A Cruelty Special to Our Species (HarperCollins, September 2018)
Reviewed by Carlina Duan
“The trouble with trees is that their bodies and limbs are too capable, capable of burning, of living, capable of leaves, of leaving, charcoal, ash, and we think we have power.” So opens the poem “Ordinary Misfortune [The trouble…]” in Emily Jungmin Yoon’s A Cruelty Special to Our Species (Ecco – HarperCollins, 2018), a searing, brilliant debut collection that renders historical accounts of violence and erasure—and reconsiders the consequences of survival and lineage, body and tongue, capability and incapability, offering us moving and brutal portraits of how to inherit, to pass on, to endure, to remember and trouble.
A Cruelty Special to Our Species documents contemporary and historical narratives, focusing, in part, on narratives of sexual violence against so-called “comfort women,” (primarily) Korean women living during World War II, who were forced into sexual labor in order to serve Japanese soldiers. The book also meditates on the aftermath of natural disasters, the power dynamics involved in speaking multiple tongues, the contemporary injustices of women enduring a long line of exoticizing and patriarchal violences, among other piercing subjects.
In reading this collection, I was most struck by the Testimonies, the second section of the book, which draws upon documentary materials from transcribed and translated transcriptions of former comfort women. Told from these womens’ perspectives, each poem in this section gives testimony to their experiences, yet readers would be ill-advised to think that the Testimonies poems are simply vehicles for historicized speech. Rather, there is an attentive, disciplined work on the part of the author to focus on lifting narratives, rather than substituting or inventing voices: “I’d like my poetry to serve to amplify and speak these women’s stories, not speak for them,” Yoon clarifies in an Author’s Note. And, indeed, there are firm narrative bricks laid within the Testimonies poems that offer each poem’s voice as “speaking from within, not for, a community,” as Yoon notes. The Testimonies inhabit speakers such as Kim Yoon-shim, who states:
Such was our life
look at my fingers
when I ran away the police smashed my hands
weaving a stiff pen between my fingers
In presenting narrative through interlacing enjambments and, at times, harsh diction, Yoon requests the reader to look, to really look. These narrative images, while arguably lyrical in nature, are born of true fact, and this transforms Yoon’s work into a startling and stark reminder of how art, in the face of political and historical violence, can force us to re-see, to confront, to listen. Poems are further stitched with emotionally potent repetitions, such as in the testimony of Kim Sang-hi: “I should forget and forgive but I cannot / When my head turns toward Japan I curse her / I want to find solace but I cannot / When I wake up every morning I cannot.” I cannot, I cannot, I cannot—a brutal yet urgent mantra, begging us to pay attention, and bringing us back to the question of capability. What is the capability of humanity, or even of a reader, that it should encounter “at a stream a hand / of a sick girl / who had been buried alive,” and turn away?
Thus, Yoon focuses on the unavoidable fact of history as it intersects in all of our individual worlds. “I’d like my poetry to remind readers that even if a part of history may not seem to be relevant to their lives, it is—it is their reality too,” she writes. In doing so, Yoon empowers readers to reckon with—and confront—these particular voices in history. If we’re flinching while reading, if we’re shivering or swallowing on dry throats or desiring to look past, that is, in fact, the point. Moreover, we are unable to look away. In fact, it is our responsibility to look, to hear, and as the author notes, it is the duty of historical narratives—including cruel or violent or ill narratives—to be passed down, in order to be complicated and un-erased, bound into our present and considered as a part of the legacy of remaining alive. As Yoon writes, “It is crucial to know, listen, tell, and retell various stories, so we may better theorize and understand our existence.”
