This debut poetry collection offers a resonant meditation on personal and collective identity.
Kim, the assistant dean for public service at the University of Virginia School of Law, won the University of Southern Indiana’s 2015 Michael Waters Poetry Prize for this book. Her poems are elegant and intricate, with forms ranging from prose paragraphs to the three spare lines of the sijo, a traditional Korean lyric with a set number of syllables and pauses. Sometimes the configuration varies within the same poem: “The Bronze Helmet (A Retrospective)” and “Post-Colonial Album: 1980” are made up of particularly impressive, multipart verses that frequently transform from one structure, or point of view, to another. In the former poem, the points of reference include archaeology, the Olympics, and Korean-Japanese relations—all linked via the titular helmet, which was gifted to the first Korean gold medalist (from 1936’s Berlin Games), Sohn Kee-chung, on the eve of the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. The relic becomes a potent symbol of cultural-compromise-as-survival-strategy: later generations have “endured not happily perhaps / but strong which is the gift of bronze / the life of alloy.” Complicated feelings toward family members infuse multiple poems, such as “Prelude and Fugue,” about a grandfather’s disappearance, and “A Rag for My Father,” with its somber variations on the refrain, “A father is a kind of trap / you could easily fall for.” The opening poem, “Thin Gold String,” sets up a picture of life as a series of accidents and losses, and much of what follows lives up to that melancholy vision. “Cyclorama” effectively maps out the repetitive nature of violence on the page, with personal concerns and headlines about mass shootings left-aligned, and the Civil War battles of the Gettysburg Cyclorama aligned on the right. Instead of rhyme, Kim relies on wordplay, such as “fugere” versus “fugue,” and alliteration, such as “flicking water on the flames” and “drop into a deep, delicious sleep” from “New World (III).” Dreams and journeys are additional recurring themes, while familiar buildings serve as metaphors for the self.
Gorgeous poems, rich with allusions to music, art, and history from Ancient Greece to the Korean War.