Monday, November 29, 2010

The Morning News Is Exciting, Don Mee Choi

Action Books, 2010
Notre Dame, IN

Review by Caitie Moore

“Say no lame!” the book opens. What might stand as an imperative for those of us living in the West, The Morning News Is Exciting exhorts us to face our international roles as imperialists. Here is a case for “political” poetry, (if it is our fear that we’ve lost our imaginations to a grey, harping, secular concrete when we create, publish or read poetry that knows its way around systemic oppression) made by retaining the starkly salvific and the significantly weird. Don Mee Choi’s poems give treatment to current events, but disallow familiarity of those events, and through this defamiliarization, we come to a greater understanding.

In thirteen sections, all containing discreet poems that range in form from epistolary to homophonic translation, Choi remains preoccupied with distance, loneliness, and the circumstances that create them. This is from the fourth poem of the section Diary of a Translator:

The moon wept behind the cloud. The child said to the stars: Detachment is painful, so is madness. Home is a system of longing, and suicide is a system of exile.

And earlier, in “10 Aug 2002” the fourth poem of the section Diary of Return, she writes

When I return when I return I say my twin of a twoness paces the bridge over the river of oneness and translates exile of an exileness and empire of an empireness while I trace the alleys of my childhood and find no one.

This yearning is ‘traced’ against a world that we already wish were different. In “10 Sept 1999”, the poem preceding the one above, came this figuration:

Another mysterious death of a GI’s woman (....) That is not to say GIs will now rape any woman due to homesickness and R & R. What needs to be said is that from elsewhere I translate the report of the death of a woman I met two months prior in Tongduch’on and that colonial distance can be saturated with separation due to homesickness of a different nature.
The language and conclusions drawn in this section buoy us through what might have been our wariness of the prosaic, and demonstrate that Choi’s keen perceptions were not just happy accident in the opening sequence Manegg. The bizarre grammar there stems from the passage’s being a product of a homophonic translation of Manteg by Monchoachi, the Martinican poet. Choi has said “When translation fails, that is when we take orders from the darkness, displaced identities easily become worthless beings.” To stave off pain for these potentially displaced beings, she takes on the responsibility of conveying the experience of those who might not otherwise speak (“Females are silent” she writes, in the first poem of the section Instructions From The Inner Room). Her homophonic translations do not fail, and like many sequences in this collection, Manegg turns to animals for elucidation. We’re given yokes and eggs representing traditions of hetero-normative expectations layered with compulsive reproduction in animal husbandry. “Let me say in-law, in-law/ I won’t lay an eggy egg” (from “1 Say No Lame!”) and “Save and grin, wee and we, Hen revolts and bets on awe” (from “3 None Say None”). With syntax like “I solely laid beyond nit for jerk” we’re prompted to understand across hybridization, while confronting the constant trouble of doubting because the language is ‘foreign’, which is to say not familiar, which is to say difficult, which is to say worth it. But if we are left with any question of what, exactly, is being refused and why, we may have a response in one of the last sections, Diary of a Translator:

Long time ago, the moon laid an egg, which became an occupied egg, war egg, then a neo-occupied egg. The moon’s egg was a doubled egg. Egg and egg, a divided egg. History and memory fed egg. Not a hollow egg. Not a nation’s egg. Egg did talk egg talk! Egg did. Egg off! Empire must go!

The poems track many objects across and through sections—eggs, forests, bridges, the OED—until it begins to feel like these objects are being picked up and handled and carried to another room where we find them later. There is no space, however, in these rooms of rape and colonization for a vatic tone. The demotic tongue is as lofty as the speech will get. Even in the section From Noon—to All Surviving Butterflies, which draws on a book of Dickinson’s fragments and employs her use of the dash, we encounter earned irony and exasperation:

Master’s language is forever thoughtful about what happened before something. Happy language! Shame is attached to syntax. Seal it or numb it. Most terrible pain you can imagine. Ask OED! In my house, the shoed are put to sleep and the shoeless forever depart. Going to dooms of napalm! Going to Guantánamo.

It is this tone that specifically resists helplessness, and to consort with animals and etymology suggests power outside of a reign of terror. The speaker has been “In the forest since 1981” articulating a space that must be lived in, especially if comfortable inhabitation is impossible, especially if inhabitation provokes the sentiment “My forest, my ass.” The power of this collection, after the myriad problems are traced (Empire, Empire, Empire) resides in its multiplicity. The various forms throughout the different sections are woven with many disparate sources, including books regarding South Korea/ U.S. relations, and quotes from Spivak, Deleuze and Guattari, Fanon, Dickinson and Freud. The author herself slides skillfully out of one guise and into another. This variation presents an oblique solution to the problem of Empire as the one. Its welcome antithesis is here in shape-shifting multiples.

Don Mee Choi was born in South Korea and came to the U.S. via Hong Kong. Her first book of poems, The Morning News Is Exciting, will be published by Action Books this April. She lives in Seattle and translates contemporary Korean women’s poetry; her translation titles include When the Plug Gets Unplugged (Tinfish, 2005), Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women (Zephyr, 2006), and _Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers (Action Books, 2008). _
Caitie Moore has served as the poetry editor of CutBank and as the managing editor of Slope. Her poems can be found online at Strange Machine and Inknode and in print in Muthafucka and forthcoming in Handsome. She lives and works in New York City

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Nox, Anne Carson

New Directions, 2010
192 pp, $29.95
New York, NY

A three inch deep box that opens like a bivalve or casket houses Carson’s book, Nox; the book inside is not bound to a backing but folded, concertina-style, and piled on itself. The one hundred and ninety-two unpaginated pages reproduce a note-and-scrap book containing lexigraphic entries, family photographs, collage, paintings and sketches, excerpts, quotations, and numbered autobiographical notes. Both the cover of the box and top page display on gray background a section of a photographic image of Carson’s brother as a boy, in flippers and goggles. The enigma of his character and death comprise the impetus and premises of Carson’s project, a project she describes as an epitaph.

