“The chances of overhearing a conversation in Vlashki, a variant of Istro-Romanian, are greater in Queens than in the remote mountain villages in Croatia that immigrants now living in New York left years ago.”
- Sam Roberts, “Listening to (and Saving) the World’s Languages,” The New York Times (April 28, 2010)
The argument between lyric poetry (that is poetry that arises from the poet’s voice (the “I”) or what Robert Grenier characterized as “SPEECH”) and text (the primacy of the written or printed word) is becoming an increasingly obsolete opposition. Globalism and immigration (or migration) – in the form of pidgin, mispronunciation, graffiti, and encoded signs – have overrun the various geographical boundaries as well as upended the rules defining areas of fixed vocabulary, grammar and spelling. The English language – particularly in America — is a field in which decay and replenishment are ongoing, unpredictable ruptures. No one is sure what will happen next, what transformation some part of it will inevitably undergo. It is an inflicted and vulnerable body undergoing rapid change. Parts of it are blossoming while other parts are dying. It is this often volatile state of change and instability, slipperiness and unlikelihood, which Cathy Park Hong explores in her poetry.
Since her first book, Translating Mo’um (Hanging Loose Press, 2002), Hong has focused on developing different imaginary lingua franca (or bridge languages) that make communication possible between people who do not share a mother tongue. Her poetry posits a zone of uneven exchange that exists along borders and in boomtowns, resort cities and future worlds. She is the author of three books, all of which contain poems in which translation, pidgin, invented dialects, and made-up slang play a central role in an fabricated language that, in its treacherousness and slipperiness of sound and orthography, mirrors the turbulence that is central to our current state of affairs: the arguments over immigration and birthrights.
In “Zoo,” the first poem in her first book, Translating Mo’um (Hanging Loose Press, 2002), Hong wrote:
Piscine skin, unblinking eyes.
Sideshow invites foreigner with the animal hide.
Alveolar tt, sibilant ss, and glottal hh
Words with an atavistic tail. History’s thorax considerably
cracked. The Hottentot click called undeveloped.
Mother and father obsessed with hygiene:
as if to rid themselves of their old third world smell.
On the left is a list of Korean words (“Shi:”, “Kkatchi:”, and “Ayi:”), while on the right is their English translation (“poem”, “magpie” and “child”). Together, the words on the right hand side form a highly compressed, abstract version of an imagistic poem, which inevitably evokes—if somewhat distantly—Ezra Pound’s misunderstanding of the Chinese ideogram via Ernest Fennellosa.
Hong exists between two languages, unable to speak one without being conscious of the other. She makes an equivalence between foreign language and the foreign body (“third world smell”), which suggests that she believes language is visceral. The host country perceives the foreign body (or language) as a threat to its sovereignty, while the outsiders try their best to assimilate, to become less viral, to not smell. They want to cleanse themselves of their old language (the shame of it), which is something they can never do.
A note at the end of the book informs us that “[t]he standard Romanized spelling of Mo’um is Mom.” Translating mom also means translating (and therefore both preserving and losing) the mother tongue.
In “During Bath,” Hong writes:
I am an old man in my fantasies, a darting pupil, a curious ghost.
In “All the Aphrodisiacs,” she writes:
What are the objects that turn me on: words—
han-gul: the language first used by female entertainers, poets, prostitutes.
In contrast to Charles Baudelaire’s flaneur, the “passionate spectator” who is a “lover of crowds and incognitos,” Hong’s figures – which include the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng; the Hottentot Venus; and Tono Maria and the androgynous pronoun – cannot go incognito. Each of them is a quintessential outsider (or foreigner):
As if I wrote myself
to a sparkling erasure.
or spoke with the wooden
clack of a puppet’s mouth,
my palimpsest face haggard
In 2006, Hong was selected by Adrienne Rich to receive the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and in 2007, her second book Dance Dance Revolution was published by W. W. Norton. In both Dance Dance Revolution and her most recent book Engine Empire (W. W. Norton, 2012), the poet establishes a time and place – a space or setting — in which the poems are spoken and written. In Dance Dance Revolution, the place is the “Desert” and the time is after 2016, the near future. There are two author/speakers, “The Guide” who is interviewed by “The Historian”.
“The Guide, who works at the “St. Petersburg Hotel” – which is modeled after the city – speaks a lingua franca or what she calls “Desert Creole,” a cacophonous mishmash of puns, pidgin languages, malapropisms, neologisms, and portmanteaus. Reading and seeing is fractured and slowed down. According to “The Historian,” “Desert Creole” is “an amalgam of some three hundred languages and dialects…” The book opens
. . . Opal o opus,
behole, neon hibiscus bloom beacons!
