeliness stems not only from the fact that innocence can only be constructed after its forfeiture. Nor in the sense that people must outgrow their fat as they grow up, lest they be seen as physically deviating from the norm. This untimeliness comes from the plain, geometrical fact of time zones: you are literally never on the same hour, minute, second. And stories become a way of (literally) catching up, or more, of filling up the space left with stories. You don’t share a common space of experience – therefore, you catch up. It’s as if we are right back with the famous opening lines of Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” lines whose resonance we have become attuned to all too well: “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.”
However, for Koh, this untimeliness is not a natural given. Neither is it a solely meditative space, as Hass’s poem might suggest. Untimeliness also takes the form of a historical, political force that may erupt at any moment, without warning. In “Testimony Over Tape Recorder,” Koh enacts the violent temporal disjunction of war: “I am the youngest. I am 85 and yesterday, / I was 15 in a military station.” Time violently contracts, the steady march of quantitative time giving way to the jarring contact of trauma. Being young, then, means never outgrowing what robs you of your youth in the first place:
The historian said, It was necessary,
girls like me, for war, girls for war,
girls for boys dying in war, girls must die
for boys dying in war, we cannot be
sorry for girls dying for boys dying
in a war of dying, girls for war, girls for
winning the war.
Koh’s poetry is haunting because it is haunted. What haunts it is justice. This justice takes less the form of calculative, quantified reparations, however important that step itself may be as a part of achieving justice. Rather, it takes the form of hospitality, of hosting the voices of others that they may speak through us, with us. Of one’s necessarily complicated relationship to these voices, these ghosts, the philosopher Jacques Derrida asks us: “How to talk with him, with her, how to let them speak or how to give them back speech, even if it is in oneself, in the other, in the other in oneself: they are always there, specters, even if they do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet.” To let oneself be haunted: this, too, is a form of love.
Image: emmma peel via Flickr (cc).