Some brief excerpts of more books that I utterly consider “required reading.”
Abductions by Chiwan Choi (Writ Large Press, 2012)
This book brought me to so many tears. It’s so breathtakingly heartbreaking and tragic and beautiful and observant in a way that seems so essential and sacred. I confess I started reading it almost a year ago when Chiwan first gave me a copy at my old apartment in Silver Lake, and I started reading it that night but had to stop. I was already going through such an intensely emotional time, and I cried all night and couldn’t handle the added heartbreak. I finished it this morning and I can’t say articulate the honesty and tragedy and beauty of the language contained in these poems. When I started the #finalpoem series, I asked this:
If the world were to end next week, what is the final poem you write, the final poem you give away generously, treacherously, genuinely, fearfully, necessarily, beautifully?
That tomorrow it may very well all end, and we would know to bear the pain as the day rose and broke.
That the present is undying yet death awaits us all.
That words can still connect and touch, that we still know how to offer to others a piece of our soul.
That space yet expands and we know when to keep breathing and when to stop.
That poetry can yet be given and received, from one human being to another.
This book is the book I would give.
at the emergency room,
they kept using the word ‘spontaneous’
and as i held her hand,
trying to stop myself from shaking,
i almost told her everything.
i got as far as saying that i was to blame
and staring at the floor.
but she said
i was being ridiculous,
that these things couldn’t be my fault,
as my fingers gripped the steering wheel
of our car that wouldn’t move
in the hospital garage,
calling my mother to tell her
and listening to her say nothing back.
it began with her
as the war broke out in korea,
she first saw the lights above her
as she hid in a row board,
lying still and quiet on her back,
smiling at the way the colors in the sky moved,
and days later, when her father tied her to a chair
in the back room because he had to save his family
from the communist invasion
and one more girl was too much of a burden.
he told her to be quiet
but she wouldn’t.
she screamed and she cried there alone.
they came, the ones from the lights in the sky,
and taking her over the ocean.
dad says it started for him around the same time
during the war that divided our homeland.
his father, my grandpa, the one with the belly
and the first one of us that made contact,
how he tried to buy time for his family
with a handshake deal while
my father, his second son,
carried his little sister
across the border in the night
to hide from the lights above.
sometimes i hear him angry
that we have been stuck in this life of running,
of hiding in the jungle in paraguay
as the invisible dragons circled
the air above chile,
of accepting our ability to sacrifice
friends and lovers to save ourselves.
it is strange.
the first they told me this
was on gramercy drive,
the living room with the gray carpet
of unit six, 950 gramercy drive,
my parents sitting on the couch,
how he leaned forward and tapped
mindlessly on the coffee table with his paint
caked fingers while my mother
started adding the pink yarn to the blanket—
standing in front of them
with my arms straight down to my sides
as he said,
son, in this life, you can’t have friends
because you will have to lose them.
he never warned me about what happens
to our children,
how sometimes they are taken
before we can even know their skin,
or maybe i just hoped it would be different for mine.
it’s been over two years now
since she’s been gone,
taken on her journey from judy’s womb.
but last night,
she was here.
i rolled over to my left
and in my half sleep
saw her standing five feet away.
she had grown,
in a pale dress and boots,
a jacket hugging tight around her shoulders.
she looked to be around ten years old
and in that moment i couldn’t remember
how long ago was that day
that i can never escape.
she smiled, standing in a beam of light,
her hand lifting into the air,
to say hello, to say stop, to say stay,
and i bolted up,
waking up screaming,
hand reaching out across my wife’s body,
to the light that filtered in through the window,
wrapping her arms around me through instinct
as i began to wail at the fading light,
that i thought i heard
our baby say
The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole (Two Lines Press, 2015)
Scott Esposito sent me an advanced reader’s copy of this book knowing I would love it, and with an introduction from one of my favorite writers László Krasznahorkai, I was immediately sold. In his introduction, Krasznahorkai writes: “The horrendous, deathly, unquiet, baleful, murderous everyday situations of the petty bourgeois. These routine occurrences do not pass. The petty bourgeois does not pass. … Wolfgang Hilbig is an artist of immense stature. He discovered a wondrous language to describe a horrific world. I admit this is a sick illumination. Nonetheless, it is illumination. Unforgettable.”
