In an interview with Marian Kaufman, Myung Mi Kim describes her poetics as listening to “the event of language,” a way of pushing back against language’s tendency toward “producing hegemonic, normative cultural practices.” “As a poet,” she says, “I am constantly thinking about this intrinsic problem and exploring modes of relating to and generating language that pluralize sense-making.” What makes Civil Bound, Kim’s sixth book, so intellectually and emotionally visceral is that the work configures not just a plurality of possible meanings, but moreover a plurality of possible means by which meanings are made. Civil Bound continues Kim’s career-long interrogation of imperialist and colonialist practices, be they political, cultural, or linguistic. It is not a book that presents a history in order to render it more visible, so much as it is a book that imposes the presence of these practices in order that they be encountered.
Myung Mi Kim was born in Korea and immigrated to the United States when she was nine. Having to start learning English at that age has had a profound impact on her poetry, particularly in her first book Under Flag (1991), where phrases like “ga ga ga ga” literalize a certain performance of a child unable to speak a language. Consequently, phrases and lines in Civil Bound that may read as disjointed fragments are perhaps better understood as grounded in a certain acoustical ethics. The third section begins, “if a species cannot find a sonic niche of its own, it will not survive,” a quote that originally comes from a New York Times article by Jeff Hull titled “The Noises of Nature.” In that article, Hull outlines the work of a man named Bernie Krause, who developed what is called the “niche hypothesis,” where he argues that many animals “have evolved to squeeze their vocalizations into available niches of the soundscape in order to be heard by others of their kind. Evolution isn’t just about the competition for space or food but also for bandwidth.” A number of scholars discuss how in Kim’s poetry the physical, the bodily—hands, mouths, throats, teeth, skin, ganglia, synapse—don’t simply function as poetic subjects, so much as they are a poetics in and of themselves. In Civil Bound this bodily link makes the sound of language as dangerous as its coloniality: “pronunciation key for suffering /abrəˈɡāSH(ə)n/.” The danger is in colonizing the bandwidth, in the subjugation of the sonic niche: “drones subsidiary concentrated into fewer and fewer languages dilation or.” Both the imperialist “drones” and the capitalist “subsidiary” render language narrower, erased, reduced. Throughout the book there are numerous instances of sound being reduced or abrogated, of one’s sonic bandwidth being denied.
Civil Bound’s interrogation of linguistic disruption, damage, and erasure continues a thirty-year poetic practice, beginning with Under Flag and continuing through The Bounty (1996), Dura (1999), Commons (2002), and Penury(2009). Kim’s books are increasingly a linguistic experience—one that is simultaneously intimate, expansive, personal, political, and cultural. In her preface to Nightboat Books’ ten-year anniversary edition of Dura, Juliana Spahr notes that “language—as metaphor, apparatus, device, full of politics and history, nothing natural about it—is the dura, the membrane, that envelopes the writing of Myung Mi Kim.” Dawn Lundy Martin in her review of Penury makes a similar point, arguing that in Kim’s oeuvre “the pressure of place, or more pointedly dislocation, sprawls through the poems, creating linguistic and white space fissures that at times render the poems themselves nearly unspeakable, unable to be articulated orally.” Civil Bound, Kim’s first book of poetry in a decade, continues to interrogate and create these pressures, these fissures, and these linguistic experiences that have been the hallmark of her poetics.
In Civil Bound, these techniques don’t function to obscure knowledge but rather demand that we confront a knowledge we know to be missing, to encounter its lack. Sometimes these moments are rendered linguistically, for example in “in ____ days we will reach land,” where the blank space is not an absence of knowledge, but an excess of it, an awareness of what that absence means, of an impending death—the marked absence forces us to confront the speaker’s inability to complete their own narrative. Other times such moments occur in found documents and even images. One photograph, which comes from a 2010 edition of the South Korean newspaper Joongang Ilbo, is taken from the back of a classroom; in it we see an instructor standing at the front of a class facing the students and the camera, pointing to words on a chalkboard written in Japanese. Of the students, we see only the backs of their heads. At the bottom of the page Kim writes “Korean classroom, 1934 / ‘King Lear’ and ‘Cordelia’ written on the board in Japanese.” The layers of colonialism here are hard to miss and are present both in the literature being taught and in the language it’s being taught in.
