Arlene Kim’s book details a crisis of the spirit: moving from country to country, the spirit still needs the family for support, but also needs itself to remain strong and resilient. In these poems, it is the family and the sense of the past that keep the spirit strong.
“In time of the crises of the spirit, we are aware of all our need, our need for each other and our need for ourselves,” writes Muriel Rukeyser in the introduction to her book, The Life of Poetry, words fitting for the narrative of Arlene Kim’s first book of poems, What have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes? In Kim’s book, a family leaves their home country for another country, unaccustomed to the new customs and language, but trying to find a place for themselves. Sometimes the persona is categorized in the first person, sometimes in the first person plural, but it is evident throughout that whoever is speaking feels lost and strange.
The speakers find leaving home behind hard to do. The sense of self begins and is rooted there. These speakers want to find a way to merge their pasts with the present, the old home with the new. Kim does not offer answers to this predicament, but this book is not about finding solutions; it is about the journey in moving from one country to another, and learning to live in the new country while remembering the past.
Which is not always an easy thing to do, as the speaker in “What Lies in the Rest of the Wood” discovers. Here, Kim uses the metaphor of the wilderness, that strange place that speaks another language and wants to swallow a person whole before she can learn to live on her own. “We can find a way to think of home,” the speaker says to her sister, “look, the leaves will show us.” In this poem, unlike earlier poems about the wilderness, the speaker has hope: “Sleep now, Sister. It will take a long to bloom again.” The wilderness is still frightening, as the speaker compares herself to Gretel, lost in the woods, but she knows she will learn to survive: “Keep sending them your notes, your small pebbles. One day they will let us in.”
Other poems also deal with loss of country: in “Hollow Tongue,” the speaker’s mother’s language begins to fade as she watches television programs to learn a new language; in “Spool, Book, Coin,” a poem based on a traditional Korean birthday tradition, the speaker’s parents offer her a future of her choice, which becomes a larger decision than she realizes; yet the poems I find myself, as a reader, leaning toward most in this book, are the poems that wonder how to move from one place to the next.
Which brings me to one of my favorite sections of Kim’s collection: the “Wind” sequence. Each poem in this sequence has the same title of “Wind,” in which the natural element is personified as a person who is searching for home. In each poem, the speaker must come face to face with this element. As readers, we’re out of the wilderness now, but facing part of it head on with the speaker. The wind frisks and sifts through the speaker, searching. The wind has forgotten something, “thrown away in error.” She harasses the speaker, beating her when she tries to tell the wind that she should not fight or search. The wind is constantly fighting back, desperate, “wanting to remember and not knowing how.” Here the wind begins to mirror the speakers we’ve seen through the book already, and the speaker of this poem, empathizing with the wind, finally gives in: “I stood and let her rake me as she wanted,” and “I let her have that much of me.” The wind despairs, rushing against everything. “I must not forget to look into every person’s face,” the speaker says, “to search, even quietly, for gratitude,” even to “Lift my face to the sting.” Outside the wilderness, the speaker knows she must face the rest of the world, and though she may find solace from time to time, many people, like the wind, will slap her over and over.
In other poems, Kim questions the physical or psychological journey from place to place. In “Turtle-Sister,” the speaker wonders how to make the transition from one home to the next. The speaker here is in the form of a turtle studying the flight patterns of birds from the sandy shore. Unlike the birds who move quickly, she thinks “in slow and steady design” and waits for the right moment to move. In “North Was Not the Way,” the speaker wonders which path would be safest to take between home and the new country, “the dream of migration, unclear.” Even when a speaker lands in the new country and takes a job, she still has to find a way to live day by day, to remember “the little things that hold the days together” (“Mountains”). Even then there’s still the case of custom, of trying to still live by old ways: “We work our whole lives for a promise, / the promise of a curse / lifting—floating free from plot, from the past” (“Curse”.)
Kim’s book details a crisis of the spirit: moving from country to country, the spirit still needs the family for support, but also needs itself to remain strong and resilient. In these poems, it is the family and the sense of the past that keep the spirit strong. Underlying this narrative, Kim’s use of rhyme, syllabics, prose poems, and white space on the page make a compelling read more captivating. This is a collection not to be missed.