Yoon’s work thus links this historical trauma into the present, offering portraits of contemporary women who are made to suffer, confront, grieve daily violences—and survive them. In “An Ordinary Misfortune [She offered him…],” the speaker writes: “She offered him head because he wanted her whole. You could at least blow me, he offered. She didn’t want to offend. He was taking his pants off. Are we on? he said. She was in love.” Yoon criticizes—through a voice flushed with irony—the blame that men put on women within sexual contexts, the ways that women are made to feel as failures, or faulted, fearful to offend, yet still expected to “allure,” to perform. In “An Ordinary Misfortune [What is pressing…],” Yoon writes: “What is a body in a stolen country. Or whose. […] War hasn’t left Korea. I have. I fold. I give up, myself, to you. Which one of you said Let’s have raunchy Korean sex to me. Which one of you didn’t. Do you represent America to me. Did those soldiers to her.” There are nine Ordinary Misfortune poems spread throughout the book, all of which share the same title. Each poem is a prose poem, and each gazes at a moment where a speaker confronts an “ordinary” injustice. Yoon thus troubles the title itself: What does it mean for a misfortune to be “ordinary”? What are the implications of tracing these misfortunes throughout history, and into our present time? How have we culturally numbed ourselves to the “ordinary” injustices of ourselves; of our friends, sisters; of all people?
Meanwhile, Yoon writes, too, of the exoticization placed upon bodies of color (specifically, Asian bodies), and adopts a confessional voice, set with instances of gorgeous, hauntingly rich images and unflinching honesty. In the poem “Hair,” the speaker observes: “How peculiar is it that these girls / would stroke my long dark hair and told it how so smooth & / lovely it is. Festishization I welcomed for long.” Later, the speaker recounts: “Autumn morning. Leaves begin to split and crimp in the cold, / & holding the dryer, I still do this slow meandering.” Reading lines like this, one cannot help but conjure fierce awe for how Yoon employs such precise stitch-work of language, balancing assonances with syntactically simple statements in order to create images that pierce and glow.
Yet what I love most of all about Yoon’s work is her ability to stretch and re-fashion fine bolts of language, and her simultaneous devotion to thinking about the origins of language—probing contexts, challenging etymologies, delving into sonic presence, and reconsidering common usage. Throughout the entire collection, Yoon meditates on the intermixing of tongues, the inheritance of dual or multiple languages. There is always a hyper-consciousness of the wall of English language, as it interacts with Korean, Japanese, and the subtle, unspoken languages of touch and sight throughout the book. Language trespasses, it recedes, it moves, it incites, it heals, it breaks.
“Bell Theory” features a speaker who reflects on her earlier experiences trying to master English language. Yoon effectively captures the pain and shame over producing “the right” linguistic sounds with such effectiveness and strange, humbling beauty: “(I touched the globe moving in my throat, a hemisphere sinking.),” the speaker writes; later, “I wanted to run and be loved at the same time”; and even later, “The bell in our throat that rings with laughter is called uvula. From uva: grape. / A theory: special to our species, this grape-bell has nothing to do with speech.” In “News,” which pays tribute to the tragic sinking of the MV Sewol ship in Korea in 2014, Yoon writes: “But I am eating a pear and thinking / pear in Korean is a homonym for ship or boat / and stomach, how MV Sewol sank, how sewol / means beyond the world and homonymous with / the passing time or life.” She writes, later, “A homonym for apple is apology.” In both “Bell Theory” and “News,” images recycle, language sonically unfolds and refolds, repeats, conjures rich and moving shapes out the mouth, and, by doing so, the author showcases a deep command and awareness of the intricate power dynamics at play when asked to speak. This is a poet who respects speech production, as much as she immerses herself in the social, political, and cultural powers involved in employing—and interacting with—a language.
It would be an oversight to say that this is a poet who does not also pay attention to joy; rather, Yoon exhibits love and honor and yes, a lush sort of joy at committing to and honoring her own histories, as they intersect with the histories of us, the readers, and the broader histories of the world. Yoon’s poem “My Grandmother Reminisces with Peaches” retells the story of the speaker’s grandmother’s relationship with her husband. “He wasn’t a romantic, you know. / But he always left a basket of peaches / at my feet in the summer,” the speaker fondly remembers, adding, later, in reference to her garden balsam, “With my ear resting on his chest, I could imagine its blossom. // My cheek dreamt well on his heart.”
In short, A Cruelty Special to Our Species is rich with moments of admirable reckoning and witness, offering a study of how historical narratives might follow a speaker into shaping her own fierce, sharp lineage. Yoon’s is absolutely a collection I will cherish and re-visit, time and time again.
Carlina Duan lives in Nashville. She is the author of I Wore My Blackest Hair (Little A, 2017), and is currently an MFA student at Vanderbilt University. She serves as the co-Editor in Chief of Nashville Review.