With Notes from the Divided Country, Suji Kwock Kim offers her readers a powerful first book of poems. Her poetry, deeply personal, combines Western and Eastern poetic traditions with Asian themes and intensely reflects on crucial aspects of the Asian American experience. The poet’s voice is detailed and observant. The poems focus on concrete objects as well as abstract emotions and offer a view of the terrifying swings of recent Korean history. In reading Kim’s poetry, the reader is as likely to encounter a Korean American mother chopping food for her children in New Jersey as to learn of Korean nationalists being skinned alive by Japanese soldiers in World War II.
Ironically, the title can reflect Korea, a country still divided into a Communist North and a democratic South in 2003. However, it can also reflect the divided souls of recent immigrants, who are split by the memories of their native lands and their daily encounters with American culture. On a third level, the title can also be read as a subtle allusion to the author’s view of American society as being divided among different ethnic and economic groups of people.
The opening poem, “Generation,” expressively deals with the subject of human birth. It successfully introduces the scope, style, and focus of the poet’s vision and launches the first of the book’s four parts. “Generation” envisions a mystic world of unborn souls. The act of human sexual intercourse summons one unwilling soul to earth. To enter a newly created body in “the labyrinth of mother’s body,” the unborn soul must run “through benzene rain.” Immediately, this image evokes a time of war, when inflammable chemicals are used to kill people. The idea of war is taken up further when the poet reveals that the new soul will inhabit a body created by two “refugees running from mortar shells, immigrants driving to power plants in Jersey.” Typical for Kim’s poetry, the universal act of a violent birth is tied to a concrete, personal situation.
The titles of the next two poems, “The Tree of Unknowing” and “The Tree of Knowing,” allude to Kim’s rich grounding in the Western poetic tradition. Just as in William Blake’s groundbreakingSongs of Innocence and of Experience (1839), in which a little boy learns the hazardous work of a child chimney sweep, Kim creates an effective juxtaposition. Her two poems portray a child’s unhappy, forced confrontation with harsh knowledge. As a baby joyfully resting in her mother’s arms, the persona does not yet know what misery the circumstances of her birth would cause her family. As an adolescent, she learns that her mother suffered from post-birth internal bleeding. Immediately she feels guilty, telling the reader that “I ripped her womb being born.”
The persona reveals that the attending physician did not take her mother’s bleeding seriously. Unchecked and untreated, the lacerations formed scar tissue, damaging the mother’s uterus. Because his body and brain could not grow properly, the brother of the persona was born with mental and physical handicaps. Her sister was born prematurely and died, and her mother could never have any more children. The reader may begin to question whether American society is a divided country, too. The amount of medical care and attention, the poem suggests, clearly is different for the affluent, whose economic power has made them assertive. On the other hand, the immigrant poor are too shy to demand exhaustive examinations.
“Middle Kingdom” is an exquisitely crafted poem about the further tribulations of the persona’s Korean American family. The title alludes to both the medieval term for China and, by extension, most of East Asia in the eyes of the West, signifying the immigrants’ homeland. The title also points to the position of the immigrant family. They are trying to make a living in the middle between Korea and the United States.
It is the family, and particularly the figure of the mother, who provide the persona with a melancholy grounding. Sitting at the kitchen table with her mentally handicapped brother while her father is working an undesirable night shift, she feels that “Mother chopped pieces/ of her heart into the skillet.” The mother sacrifices everything for her two children, and the persona feels it is an ongoing process, for “each morning her heart grew back.” The melancholy of their situation threatens to overwhelm the young persona, and she pretends to pray so as not to worry her parents.
The persona’s spiritual closeness to her mother is revealed again by “Translations from the Mother...
(The entire section is 1889 words.)