High-flying Notes from a Korean-American Poet: Notes from the Divided Country by Suji Kwock Kim*

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  • ABSTRACT

    Compared with Cathy Song and Myung-Mi Kim, Suji Kwock Kim is yet to be known in Korea, even though she won prestigious American literary awards like the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets and the Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for her debut book of poems, Notes from the Divided Country. Although she was born and raised in the United States and had little knowledge of Korean at first, she came to recognize her identity and be familiar by and by with Korean history. The knowledge of the facts that Korea had been ravaged by foreign forces and suffered from the Japanese colonization and the Korean War aches her soul, and this soul-aching is aggravated by her ancestors’ direct experiences of those Korean historical tragedies. But this book of poems does not contain poems regarding Korean history alone. The first part shows her guilty consciouseness for her brother and sister, who are suggested to be physically abnormal or mentally retarded. The third and fourth parts are filled with poems of very diverse subject matters, tones, and themes. Of those poems, “Monologue for an Onion” is probably most worthy of special attention. It is not only a searing indictment for human folly but also a very intriguing poetic rendering of Nietzschean ultimate lessson. Her achievement in the first book of poems makes us eagerly wait for the second one, which is, reportedly, forthcoming sooner or later.


  • KEYWORD

    Korean-American Writers , Korean history , Korean War , Nietzsche , hahn

  • Apart from Cathy Song and Myung-Mi Kim, on whom I have written elsewhere, we have a truly promising younger Korean-American poet, Suji Kwock Kim—ten-odd years younger than Cathy Song and Myung- Mi Kim—, whose first book of poems, Notes from the Divided Country, won the 2002 Walt Whitman Award given by the Academy of American Poets. As Cathy Song is the first Asian-American poet to win the prestigious Yale Younger Poets prize, Suji Kwock Kim is the first Asian- American poet to win the Walt Whitman Award which is awarded to the most promising poet whose poems have not been published in book form before. Yusef Komunyakaa, the judge of the 2002 Award, says, “Notes from the Divided Country springs out of a civil war in the soul. . . . [Its] revelation of horror is so explicit, so necessary; a facing up to history that frees the speaker. . . . It is a graceful, powerful trope. . . . There’s love and sadness at the root of these poems. There is also a bridge, a language that mends.”

    Familial history and Korean history are the common ground that the three Korean-American poets share in their poems respectively. But their poems are very different in their style. While Cathy Song retains the traditional way of using language, Myung-Mi Kim deliberately adopts disruptive linguistic strategies to express her situation. Suji Kwock Kim stands, in a way, in the middle. Standing in the middle does not mean that her poetry is smooth to read and has nothing special to speak of. Rather, the reverse is true. Her depiction is fierce and at times, violent. The book begins with “Generation,” which portrays how the narrator, who is supposed to be the poet, comes into being in this world. Through the intoxication of the united flesh (the parents’, to be sure), through the labyrinth of mother’s painful body does the existence of her sorrowful being come forth:

    I have cited the above passages quite at length on purpose to show the poet’s typical style—speedy, staccato, yet sometimes creaking rhythm. Her poetry does not read smoothly at all. It’s because the poet senses the turmoil inherent in being born. The parents enjoy sex, but the taste of sex is bitter as well as sweet, for they beget a baby and are obliged to raise it. Especially it is mother who bears it and suffers the pain of labor. For the baby’s part, it is not wholly sweet to be born. To grow into a human form in mother’s womb is itself an unpleasant experience, and moreover, to be plucked out of the womb and come to light in this world is a truly harrowing experience. The baby comes into being, not knowing why.

    The reason the poet is so vehement at portraying the scenes regarding conception and birth may be that the poet’s mother had suffered a childbearing sequela and thus, had had much difficulty bearing the poet’s siblings. It is even hinted that the poet’s brother and sister were born physically or mentally abnormal:

    The poet says, “She[mother] never says she blames me, but I’m to blame.”

