The Morning News Is Exciting. By Don Mee Choi. Action Books. $16.00, 112 pp.
Don Mee Choi’s first book of poetry, The Morning News Is Exciting, is a seriously inventive manipulation of language, line, and sentence, grappling with divisions created by war and imperial conquest. Choi delves deeply into questions of translation, violence, and the potential for beauty in a gruesome world. Her book is divided into thirteen sections: some are single poems, some serial poems, and some appear to be small, chapbook-like collections. Throughout, Choi plays with a constantly unstable “I,” a self whose responses are never singular or pre-set, whose reactions are always multiplying, fragmented, and varying. This multiplication and resistance to the unitary could be read as a series of mistakes or errors, a litany of failures; to use one of Choi’s neologisms, she seems to be an “errorist.” These poems are comfortable with error—errors of translation and writing, communication and intimacy. Through error, she is able to find her way through the minefields that loom all around these poems, as she resists any appeal to correctness or completion.
Prior to this book, Choi had made herself known as a translator of Korean poetry, translating the work of three Korean poets, and publishing it as The Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women. Her own poetry is clearly also a product of her processes of translation, most obviously in the section entitled, “Diary to a Translator” (which begins “I am already translated, said MSG as it awoke. Egg off!”). In addition, the book opens with a homophonic translation from the Kreyol text Manteg, by the Martinican poet Monchoachi. Originally written in both Kreyol and French, Manteg uses a strategy of self-translation between the two tongues; Choi adds another level of estrangement and approximation with her homophonic translation (“Say no lame! Say we care. Terror can’t tell / and bear a crown in the kitchen, may we?”). This piece opens the book with a tone of playfulness, of non-sense and a refusal to narrate or signify in typical ways. Choi seems to be warning away readers who might be looking for easy answers or pat narratives.
Translation is at the center of the whole text. It becomes a means of searching for home, of narrating the inability to find a home: “What is truly home? I am here, but I remember there.” For Choi, translation has become an activity inseparable from her own writing; in fact, Choi seems to be questioning this very duality of translation vs “one’s own work.” Her work provokes questions: what is the difference in process between translation and writing based on appropriated text? How does collaboration and miscommunication come to form the basis of a poetics that can no longer distinguish clearly between the original and the derivative? Translation is a necessity to communication, especially due to the continuous repetition of scenes of leaving and returning. In this process, translation is at once mundane (“Translation must remain as ordinary as the bed” in “Petite Manifesto”), but is also not to be trusted—an inscrutable tool of imperialism and colonialism ( it is, in fact, the bed, “where I am likely to die”). In “Diary of Return” Choi boils it down to: “Translation for me is a form of exile and empire.” Choi is able to contain both of these realities of translation in her own writing: translation as liberatory both creatively and politically and also translation as contaminated by imperial conquest and contemporary power imbalances. What happens to meaning and people, identity and grammar in translation constantly oscillates in Choi’s poems. Meaning itself jumps around throughout the book, unstable and never lingering too long in one place; meaning slips constantly from one possibility to another, evidence of its intangibility, especially when being translated, when moving between—which is a constant state.
For Choi, home is a complicated space of migration and exile, an intersection fundamentally determined by the presence of empire and its GIs. A sense of ongoing war palpitates underneath the words, beneath the grammar of her sentences. For example, in a passage from “Diary of Return,” Choi writes:
Yun KŬm-i’s head was smashed with a Coca-Cola bottle. She was found dead, legs spread with the Cola bottle in her vagina and an umbrella up her anus. That is not to say empire does not endorse one planet or Father’s umbrella. On the contrary, it enforces grammaticality within and without before and after Father sprinkles white disinfectant powder on the index finger. No one is supposed to be ignorant of grammaticality.
In this section, Korean women’s stories of violence—murders, rapes and assaults at the hands of American GIs—are interwoven into prose paragraphs which meditate on issues of translation, language and empire. These horrific descriptions of abuse by American forces in Korea ground the book in the very real pain inflicted on bodies, particular the bodies of women of color. For Choi, this is familiar terrain, especially insofar as she worked to translate Korean author Ch’oe Sung-ja’s poetry, which was informed by her years working in the villages and towns still occupied by American troops on the Korean peninsula. Also, in this passage, we see how Choi draws from theoretical explorations of linguistics and power, in this case Deleuze and Guattari’s book ,em>A Thousand Plateaus. Choi’s poems often interweave appropriated theoretical sentences (usually placed in italics), as she draws on the writings of Gayatri Spivak, histories of underdevelopment, Sigmund Freud, and the titles of postcolonial theory tomes. In many ways, translation—reworking someone else’s words into words of one’s one—can be understood as producing writers like Choi, comfortable with appropriation and given to playing in the fuzzy boundary between what is one’s one and what is someone else’s.
Almost all of Choi’s pieces are annotated at the end of each section; in these notes, she specifies the particular texts or forms she has appropriated. These notes inform the text, while announcing its less-than-original origins. In one of these sections, “Instructions from the Inner Room,” Choi uses a traditional Korean form from the pre-modern period: an instructional poem passed down by upper-class, educated Korean women from mother to daughter. Choi uses this form to think about the education of women and girls, undermining traditional logics by mixing gender indoctrination with national indoctrination:
Place a kitchen knife deep
inside the washer
Drain water and soap
Your arms ail
At the end of the spin
stay cool, stay mute
Answer the door
Answer the nation
It’s yours, it’s mine
Choi makes clear that domestic work is never clean or easy or peaceful, always imbued with violence (“knife deep”) and the pain of repetitious tasks (“Your arms ail”). This is one of the few sections that includes poetry with line breaks. For most of the book, Choi investigates the form of the paragraph, as she manipulates blocks of texts pinned to the top of each page, usually with large numbers as titles.
In “Twin Flower, Master, Emily,” a four-part serial epistolary poem, Choi draws on the writing of Emily Dickinson, imagining letters exchanged between the three characters of the title. The clashing vocabularies and syntax of this section bring together theoretical jargon, postcolonial critique, Dickinsonian punctuation, journalistic language, and intimate exchanges. She begins one of Emily’s letters in an intimate way, speaking in a way that will be familiar to those who have read Dickinson’s correspondence: “Your sister left me—she was cheerful—though maddened—knows the doings of the Master.” The specter of the Master looms large over the letters between Twin Flower and Emily, as they reach conclusions for their own “Resistance.” Nevertheless, by the end Twin Flower is offering herself to the master, exclaiming, “Translator for hire! Hire me. See you at the DMZ!” What is the relationship between Emily and Twin Flower? Why can’t their relationship escape the demands and desires of the Master? As usual, Choi leaves us with questions.
Empire is a continual hostile force in Choi’s poems: empire as all-powerful, destructive and divisive. In the fragmentation of her writing, there is the continual renunciation of a unitary voice for a people, of representing the collective through the singular “I.” Choi distills this refusal into a question, “How can I say for we?” Throughout the book, there is a sensuous and sensual reassembling of language that adds a level of fragrant complexity and confused beauty. For some readers, this play with narrative, with storytelling, will enthrall, for others perhaps less so. However, from where I sit, the news she reports is exciting.
John Pluecker is a writer, interpreter, translator, and teacher. His work has been published by journals and magazines in the United States and Mexico, including the Rio Grande
Review, -Picnic, Third Text, and Literal. He has published more than five books in translation from the Spanish, including essays by a leading Mexican feminist, short stories from Ciudad Juárez, and a police detective novel. For more
information, visit his blog..
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