Thursday, April 19, 2012

from the pages of cant


                On Arlene Kim’s what have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes
                                (Milkweed, 2011)

By Jonathan Barrett

Martin Buber claimed in his seminal work Between Man and Man that “all art is from its origin essentially of the nature of dialogue. All music calls to an ear not the musician’s own, all sculpture to an eye not the sculptor’s…they all say, to him who receives them, something (not a ‘feeling’ but a perceived mystery) that can be said only in this language.” Arelene Kim’s debut collection what have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes is a beautiful and poignant dialogue with perceived mysteries. She weaves a complex tapestry of family immigration, fairy-tales, historical references, and mythology that echoes and reverberates with timelessness.

Kim sets the timeless tone early by prefacing every section with lines from the 19th Century opera Hänsel und Gretel and continues through historical references such as in “One of Us,” in which the speaker references both Anna Anderson, an imposter who claimed to be Anastasia Romanov, but also Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, a Russian mystic who has become a mythical and controversial character in the context of the final days of tsarist Russia.

The historical and mythological references become echoes, which reverberate through time. The last lines of “Rot” reflects the ton of timelessness in Kim’s poems:

                Never, Never

                The apple is red. Reddening. The peaches are ripe.
                Ripening. They progress—imperfect; ongoing; they do not rot.
                They do not ever rot.

The apple and the peach become metaphors insinuating the importance of mythology, and for that matter, the importance of making art. The plethora of fairy-tales, folklore, histories, and mythologies, and the lessons they teach, are interwoven with the difficulties of the present and beckon us all to dialogue with the past because the stories we share are always ripening and ongoing. The stories are not perfect but in an ephemeral world that is constantly passing away before our eyes they cannot and should not rot, which is why Kim’s dialogue with fairy-tales, folklore, histories, mythologies as well as family immigration and familial history is incredibly powerful; each poem prompts the reader through what “can be said only in this language” to remember with the speaker, to never forget.

The theme of not forgetting is further explored through family immigration. In “Hollow Tongue” the speaker laments her grandmother’s loss of language by asking:

                …did those quiet years dull your tongue,
                How many words died
                each evening you waited
                for us to come home.

 The speaker describes silence, loneliness, and linguistic separation. The fact that the word “Halumni” inhabits a line by itself further intensifies the grandmother’s isolation within the context of language.

The anguish of family immigration is explored in exquisite detail in “Exhibit A: Archive” in which the tradition of braiding hair is all encompassing, touching every member of the family and passed down from generation-to-generation. The speaker describes this lineage of tradition by saying:

                Mother lent us her hair for exhibit. It grew the same on us,
                her clutch, her collection. Oh, we must not cut it,
                the rope to her, the inherited line.
                But that was an ancient time. She says
                we must now forget it, untie ourselves. Only knots remain—                                              she
                ties and unties them every evening.

Both of these poems, which inhabit the space of family immigration, elegantly remind the reader that family immigration isn’t entirely about loss; it’s also about recovery and remembrance, which is the same remembrance she calls forth when she engages myth and history. Kim seeks to recover and remember what is easily forgotten. The poems in Kim’s debut collection become a means by which she wrestles and dialogues with cultural tradition, ethnic identity, fairy-tales, folklore, histories, mythologies and our own familial narratives and steals them back from the forgetfulness of history. This wonderful debut collection will not be Kim’s last and any reader lucky enough to read what have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes will soon discover that Kim’s plush language will leave the reader wanting to read more of her work and engage in the same dialogue Kim is eloquently engaged in. 

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