Karl Young review of Maureen Owen's "Imaginary Income" and Myung Mi Kim's "Under Flag" -- women's poetry, Korean poetry, experimental poetry  


Review by Karl Young

Myung Mi Kim, Under Flag. Kelsey St. Press/P.O. Box 9235/Berkeley, CA 94709. 1992; 56 pp; paper; $9.00.

Maureen Owen, Imaginary Income. Hanging Loose Press/231 Wyckoff Street/Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217. 1992; 48 pp.; $9.00, paper; $16.00, cloth.

On the back cover of Myung Mi Kim's Under Flag there is a blurb by Kathleen Fraser that reads, in part: "One is shaken by this severe and quiet telling -- an assemblage of on-going effacements in the life of a child and her family under occupation by American forces in Korea and, later, in her struggle to enter an alien language and culture in the U.S." That's a pretty good capsule summary. My copy also has a "For Immediate Release" sheet stuck in it that says that Ms. Kim emigrated from Korea when she was nine years old, and that this is her first book. "Immediate Release" sheets can be unintentionally comic (this one gives a physical description of the book that I've got in my hand and includes a list of meaningless academic credentials), but in this case it provides two essential bits of information not found in the text.

This is the story of someone who came out of an ugly situation to a strange place and a foreign language. The first thing that seems crucial from the notes is Ms. Kim's age when she came to the new country: nine years -- old enough to have a good sense of her native language and culture and the modes of thinking they impose; young enough to become proficient in her new language, but ever cautious in its use and its correlative mindset. This gives rise to the major technique of the book, a careful modulation between degrees of fluency and difficulty of articulation.

In some instances, the reader may get the sense that Kim is beginning to say something, but intentionally not finishing it. More often Kim gives the reader the sense that she is urgently searching for the right word or phrase, a word or phrase which she may not know or which may not exist. At times this searching for words leads to association by sound, and this in turn can move the poem off into different and unexpected directions. At other times she is writing as only an adroit literary figure can, using methods that can be seen on a page but not heard or spoken. Here is a sample passage in which these four modes operate together:

As the infant face is absence onto which we say
           It is like -- it is like

As a compass locates relocates and cuts fresh figures

As silence to mate(d) world

Not founded by mother or father

Spun into coherence (cohere)

Cohere who can say

                                                                  (page 38)

Despite the strategies of difficult articulation in this passage, the utterance is perfectly coherent. Ironically, smoothly and easily articulated passages tend to be quotes from people who grew up speaking American English, use it with facility, and still speak utter nonsense, usually without being aware of it themselves. Here's an example: "They could handle them if they would only use the weapons we have/given them properly, said Colonel Wright" (page 17).

The book is a succession of images, memories, and projections of displacement, maltreatment, senseless violence, misunderstanding, contempt, loss of ideals, loss of self-esteem. Many images chart a growing numbness through hunger, through waiting, through questioning by officials and filling out forms; the numbness that comes from counting, whether it be the numbness of a child listing weapons or a mother's numbness in doling out dried anchovies for her children while eating none herself. Though the images are assertively there, they are not the sort of magnificent visions you find in Maxine Hong Kingston's novels, nor are they the catalogs of atrocities you can find almost anywhere, nor do they move into the picaresque adventures of Bharati Mukherjee's recent work. This is, instead, a book of literal understatement. Nothing mitigates the military background of the work nor puts a positive spin on the development of ideas. Occasionally Kim ends a poem with an initially satisfying closure, which turns out to be illusory. More often poems end with a line like the one cited above: "Cohere who can say." The book as a whole is just as inconclusive.

The second essential thing that the "Immediate Release" sheet says is that this is Ms. Kim's first book. Given the sense of aloneness that comes from the book, it's singularity seems appropriate, and this does not altogether vanish in light of Kim's further publications.