Documents such as this are placed throughout Civil Bound, and although they vary in history and type, the majority are reports and letters from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries pertaining either to the governing subjugation of indigenous Americans or to the development of transport canals. In the examples unpacked below, we see that the former speaks to the book’s broader concerns, while the latter speaks also to Civil Bound’s interest in water.
In her introduction to the anthology A Transpacific Poetics, which includes the final section of Kim’s Commons, Lisa Samuels identifies two seemingly contradictory characteristics of a Transpacific poetics: First, that an essential part of the Transpacific is “the transitive itself, or simply trans.” Samuels argues that “the condition of being transited is multiple,” and that multiplicity is found both in the transit and in the ocean itself. The second characteristic of a Transpacific or Oceanic poetics Samuels lays out by way of Epeli Hau’ofa’s 1993 essay “Our Sea of Islands,” echoing the idea that “the ocean is a positive place, not, or not only, a transit zone.” Samuels argues that the ocean is both “tactile and conceptual, both ecological and ontological,” that “the ocean constitutes the paradox of the encompassable.” In Civil Bound, the ocean—along with other forms of water—acts as a positive place and a source of transit, but also as something organismic and agentic.
Civil Bound begins “the oceans held up a snarling dog,” an image of a ship at sea invoking both voyage and violence. Here we see the ocean linked to transit (be it through migration or colonization), but also agentic, holding up a snarling dog. In the book’s third poem-sequence, we get a list of sounds followed by their definienda. These sounds are either related to voice, as in “bleating voice sound: egophony” or “distant transmission of speech: pectoriloquy,” or they are related to the sounds of water, such as “sound of liquid: hyguechema,” “splashing sound: clapotement,” or “through a column of water: hydrophony.” Water has, to return to Bernie Krause’s term, its own “sonic niche.”
Of course, as with any peoples or ecologies, water is subject to capitalist violence. The second time we encounter water in Civil Bound, it is by way of R. W. Shufeldt’s 1872 “Reports of Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Practicality of a Ship-Canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean by the way of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec,” a title that is arguably as emotionally and intellectually impactful as the quote itself, which reads, “It is conceded that an interoceanic canal through any of the isthmus passes of the western hemisphere is a necessity for the present and prospective commerce of the world.” The discourse of progress and capitalism denies water as anything other than a site of transit, a site of commerce.
Another page, credited to “John Lankford, ‘The Lesson of Canal Zone Sanitation,’” from a 1913 issue of Popular Science Monthly and World’s Advance, offers a contrast to the comparatively straightforward fragment from Shufeldt’s report. It reads, in full:
profusion of red dirt
on windowsills exposed skin creeping shrubs
Mississippi River someone has caught a swordfish at the dam behemoth
many people help to pull it up to the pier
[Talihina/Yankton] for solo gayageum
Unlike the Shufeldt page, which is clearly marked as a documentary fragment dated 1872, this page is lineated and its attribution occurs only in Civil Bound’s notes section. Yankton, South Dakota, is a town near the source of the Mississippi River, and Talihina, Oklahoma, is a town near what is now called the Arkansas River, which connects to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Both town names come from indigenous languages, yankton deriving from a Dakota word meaning “the end village,” and talihina from two Choctaw words meaning “iron road.” The gayageum is a traditional Korean string instrument, perhaps (re)rendering the page as instructions for a musical performance. Where the page quoting Shufeldt offered historical context, locating the fragment within a specific year, the page quoting Lankford creates geographical, linguistic, and sonic context, locating us in language, in image, in sound, and in many places.
Civil Bound is exceptional. It is, in its own phrasing, a book of “debris architecture,” chronicling and confronting a history of “hemispherical lust.” Although the book rewards a rigorous engagement, its emotional violences are also laid bare, in the “jaundice shade of bombardment,” the “arms and legs fettered,” the bodies “taught to make coffins for each other.” The disaster in Kim’s work is unmistakable, even as it’s impossible to represent without erasing part of its plurality, its form, its context, its history, its sound. In The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot writes of “the danger that the disaster acquire meaning instead of body.” Kim’s is a poetry of body—it asks us not to understand, but to encounter.
Civil Bound. By Myung Mi Kim. Oakland, CA: Omnidawn, 2019. 93 pp. $17.95.