Myung Mi Kim’s fourth collection of poetry, Commons, challenges the reader to reflect on the very way in which language operates to create meaning and how free association influences human thought processes. The poems are minimalist and always require attentive reading in order to catch their nuances of meaning. Most are set in the contemporary world in places reminiscent of America or South Korea, or at least of a developing country which has seen its share of bloodshed and hunger. Kim offers the reader a beautiful microcosm of language sounds, word juxtapositions, and associative reflections which carry the persona into fresh cognitive territory. The incorporation of multiple text fragments from the works of other writers reflects the central question behind many poems collected in Commons: To what degree can a reader trust the assumed authority of any writer on a given subject?
Commons opens with “Exordium,” the fifteen stanzas of which explore the power of free association. Here, Kim’s technique is reminiscent of that of the European Surrealists such as Max Ernst (1891-1976) or Jean Arp (1887-1966) in the early twentieth century, who promoted what they called “automatic writing,” or writing down ideas just as they came to their minds, as an alternative to classic models of composing poetry. At first glance, Kim’s sentences within each stanza appear as unrelated as the stanzas themselves. “Numbers in cell divisions. Spheres of debt. The paradigm’s stitchery of unrelated points.” Just as the idea of free association is used in classical psychoanalysis to get at core concerns in the subconscious, Kim’s sentences do show some relation to each other and possess a unifying idea. Here, the mathematical mode of thinking, which is used by modern, Western-based biological science to derive at some truth and understanding of the work of living cells, is linked to the use of mathematics in modern, Western-based capitalism, where it serves to define and fix the debts afflicting various borrowers. Thus, the third sentence itself comments on the technique of the poem: Apparently unrelated ideas are stitched together to reveal an underlying paradigm, or belief system. The modern Western world relies on mathematics to understand, and to control, all aspects of life ranging from small cells to a nation’s debt burden.
“Exordium” continues to reveal insights through free association and juxtaposition of apparently unrelated sentences. Also evident is wordplay and a finely tuned sense for the nuances of language, where the slight alteration of a common phrase can suddenly startle the reader and thus invite new thinking about an issue. “A red balloon and a blackwinged bird at semblance of crossing in a pittance of sky.” The sentence may remind a reader of the American poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), whose red wheelbarrow and much-analyzed blackbirds form a frame of reference in modern poetry. Kim’s look at this sudden juxtaposition of two different yet similar things apparently meeting on the two-dimensional plane of the sky, of which only “a pittance” is visible, invites the reader to reflect on the little things and unexpected observations in life. From here, readers may begin their own investigation into the interaction of all living and created things against the backdrop of a shared nature.
“Lamenta” consists of a long series of numbered poems, most of which occupy exactly one page. In correspondence with the poet’s desire to create a fragmented, dislocated, eruptive, and challenging world, most poems are missing in any given range of numbers. The sequence entitled “229 318”, which a reader may expect to consist of poems 229 to 318, only offers poems 229, 311, 312, and 314 to 318. It is as though the reader has come across an old book with many pages missing, and the poet invites the reader to use imagination and creativity to fill in her blanks.
Again, Commons seems to comment on its own technique in the first lines of poem 229: “The transition from the stability and absoluteness of the world’s contents/ to their dissolution into motions and relations.” This is ostensibly what the poems are about. A reader’s expectation of order is immediately confounded. In Commons, all systems of order are suspected of serving the interests of someone else. Order is seen as subjecting that which is ordered to a limited,...
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