Maureen Owen's Imaginary Income seems a completely different sort of book: It is Owen's seventh. She has publicly manifested herself in publishing and editing ventures, in conducting reading series and in giving numerous readings of her own work. Owen seems to be completely at home in her thoroughly fluent language -- so much so that she gives the impression of one who delights in her abilities and has a good deal of fun writing, even when she is dealing with difficult problems. Given the pleasure Owen seems to find in composition, it is not surprising that she has one of the most highly developed senses of humor of any poet now writing, whether she is simply playing or whether she is writing serious satire. Here is a short poem that illustrates her fluency, the fun she seems to have in writing, and one of her approaches to humor:


She threw her entire arm over her hat       while
the butterflies were flung       past her
eyes closed       lips pulled in.       She caught herself
against the gust       swallows flipped       every which way
white suddenly       as her dress and hat
and the arm she locked straight out she was
holding on       to                              an idea

                                                                            (page 21)

It seems hard to miss the fun Owen is having with the delineation of the images, with the comic but accurate progression of sounds (note, for instance, how the sounds of line 4 mimic the sounds of rustling clothing), and most of all with the development of concept. The last phrase turns the poem in a sharply different direction, but that direction isn't specified: is the woman grasping something important, or is she clutching at something that isn't there, and hence being a type of victim? In a poem about turning, we are left unsure which way the subject has turned.

The book's front cover shows part of a graphic installation in an art gallery. A note on the copyright page says that it is called Potestas, and represents "a bar graph of a United Nations report: `Women do two- thirds of the world's work, get one-tenth of its income, and own less than one one-hundredth of its property.'" Hence the title of the book. Opposition to sexism runs through Owen's work, taking many forms, from direct attack to counter-example. Several poems at the beginning of the book deal with this directly. The majority, however, either attack obliquely or take the counter-example approach, having a sort of "you think I can't do this, well you just watch me" subtext. A poem that begins with plans for windmills seems to take all these approaches. Here are the last lines:

is this about love
or about a woman looking at a man       over rows of bottles
Costa Rica! Cantaloupe!

                                                                            (page 45)

¡ exothermic clamorations! -- initially comic non sequiturs that sound funny, but also emblems of exploitation and colonialism, names with possible erotic connotations, and simple objects and labels in a grocery store.

Throughout her work, Owen has brought the stuff of everyday north American life into an outlandish surrealism. Sometimes she has done this with gusto and enthusiasm. At other times, she has presented her outrageous proposals in the sort of dead pan that is sometimes associated with New York School poets. In Imaginary Income Owen more often takes the latter strategy. Despite the occasional Exclamation Points!, the tone of this book is subdued. Other books have contained some contemplative poems, but they are more frequent in this one. Figures like the woman who may be grasping a real or illusory idea, a boy staring wistfully out of the frame of the picture where he seems to live, and many people gazing at the stars or listening to the wind or to such late-night sounds as dim tvs and passing cars, appear throughout. The grammatical subject in many of Owen's poems has been a personage called "she" -- sometimes Owen herself, sometimes someone else. In Imaginary Income, "she" makes quite a few appearances, and it is often difficult to tell whether she is Owen or not. This is a distancing device, effacing the author and emphasizing the poem. In this book, however, she sometimes takes on a mysterious quality -- if the "she" of previous books has often been the one who does most of the world's work, perhaps this "she" is the unseen one who owns so little of its property.

Throughout her work, Owen has avoided punctuation almost entirely and made extensive use of blocks of empty space inside individual lines. The minimal punctuation we can see in part as an example of Owen's easy command of her language (when you're swinging this way, you don't need it); and in part to allow the reader greater freedom in reading. The open spaces are more complex. Owen seems to have begun using them as caesuras or other cues for vocalization, but in her more recent work they often don't function that way. On the simplest level, they open the poems up a bit, keeping them from being too dense on the page. On a more important level, the blank areas work as suggestions that the reader slow down and consider carefully what follows, perhaps shift gears in interpretation if not in vocalization. All of Owen's books have included at least a few low key contemplative poems. Perhaps these blank spaces are an indication of a sort of quietism that has been with her all the time. If that is so, then this may be a transitional book in which Owen is moving toward a more contemplative poetry.

This review was first published in American Book Review, 1993.

Copyright © 1993 by Karl Young

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