To Set Asunder: The Separation and Synthesis of Tiana Nobile’s Cleave

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Tension and opposition are at the heart of Tiana Nobile’s debut poetry collection, Cleave. In Cleave, Nobile merges her own history as a Korean American adoptee with the wider experience of transnational adoption. Cleave centers the question of nurture: what does it mean to be “adopted,” as a child, or even for a mother? Can a gap coexist with a gain? Cleave grapples with such conflicts, reckoning with history, culture, and even language—beginning, at first, with the word. Resisting a simple arc or easy narrative, Cleave instead explores the complications and nuance of having a doubled self, examining interconnectedness in order to create a new personal mythology.

Cleave opens with a poem titled after the speaker’s birth name: Moon Yeong Shin. “Written on the white slip at the bottom / of a polaroid,” the poem begins, is this name, which the speaker finds unfamiliar though it belongs to her (and she to it). This poem is a reckoning with the self and with studying the nuances of an ever-present yet invisible culture. For example, it will be years before she learns that “surnames come first in Korea.” Indicating her youth and powerlessness, our speaker rides her bike “in circles around this reversal,” haunted by this new understanding, this new way of being that does not yet make sense. An exercise in recursion, as she grows up, she “will orbit the earth like a moon / searching for its shadow.” She identifies with the moon. She becomes a moon. She is Moon, floating in space alone. “Where does a moon / find its planet,” she asks, “[o]r is it the other way / around?” 

Nobile turns to language itself for answers. A series of poems included here are titled with the pronunciations of words: “/’meTHeR/,” “/’migrent/,” “/’menki/,” and “/mun/.” These poems incorporate text from their respective Oxford English Dictionary entries, complicating the concepts of definition and meaning. “/’meTHeR/” is consumed with paradox, ultimately asking what it means to mother, to nurture. Can such actions ever be defined? Through investigation of sound and meaning, these definition poems bridge not only two languages but two cultures and two sides of a personal history. A word becomes a reckoning, a reconciling of contradiction.

A contranym is a word in opposition with itself; it is a word with two conflicting definitions, like “fast” (to be still or to move quickly) or “cleave” (to split or to cohere). Contranyms are also known as Janus words, after the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. Depicted as having two faces, Janus always looks opposite ways: toward the past and future, the known and unknown. A Janus word, then, is another way of describing a contranym, a word at odds with itself, a word that means two things.

Situated at the physical center of the book, “The Stolen Generation” both severs the collection in half and binds it. Divided into four parts, this poem uses found text to critique the politics and ethics of transnational adoption while offering various descriptions of separation:

The word “cleaved” means both to cut and to cling.
The child cleaved to her mother          The child cleaved from her mother
The difference a word makes in the forest of our longing.

Here, the paradox of the contranym is defined through physicality: a child holding fast to her mother, a child violently removed. How the word is being used makes all the difference in this “forest of our longing.” Adept at contradiction, Nobile navigates this forest, examining the act of adoption as perhaps filling one void but also of leaving one: a missing mother may be replaced by an adopted one, but a gap remains in personal history. In the final stanza of “The Stolen Generation,” the speaker asks,

How do you begin to reconcile a cleaving?
We try to hold each other       without touching
Voices scramble     white noise fills our bones

There is no answer to this question, though it births a physical response. There is an ache and longing in this new impossibility: how can two people hold without touching? When sound fills a place, isn’t that space still empty?

The poems within Cleave are shaped by the white space of the page; they are formed by what is absent. Nobile’s poems spread across the page and across history, exploring the gaps through use of negative space. Poems like “ABSTRACT (Mother Without a Face)” begin at the very bottom of the page, compelling us readers to move through what is not there before discovering this faceless caretaker who is peering into a mirror. The lack of words reflects the speaker’s lack of knowledge: “I wonder how long her hair is.” Wonder is no substitute for knowing. What can possibly fill such an impossible absence?

Nobile turns to bricolage and pastiche, gathering existing language, story, and history as a way to explore this gap. The incorporation of research into memory places Cleave in a lineage of works by American poets like Muriel Rukeyser, Solmaz Sharif, and Layli Long Soldier. Nobile’s docupoetics call for an interweaving of historical documents, newspaper articles, and even the research of American psychologist Harry Harlow. Balancing pathos and logos, Nobile also addresses the awful story of Operation Babylift, the name given to the mass airlifting of children from South Vietnam in the 1970s. Severed from everything they knew, these children were given to new families across the world. Nobile focuses our attention on one specific tragedy: a plane crash in 1975 in which seventy-eight children were killed. Moving down the page in two columns—one terse as radio contact, the other descriptive and emotive, her poem “Operation Babylift” describes the tragedy through image and snippets of dialogue. Through the negative space on the page, we’re driven to understand the underlying sentiment: this could have been me. The personal becomes the political, and the political personal, serving to remind us that the speaker’s adoption is not an anomalous event.

Formally, Cleave sings. Nobile’s verse stretches across the page yet demonstrates the poet’s skill at form. For example, in several pieces, Nobile relies on couplets to distill complicated ideas and emotions, even evoking the sonnet in the series of “Mother” poems, several of which are fourteen lines long. Even in such condensed poems, Nobile’s deft poetic hand uses space and syntax to open each line and stretch into possibility, combining the confessional with witness as the book itself becomes an artifact akin to Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead.

Like the project books evoked in Cleave’s lineage, here, language becomes a reclamation of what is missing. But where do reclamation and reconcile meet—or do they ever meet? If to “cleave” is to simultaneously break apart and hold together, is there ever time or space for resolution? The final poem in Cleave, “Revisionist History,” takes on such queries, rewriting history into a personal mythology and ending without answers but rather with questions. “What’s / the difference between memory told and memory burned?” our speaker asks, her face “a reflection / of somebody else’s shadow.”

For Nobile, the personal is political; the personal is an unknown, and thus the poems collected here resonate with unknowingness. Though the two-faced god presides over all passageways, doors, and transitions, looking to the past and the future at once, even Janus himself couldn’t answer the book’s questions truthfully. There are gaps, and sometimes we must live within them, Cleave reminds us. Nobile closes the book by inviting us readers into the liminal space of the undeterminable and leaving us there to wonder: “If I told you that I missed you, / would you believe me? Would I?”

Stacey Balkun is the author of Sweetbitter (Sundress, 2021) and co-editor of Fiolet & Wing: An Anthology of Domestic Fabulist Poetry. Winner of the 2019 New South Writing Contest as well as’s 10th Annual Contest, her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2018, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and several other anthologies and journals. Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches creative writing online at The Poetry Barn and The Loft. Visit her online at More from this author →