    This poem is called “The Tree of Knowledge.” After Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s order not to eat the fruit of the Tree, they were expelled from Eden, the blessed land, and we, their descendents, have no choice but to live in this unblessed earth. In consequence of the Original Sin, we come to know good and evil and also, sex-related things. According to the poet, being born is itself the original sin. So she prays to God:

    At the end of the poem, the poet asks her brother and sister forgiveness:

    The sorrow that makes the poet vehement and turbulent at heart broadens its horizon from familial to historical. Her ancestors’ direct experiences of tragic Korean history contribute to this process of broadening, and her recognition that Korea, the country of her origin, had been occupied by and trampled under Japan, and in addition, underwent a severe war, originally a civil war but finally a war between big forces, elevates her poetry one step further. The second part of this book of poems is wholly devoted to Korean history and scenery. The first poem in this part is called “Occupation”:

    As Robert Pinsky observes, this poem plays with multiple meanings of the word, “occupy.” “Occupation” means both “profession or job” and “taking a place to dwell in.” It also means “taking by force a place or space which is not his or her own,” and thus, it is usually used to signify a state in which a country takes another country by force and considers the land to be its own. So this poem clearly refers to the Japanese annexation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. “The soldiers” are Japanese who pretend to do the job of building a house for the Korean people to live in. But their work ironically and abominably involves a carnage of the Korean people. Their appeasing gesture at the end of the poem is all the more detestable. But there is another point in this poem that makes the poem much more horrifying. The “house” might not be the place to live in but the place to die in—a huge graveyard in which the Korean people would be killed and buried.

    “Resistance” is a poem dedicated to her great-grandparents. Her maternal great-grandfather is Yoon-Kyung Kim(金允經), a famous Korean linguistics scholar and co-founder of the Korean Language Society(朝鮮語學會). He was imprisoned together with his colleagues by the Japanese imperialists with a view to oppressing the usage of the Korean language among the Korean people. They had a plan to do away with the Korean language and urged the Korean people to use Japanese. In their view, the Korean linguistics scholars were in their way. Vividly portraying the scenes of torture at first, the poem mentions anti-Japanese movements and uprisings including 1929 Kwangju Students Incident as well as sorrowful cases of Korean history owing to Japanese coercive measures to utilize the Korean people, the notorious ones of which are forced migration of the Koreans to Kazakhstan and “comfort women” who were sex toys for the Japanese soldiers. The Korean people were victims of the sinister ambition of the Land of the Rising Sun(“日本”).

    “You,” who does not appear in Hwang’s original poem, must be Korea, the wretched earth.

    “Fragments of the Forgotten War,” dedicated to her father who fled from the red north to the south, is full of harrowing memories of the war like “using the dead as shields, corpse-greaved,” “Without fuel we burned dung for heat/ until the light from our fires drew bombers,” and “a carcass foaming with maggots, the bone black with hatching flies.”  “Flight” is another poem dealing with the Korean War, also filled with miserable sights. But this poem makes a little formalistic attempt:

    This form makes our eyes leap across from left to right and thus, makes us pay more attention to the described misery. And this leaping-across also corresponds well with the title of the poem, “Flight.”

    Suji Kwock Kim uses another Korean poet’s work to express hahn(恨)—sorrowful emotion deeply and eternally buried in the hearts of the Korean people. Due to the Korean War, thousands of the family members have been separated for scores of decades—part living in South Korea, part living in North Korea. The poem is written by Jung-joo Suh, one of the most representative Korean poets of the twentieth century, and its title is “Looking at a Yi[Lee] Dynasty White Porcelain.” Eating cooked rice contained in a white porcelain rice bowl, the poet-narrator happens to look up and see white clothes hanging on a laundry line to be dried by sunlight, and they suddenly remind him of his brother who was  taken north during the war. Suji Kwock Kim changes the title a little bit into “Looking at a Yi Dynasty Rice Bowl.” It can be said that Jung-joo Suh lays stress on “white” whereas Suji Kwock Kim brings “rice” into relief. Both make sense because the Korean people are known as “the race of white clothes” and their staple food is rice. She delicately portrays  why the laundry reminds the narrator of his brother—being carelessly slung on a line signifies having no power to resist being carried off, and it also signifies the state of North Korea where food is scarce and his brother is likely to be in a poor and dejected condition.

    To leave clothes as they are means that the narrator misses his brother that much and that he buries the image of his brother deep into his heart.

    The last poem of the second part is called “Montage with Neon, Bok Choi, Gasoline, Lovers & Strangers.” The poet said in the above-mentioned radio interview that when she was in Seoul, she was really impressed by the people’s lively appearances and the surprisingly rapid development out of the rubbles left by the war. The poem is filled with  the poet-narrator’s encounters with diverse layers of people while strolling along the streets:

    At the end of the poem the poet lauds the reviving power of the Korean people and wishes that they would never have the same miserable fate again; however, she never forgets to give an advice to them that they should never forget the past history, never forget how they have grown out of the rubble.