Within the first few pages the reader is met with a blurred photocopy of a Catullus’ elegy for his brother in its original Latin. What follows, on almost every left-facing page, but a dictionary entry for each successive word in the poem, listing the relevant English meanings and a few carefully composed examples. Below is the entry for nequiquam:

nequiquam adverb

[NE + quiquam] to no purpose or effect, vainly, without avail; et sero et niquiquam pudet late and pointlessly she blushes; (in litototes) without cause, groundlessly; (dubious) by no means; (as an exclamation) nequiquam! For naught! (why?)

On the other pages, all variety of personal trivia and notation narrate piecemeal the life and death of her brother, Michael.

The reader learns where (Copenhagen) and when (2000) he died, that his death was unexpected, and that news of it took two weeks to reach Carson. The reader also finds out where the funeral was held and how his widow spoke and behaved there and disposed of his ashes, how his dog reacted. The reader obtains knowledge of his involvement with drugs, his running-away and name change, his several wives and lifestyle abroad; they learn of the frequency and contents of his correspondence and nature of relations with his sister and mother, as well as how he spoke and behaved as a child, and that his eyes were blue. There are facts concerning the subject, such as the cause of death, that a reader does not receive, but it is unclear whether Carson is withholding them or knows no more herself.

Often described as a ‘highly acclaimed classicist and poet’, or ‘scholar and artist’, Carson has been lauded, dismissed, and cited for her generic positioning, her confessional content, her archival yet abstract, clinical yet intimate methodologies. A reader of her other books expects a sensitivity in presentation to the material and historic nature of words, as well as auto-biographical statements made in a voice which combines ironic, pedgagic, and lyric tones. Nox displays tactics and values present in much of Carson’s other writing: it doesn’t merely play at, but insists both on being experienced as history, and as an intensely personal artifact.

In a review for the New York Times, Sam Anderson describes Nox as a ‘deeply moving…brilliantly-curated scrap heap’, an ‘elegy and meta-elegy’; he finds in it the simultaneous portrait of a specific brother and a kind of Everybrother, noting the suspense that builds around the disclosure of this person’s details. Megan O’Rourke, writing for The New Yorker, also found Nox “personal and deeply moving”, stating that “despite its inclusion of personal details, [Nox is] as much an attempt to make sense of the human impulse to mourn.” Ben Ratliff calls it “precious in the best sense of the word” (NYT Sunday Book Review), and Michael Dirda finds it ‘moving yet strikingly unconventional’ (Washington Post). Only Dirda cautions readers against the fallacy of ascribing biographical truth to the book’s contents. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, John Timpane addresses directly this issue circumscribed by other reviews, claiming that Nox is not precious because of its ’‘painful, authentic uneasiness with itself…it’s self-consciousness and irony.”

Why do we blush before death?” Carson’s invocation of this visceral and cosmetic change of color---one of performance as well as true feeling---gives the reader a sense of this self-consciousness. “If you are writing an elegy begin with the blush.” A few other aspects of Nox gesture towards the dual nature of elegy. The book, as object, is unwieldy; the shoring together of different forms and sources puts the syllogistic momentum out of joint; it frequently points to its own limitations and failures (“no use expecting a flood of light”).

More often, though, the work encourages illusions of transparency and genuineness. It is, after all, a photocopy of a notebook. In addition to imparting the material for a story of her brother, his death, and her grief, Carson directly addresses the reader (“I want to explain about the Catullus poem (101)”); she tells them what her brother called her as a girl (‘pinhead’, ‘professor’); she may even slip an elegy for herself into the definition of cinerum (“this ash was a scholarly girl”). At moments, she implies the validity of her endeavor by universalizing: “All the years and time that had passed over him came streaming into me, all that history. What is a voice?” It is not by accident that one finds the most striking language and thought in the sources mined---in dry definitions and ceremonial, restrained phrases of poets and historians who never prick the surface tension of their grief with disclosure, who point beyond themselves, always, to something else.

This Night situates itself as coffer and gift—but to who is unclear, as it is known that books cannot be enjoyed by the dead. Perhaps its universalisms and tropes of authenticity redeem the book from a certain kind of preciousness. If not, its quiet self-consciousness, generic quirks, and ironies challenge a simple categorization. But these too could be identified as related and not unproblematic methods: secret telling and its loopholes of explanation and wit, generalization, complicity, and voyeurism---does one not have boxes enough, secrets enough, of one’s own? If not, why conflate them with another’s? The shuttle of embarrassment, the loom of gossip and guesswork, the fabric of coy exposure: these discomforts combine with the pleasures of reading Nox to make up a mixed, complex encounter.

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Anne Carson is a Canadian poet and professor of history at McGill University. She has written several books, all of which blend the forms of poetry, essay, prose, and non-fiction.

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Andrea Applebee recently completed her MFA at the University of Pittsburgh. She presently lives in Philadelphia, where she teaches composition.