from “The Sleep of the Righteous”:
The dark divests us of our qualities. — Though we breathe more greedily, struggling for life, for some fleeting web of substance from the darkness…it is the darkness that forms a mute block above us: intangible matter our breaths cannot lighten…it seems to burst apart at each answer from the old man, each lament of his breath, yet sinks in again swiftly to weigh down still closer, in the cohesive calm of myriad tiny black, gyrating viruses. And we rest one whole long night in this block of black viruses, we rest from the toils of the day: from the everyday toil of circling around each other, still and hostile. By day we keep silent, we know too much about ourselves, and our resolve to skirt of ignore this knowledge of ourselves is unshakeable. For years no contention has arisen between us, it seems settled that we respect both our lives, that we grant ourselves our existence. His existence is that of the father of his daughter, mine that of the son of a mother, no more and no less; the woman we mean, descendant of a dead woman, sleeps in more distant back rooms.
from “The Memories”:
And he’d left the door unlocked when he went to the mailbox. Afterward, he’d returned to the apartment with the absurd suspicion that someone had been there in the meantime. The smell of a stranger hung in the chilly air. There was quite clearly, almost too clearly, a muteness in the silence that was not his own muteness. Once again, for several minutes, he’d listened at the door of the little back room: not a sound had emerged. — Dark and bowed he stood holding his ear to the gray-yellow wood: in the room behind the door it was still.
What memories are sleeping, sleeping on behind that door…for how much longer? And after that I fell asleep at the table myself, deciding to postpone my trip to the mailbox until the next day he thought. Or I only thought I did. And I only thought up the steps in the stairwell, they padded solely through my imagination. And then I thought I saw a shadow, dark and bowed, in the kitchen doorway, making a grotesque attempt to grin and saying:
They’re all under the ground…
The words were hard to understand, like a noise I’d left far behind me, and they were swallowed by the stillness. Or drowned out by the town as it awoke at last.
The Morning News Is Exciting by Don Mee Choi (Action Books, 2010)
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I read this on the same morning I read Chiwan Choi’s book, and during a time I’ve been doing some contemplation on certain pasts, histories, and trajectories. I’ve long admired Don Mee Choi’s work as a translator, and am ever grateful for introducing Kim Hyesoon’s work to me in English, which then allowed me to reread her work in Korean. And the sheer power and complex issues she deals with in this volume are significant. I’m reminded of two conversation. The first conversation I had with Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi at an &NOW Conference several years ago in Boulder. We were sitting at a panel together and were sharing with each our stories and certain pressures to write from “accurate” and “ethnic” points of view. I related to her a question I had been struggling with was, if I even wanted to attempt to tell my family’s history, how the ideas of “accuracy” and “correctness” would factor in. For example, the stories my father has told me about his experience of the Korean War and its aftermath are very subjective, and therefore personal. But there are details in accounts that contradict historical ones. Some events are out of order. etc. But an attempt to “rewrite” and “correct” these details in order to match the historical record would then wipe out his personal version, though flawed, containing a different and very important truth as well. Azareen had been struggling with a similar question, and with her story, she felt that the “accuracy” and “precision” would be at the forefront of critique, that subjective histories are not allowed within objective ones. The second conversation I had in LA with my friend Saehee Cho. She lamented the fact that a very particular amount of time had passed since the Korean War had happened, and recent stories in the media reminded us that in a few years, all of the first-hand witnesses to these events would be gone, that it was perhaps our duty to record these stories and ask more questions of our parents and family members before these stories deteriorate to second and third-hand accounts. These conversations are tangentially related to some of the issues Don Mee Choi grapples with in her book, but as time move forward, certain events are also being pushed further back, and though memories of violence should not be treasured, they should be held on to as their disappearance signals a different kind of violence.
8 AUG 2002
I arrived below the 38th parallel. Everyone and every place I know are below the waist of a nation. Before I arrived, empire arrived, that is to say empire is great. I follow its geography. From a distance the waist below looks like any other small rural village of winding alleys and traditional tile-roofed houses surrounded by rice paddies, vegetable fields, and mountains. It reminded me of home, that is to say this is my home.