    The poems contained in the remaining third and fourth parts of the book have such diverse subject matters and are so miscellaneous that those two parts cannot be grouped under one major subject matter or theme like the first and second parts. Some are love poems like “Aubade Ending with Lines from the Japanese,” “Nocturne”; some are for a papermaker and a robemaker; some are musings on everyday life like “The Couple Next Door”; some are quasi-metaphysical harangues like “On Sparrows”; and there is an art poem, “Between the Wars,” written after seeing Giacometti’s sculpture, and there is even a fantasy piece like “Levitations.” Of these poems I especially would like to mention two  poems—“Drunk Metaphysics” and “Monologue for an Onion.”

    The narrator of the poem, “Monologue for an Onion,” is an onion peeled by a human being, who is in tears thanks to its smell. The onion says,

    Despite the tears, man tries and tries to delve deeper into the heart of the thing or matter, thinking that there is some core or truth hidden at the heart and that this activity brings progress. But it is only a delusion.

    What the activity out of this delusion brings after all is not progress but more destruction. History proves so: all the human attempts to realize an ideal utopian society on this earth have turned out more horrible nightmares. The onion says that all this fuss is a matter of human desire and that it is “you” not “me” that is cut to pieces by the blade of desire.

    As Bryan Aubrey says, it is not surprising “to find the poet presenting such a bleak picture of human folly and blindness,” considering the book of poems is “a long song of suffering, conveyed with a visceral immediacy that scalds the mind and heart” (Aubrey 129).

    The onion advises man to accept the things as they are and be satisfied with the things they hold in their hands now:

    The preaching of the onion rings the same note as Nietzsche’s:

    Nietzsche once put it into a metaphoric epigram:

    Skate beautifully on the surface of ice!—this is the ultimate teaching of Nietzsche’s, and “Monologue for an Onion” is not only a searing indictment for human folly but also a beautiful rendering of Nietzschean insight into a poetic form.

    “Drunk Metaphysics” is a poem written after Eun Go, another famous Korean poet who has been recently shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He had become a poet with the recommendation from Jungjoo Suh; however, he veered away from his master, rebuking him for his foolish affiliations with the Japanese and the military regimes. He has now become a sort of iconic figure of nationalism and anti-militarism. The lines from his poem, “A Drunkard(주정뱅이),” which read, “나는 단 한번도 개체가 아니었다”(“I’ve never been an individual”) and “나는 전체 로 살고 있다”(“I am living as a whole” or “My existence is a being of wholeness”), are bold declarations that he is a kind of spokesman representing the whole Korean people. He cannot but be a drunken man to speak out righteous opinions in front of the military repressive atmosphere and at the same time, vomit out hahn, sorrow deeply buried in the hearts of the Korean people. But Suji Kwock Kim’s version has a different voice. It reads more like a cry out of existential anguish. She deletes the line, “나는 전체로 살고 있다” and instead, inserts lines, “laughing, trash-talking, quarreling/ singing-crying, living-dying,” which are absent in the original poem. In this way, she transforms a poem of specifically Korean undertones into one having a more general existential theme, and this is why it is put in the third part, not in the second part.

    Suji Kwock Kim ends the book with a poem called “The Korean Community Garden in Queens.” In this poem she sees the surviving strength of the Korean people with respect and awe again and wishes that they, including her, would finally settle down in peace and prosper forever. “The Divided Country” in the title, Notes from the Divided Country, needless to say, refers to Korea, but the title certainly reminds one of Dostoevsky’s Notes from (the) Underground, rambling memoirs of the Underground Man, a bitter and isolated man. In this way, Notes from the Divided Country can be considered to be rambling monologues of a human being whose soul and mind are torn and divided by the knowledge that the country of her origin has been filled with tragedies caused by human irrationality.

  • 1. Aubrey Bryan. 2006 Essay on “Monologue for an Onion.” Poetry for Students. Vol. 24. Eds. Anne Marie Hacht and Ira Mark Milne. P.129-30 google
  • 2. Dostoevsky Fyodor. 1994 Notes from Underground. Tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. google
  • 3. Komunyakaa Yusef. “Judge’s Citation.” Blurb on the back cover of Notes from the Divided Country. google
  • 4. Nietzsche Friedrich. 1974 The Gay Science. Tr. Walter Kaufmann. google
  • 5. Pinsky Robert. 2006 “Poet’s Choice.” google
  • 6. Siegel Robert. 2003 “An Interview with Suji Kwock Kim.” All Things Considered: NPR (National Public Radio). google
  • 7. Kim. Suji Kwock 2003 Notes from the Divided Country. google
  • 8. 고 은. 2002
  • 9. 서 정주. 1994 『 미당 시전집』. google
  • 10. 황 동규 1978