“Tan Lotion Tanya” billboard. . . she
your lucent Virgin, den’s I taka ova
as talky Virgin. . .want some tea? Some Pelehuu
“Behole” can be read in so many different ways that it opens up a space in the book, inflecting a domain where we – as readers and listeners – are asked to reflect upon the invisible other, the figure we don’t want to see and try to bury (Be hole and/or Be whole). Can we behold someone who is both erased and unable to overcome self-erasure? In the twists and turns of her invented, marginalized language, the poet is able to evoke a self that is both accused and accusing without becoming either didactic or ironic. It is one of Hong’s singular achievements to create “The Guide” outside of these familiar territories.
“The Guide,” as Adrienne Rich tells us in her citation, is “a former South Korean dissident from the Kwangju uprising of 1980 (comparable to Tiananmen Square, brutally repressed with the support of the U.S.). “The Historian” she goes to explain, is “a scholar raised in Sierra Leone, who annotates the Guide’s commentaries in Standard English.” (From 1991 to 2001 Sierra Leone was in a civil war that left more than fifty thousand dead and displaced over two million people.)
Dance Dance Revolution is a book of many layers and minglings. The poem is not synonymous with a lyric self because “The Guide” is made of many selves, languages, and public and private memories. At the same time, writing in an epoch where the author is dead, Hong does not replace the unified “I” (or lyric voice) with found text and collage, but with a weaving together of foreign languages and spin-offs of Standard English. What she holds up to the reader is language in a constant state of contention, change, and fecund decay.
In “Fadder” – “The Guide’s” word for father – we hear fodder and fatter. The language is messy – both post-apocalyptic and primeval. This is “The Guide’s” description of the day she was born:
pop me out. . . (me yeller fadder
hid home, hidim from froth o birth’s labot
y labor o revolution). . . . I’se boomerang
out, slip shod onto blood tile floor
a squalim bile newborn.
In the “Desert,” which resembles Las Vegas and Seoul (a rapidly expanding city), language (or the poem) isn’t utterance, but excretion. There is no purity. One is always conscious of imperfection, the unattainable, and dirt.
At the same time, in counterpoint to “The Guide,” there are seven prose “Excerpt[s] from the Historian’s Memoir.” “The Historian,” who is from Sierra Leone, “hopped around an archipelago of boarding schools in London, Hong Kong, and Connecticut. School granted me an immunity from my foreign surroundings.”
In another “Excerpt,” we learn: “I was not allowed into the streets of Sierra Leone so I drew my own.”
Although “The Historian” has a privileged life, she (like “The Guide”) is isolated in the present, cut off from her past and drifting toward an unknown future. The difference is that “The Historian” received “immunity,” while “The Guide” is a “double migrant” who has “ceded from Koryo, ceded from/ ‘Merikka, ceded y ceded…”
In addition to the two groups of separate but inseparable poems, Hong has included a third set in a section titled, “INTERMISSION: PORTRAIT OF THE DESERT.” In the poems in this section, many of which are titled “Almanac,” we learn that “Once, the Desert was actually a desert./The guide, the only guide.” Before the “a desert” became “the Desert” – a site of bloody conflict covered over by a resort area – it was filled with “buried mines, leftovers of war.” The world and language are both minefields filled with hidden dangers. In order to deal with the fact that “[m]any locals had missing limbs”:
They adapted, created a caste system:
The fully limbed down to the fully limbless.
Both iterations of Hong’s desert are mirrors of language as it is currently used across the world, from artificial resorts (or the simulacrum) to border towns and boomtowns. Because language and setting mirror each other, the distortion becomes even more extensive, as in a funhouse hall of mirrors. Starting with the poem “Ontology of Chang and Eng, The Original Siamese Twins”, which was the second poem in Translating Mo’um, Hong has repeatedly returned to the body as a site of deformation. “I am this chair/talking to him, the poet writes in “Elegy” (from Dance Dance Revolution).
Hong recognizes that language is a “caste system” that goes from the “fully limbed” (those in control) to the “fully limbless (those at the mercy of others). Lingua franca, slang and graffiti are among the various ways the limbless adjust to, as well as undermine, the limbed. By inventing a world in which the poems (or invented languages) mirror the dystopian setting, Hong establishes poetry’s possibility in a realm bordered by science fiction and writers such as Gilles Deleuze, Donna Haraway, Samuel R. Delany, William Gibson, Ishmael Reed and Monique Wittig, clearing a path beyond the academic turf wars between text and speech, found text and soulful utterance. She writes from a terrain where language is in continual collision.