Close up: clubs, restaurants, souvenir and clothing stores with signs in English, that is to say English has arrived before me and was here even before I had left. PAPA SAN, LOVE SHOP, POP’S, GOLDEN TAILOR, PAWN. I follosed the signs and they led to one of the gates to Camp Stanley, a heliport, that is to say language is not to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience. A woman in her seventies lived next to LOVE SHOP. She was taking an afternoon nap. She has never left below the waist and eventually came to be regarded as a great patriot by her government, that is to say she followed the signs and suffered from lice infestation during the war and passed the lice on to the GIs. I followed the house that reminded me of home. They led me to another metal gate and barbed wire. Another woman was having lunch at My Sister’s Place. She did not remember which year she had reeturned except that she remembered hearing about the assassination of our Father, that is to say she was here and I was still elsewhere and the unity of language is fundamentally political. She told me a story about her right index finger. Her finger fiercely pointed to her mouth, then between her spread legs, and then her behind. She had no choice under the GI’s gun, that is to say she had no choice about absolute choice, that is to say her poverty was without choice and when absolute choice was forced upon her she chose a GI, that is to say she chose empire because empire is greather than out Father, that is to say she followed and left her daughter to its geography and her index finger had no choice but to be fierce under absolute choice, that is to say she had arrived home.
The Book of Feral Flora by Amanda Ackerman (Les Figues Press, 2015)
What appeals to me about Amanda Ackerman’s writing is that in its intelligence and experimentation, there is an utter tenderness with which she articulates and creates relationships. She asks difficult questions and considers what it means to exist in the way we have continued to exist, questions our relationships with other life forms, and looks for balance in ways perhaps previously inconceived. There’s a sort of reference and respect that she bestows upon the subjects of her writing, upon the language itself, an offering of water and words and wonder. Amanda Ackerman write about the process of getting plants to write poems here. She also writes about compromised bodies here.
from “The Triangulations: seeding and saving”:
I am choosing to tell you this story. There were 2 sisters who lived in the belly of a whale for 6 months. But forget me (oh, the weight of the heart.) I should have lulled you into this story before mentioning this heavy, dripping heart. I could sweetly bludgeon you later but I tend to blurt out my secrets. I raise carrier pigeons. I like geometry. I was numb. I was dead.
Personally I can’t say that I’m not scared of death and ghosts. As soon as we consider the body itself, we think of this living flesh as a banner for fitness, but already one day dead. Of the two sisters, Sorrel’s face had the potential to one day become haunted. Rose, on the other hand, had a face for the new millennium. A perfect balance of masculine and feminine traits.
But I am returning to the heart’s weight.
The heart’s weight. It looks like –
a ship’s anchor, a distorted pink diamond, a bloated locket forged from a ton of brass, a granite wrecking ball. Too many fractures. I leave it in the ground. I pretend to bury things in the spring. I pretend my heart is light. I am making choices all the time.
from “Feral Iridium Animate Matter: flower uneconomical language”:
I now count fourteen irises. The irises, the very exercising of scales. As if iridized. Like those glazed, involuted tissues on tall unwavering but bending stems. We too. What tells us, each instant, to—,
Time is circular. I can’t figure it out. Because the way you smell is harbinger of soil deep down before it even becomes soil, wet and powdery and plummy. Because if you smell like the color of a plum in a cellar as the soil creeps back through the cracks and the plant life starts to regain the world—the world is in ruins again, at least from my perspective. No, the world is not in ruins. It is new. Back when people thought bathing would make them ill, they used irises to mask the scent of the armpits and loins. They used the powdery balsamic scent to mask the odor of their greasy hair rumbling pores and rough glands. And kings loved the smell of this king-flower this sword. The mark of sovereignty, gold, a shrinking enemy of the world. A faucet for tracheal bends, golden sauces cooling into permanent form, the jewel, the grail, and all I have now is words when you die again. I don’t know what it’s like to die a plant’s death.