Word/ For Word # 2

Tom Hibbard


Review of Commons, by Myung Mi Kim
(Myung Mi Kim, Commons, University of California Press, 2002. 111 pp. $35)

Myung Mi Kim's 2002 book of poetry, Commons, from University of California Press, is about journey--an account of leaving a Southeast Asian country to travels through jungles, scrounging food, appalling suffering to a new life in the U.S., an account similar to the book When Broken Glass Floats and recent others. But this might be ambiguous. I do not know Kim's biography, except that she has written several books of poetry, starting with Under Flag in 1991; traces her roots through Korea and currently teaches at State University of New York at Buffalo. I feel the sense of journey in her book is philosophical, ethical; not a learning process but a journey that is presented in an intellectual setting, an attentive and hypothetical landscape that affords an opportunity to create and do a number of things using words, a hermeneutic journey. Thus the word 'commons' in the title refers not to personal, individual experience but to a journey of civilization, of Mankind together.

I do not mean to be mistaken about the suffering of those who have endured harrowing journeys. What I mean is that the references to severe trial in this book might derive from Jews' experiences in concentration camps during World War Two as much as from the jungles of Cambodia. The prose lines telling of a little girl that asked for water and was later found dead appear to be quoted and have a date of August 6, 1945. Kim's poetry gives a feeling of history, scholarship, and politics, interweaving what people have gone through at certain times and in certain places with other times and other places, will continue to go through, perhaps will no longer have to endure. 'Commons' in the sense of a communal center, rather than 'in common,' gives the sense of a forum. Certainly ethnicity enters into the poetry--in fact, sharpens its edge--and the experiences, as I have said, seem of a particular sort.These experiences and ideas are recorded in all honesty, factuality, with silences included that perhaps reflect suffering too great to recount or put into words but also perhaps reflect parts that are not relevant to the discussion, to a public discussion, careful not to overstate, lend a false impression, cross the lines of melodrama, exaggeration, vengefulness, boasting. Some of the poetry is so plain it creates verbal tromp l'oeil that cause the reader to stumble in association. The lines of the poems are presented in nuance, simply but with subtle profundity; quietly, tiny-ly, humbly, an individual testifying on the witness stand of the World Court of law as thoughtfully, as serious and strictly truthful as is in her and his power. This is perhaps similar to appearing before the South African Truth Commission; a public servant, a public-minded servant.


Alteration in condition of fortune

The armory is approachable from the relative east and southeast

A directory of waste

From the practices of accomodating

Thus rang to the washstand, the birthing chair, and the crematory

To be added to the store of the human

Motion that which refuses to be annihilated

Each of the sections of Commons--'Acknowledgments', introductory 'Exordium', 'Lamenta', 'Works' and 'Pollen Fossil Record' (something like a footnote section where the footnotes are a freely rambling invention not limited by having to have actual reference to the text)--is of a different variety. 'Exordium' is a series of assuring, calming, abstract prose-poem statements. 'Lamenta', a numbered series of taciturn poems, some of the numbers having no poem at all. 'Works' is similar to 'Lamenta' but the title implies a rebuilding, a working together: 'This is to be done/ This is to be sung'.

Everything in Kim's book, both the descriptive and the conceptual, is like this. Everything is fragment, factuality, brief, tellingly wise that accrues into a generous, aware, humanistic sense of warning and responsibility. Kim mixes delight, individual experience, literary values into an imaginative yet unfanciful world-view and in so doing points the direction for the poetry of us all.


[contributors' notes]