By Don Mee Choi, reviewed by Stephanie Burt.
“The language of capture, torture and massacre is difficult to decipher,” writes the eminent Seattle-based translator and poet, and yet she has made an oeuvre from the attempt. In prose, verse, collage, and visual poetry, Choi—here as before—devises a poetry whose ins and outs respond to extreme, unjust conditions while substituting a journalistic understatement for the outrageous, even offensive gestures that distinguish poets she has gained fame for translating, such as Kim Hyesoon. The volume begins with Choi’s return to South Korea, where she was born and where her father photographed dangerous acts of dissent. Choi then proceeds through one reaction after another to the decades of “U.S.-backed dictator[s]” in South Korea’s unfree regimes, fighting back against ways that the historical state “continues to suppress knowledge regarding the mass executions of civilians that took place before and during the war” of often U.S.-backed atrocities. Some segments react to a long interview with an elderly former political prisoner now living in the DMZ (the demilitarized zone between the Koreas). Handwritten documents in Korean recording the memories of war orphans mix with Choi’s stark English versions of their troubles: “I lived on sesame porridge for a year”; “My little brother came home barefoot covered in blood. / He got out alive from the mass grave.” Writing as “a daughter of neocolony,” “searching for more wings, my language of return,” and glossing her work with useful endnotes, Choi’s final segment is based on childhood photographs and childhood memories. What stands out most, though, might be her public-facing pages derived from interviews, photographs, research: “That is how we slept / like spoons / like bean sprouts / Then terror came.”
This review originally appeared in the Books Noted section of American Poets, Spring-Summer 2020. Buy DMZ Colony (Wave Books, 2020) on Bookshop.org or the Wave Books website.