Don Mee Choi’s “Geopolitical Poetics”
I am a foreigner who writes in Englishfrom “A Little Confession”
Because English is a foreigner like me
I write prescriptions for the injured and the sick
For several decades, poetry has become increasingly visual. It has been about words on a page, letters in space, words & images in relation to each other. Just pick up Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books) and let the pages flip through your fingers. Yes, a few of the pages look like poems “ought” to look like. But most of the pages don’t. There are photographs, tiny ones and full page ones. Drawings. A good deal of the book is written in solid blocks of text that look like prose and a long section that is laid out in the form of an opera libretto. And then there are the lines written in Korean characters, or the excerpts from musical scores (music is essentially a foreign language for me and, undoubtedly, for many readers). Finally, like more and more poetry and fiction titles do these days, the book ends with several pages of explanatory notes, which mostly provide the sources for the many quotations and references the poet has used throughout Hardly War.
The other thing that flipping through Hardly War with your fingers will suggest—and that reading will confirm—is that Choi has carefully thought out this as a book. This is not a collection of assorted random poems on various topics. It’s clear from a quick glimpse at the book that Choi has given herself an awful lot to juggle, so she uses her own biography as the spine on which to hang everything, along with a bare bones history of Korea during roughly the same years—1950 to 1968. Choi was born and raised in Korea, before eventually settling in the U.S. Her father was a photojournalist who covered the war zones across Southeast Asia and in Korea. She uses some of his photographs in the book, and she turns his camera into one of the characters in the opera libretto, “Hardly Opera,” which closes out the book.
Hardly War is a carefully orchestrated sequence of poems, prose poems, and images. It opens with a prose poem “Race=Nation,” which introduces the reader to the poet and her father, along with a few sentences about her idea of folding geopolitics into poetry. It basically serves as her elevator speech on twentieth century Korean history: occupied by Japan from 1910-1945; under the control of the U.S. military government through 1948; authoritarian president who had to be overthrown by a student-led revolution in 1960. South Korea still has not shaken this history off its back even now and we all know what North Korea is like.
“Race=Nation” is followed by “A Little Glossary,” which includes images that aren’t explained, languages that aren’t translated, and the word “gook” which isn’t defined. When we get to the end of the book, the Notes will tell us that these paired photographs show the Taedong River Bridge in Pyongyang, Korea in November 1950 (left) and December 1950 (right), before and after its destruction. Choi’s father, with a camera around his neck, is on the left. The mention of “5 petals” refers to the Rose of Sharon, the national flower of South Korea. On this page, Choi carefully and succinctly sets up the key devices that will she will use throughout the book: pluralingualism, uncertain equivalencies, non-translation, and repetition (of images, symbols, and words).
The first real “poem” of the book is “A Little Menu,” a very simple listing of the foods that an American G.I. might have had while stationed in Korea (e.g. wieners, canned fruit, crackers, soluble coffee, etc.), ending with the line “What did General Fatty eat?”. “General Fatty” is what Choi calls General Douglas MacArthur, who initially led the United Nations military command in Korea. Choi’s confidence in using humor—even silliness—is one of the reasons I have thought about Hardly War time and time again since I first read it nearly six years ago. After seeing black-and-white photographs of soldiers, war-damaged bridges, military equipment, and malnourished or orphaned children, we don’t expect poems that read like nursery rhymes or children’s taunts. This is her “hardly war,” her “faint history<‘ made up of the voices traditionally drowned out by the din of battle. In daring to contrast her “paper closet with real paper dresses in it” against “THE BIG PICTURE. War and its masses. War and its men. War and its machines.’, as she writes in “Woe Are You?” Choi knows that paper dolls and poetry won’t win wars, but that they can help change the way that history is told.
And changing history is her agenda. She wants to correct the stereotyped image of Korea which has been handed down across several generations now, defined almost exclusively by the American experience of the Korean War, even though the war ended nearly seventy years ago. She references two of the Hollywood movies—Pork Chop Hill (1959) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962)—that helped to perpetuate the colonialist trope of of the Korean conflict as the opposition between heroic G.I.s and the native Koreans, who were seen as inept, untrustworthy, and very likely Communists, and who were frequently referred to as gooks, the derogatory word that Americans often used for Asians and other “lower” races. Choi wants to tell Korea’s “own faint history in its own faint language.”
Geopoetics. . . involves disobeying history, severing its ties to power. It strings together the faintly remembered, the faintly imagined, the faintly discarded, which is to say race=nation gets to speak its own faint history in its own faint language. Its mere umbilical cord is hardly attached to anything at all. Hence, hardly=war.
Readers who are bilingual in Korean and English will undoubtedly read Hardly War differently than readers like me who know only one of the languages. But I think that Choi uses incomprehension—which is the first step toward demonization of the Other—intentionally throughout Hardly War.
The book’s narration constantly shifts between sections written in the voices of children, parts written in the pidgin English of Koreans, sections mimicking the pseudo-neutral voice of a slightly gung-ho journalist or newsreel narrator, and a loony version of an opera libretto in which most of the characters are flowers. But what is consistent about all of the voices in Hardly War is Choi’s peculiar sense of humor. She borrows wordplay tactics from nursery rhymes and other forms of children’s poetry to give her writing a slightly sinister innocence. “I was cheerily cherrily red and merely merrily washed my face in the yard and looked up at the stars. I decided to go alone as far as I could go south, do and do and to.” At the beginning of the photo/poem “With My Brother on My Back / I Was Narrowly Narrator” (shown below), Choi writes: “I was narrowly narrator / yet superbly so.” The turnabout from modesty to confidence in a seven word sentence is something I find astonishing.
I wrote about Hardly War when it came out in 2016 and I have incorporated a few bits and pieces from that review in this updated and enlarged piece. Choi’s next book, DMZ Colony, also from Wave Books, won the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. Wave Books deserves huge kudos for the vision, support, and dedication they show to all of their authors.
Don Mee Choi. Hardly War. Seattle: Wave Books, 2016.