Don Mee Choi
The Morning News is Exciting and Run
Rope-a-Dope Collaborative and Action Books
reviewed by Cynthia Arrieu-King
Don Mee Choi
The Morning News is Exciting
Action Books, 2010
Rope-a-Dope Collaborative, 2010
Don Mee Chois The Morning News is Exciting mounts a two-pronged attack on the idea of history using collage/procedure and the lyric prose poem. Through collages of source texts and other procedural methods, she explores pidgin as a vehicle for the anxiety of the colonized or oppressed, the idea of news as a kind of violence, and a performed deconstruction of knowable voices. Through narrative prose lyric, she furthers the idea that a performed and personal voice locates history in a specific place, less legend and more an intractable tangle of real understandings. The arrangement of the alienating collages with the lush, easily-absorbed lyrics creates a kind of authority that performs chaos in this complicated volume of long poems.
The first section of startling, confounding rhyme fuses the pidgin with the nonsensical. Choi starts with dissonance and potentially failed meanings, perhaps to accentuate a decomposing notion of the oppressor and the oppressed:
Say No Lame! Say no male! Say we care. Terror cant tell And bears a crown in the kitchen, may we? Who cares: cunt cant battle, key wont tear. Ugly decay, care for Pa and tell, we lonely. So jail men care, met a lavish man, met a landlord. (Eggpisode loiter ha! Advance dont at all, assuming mellow) (3).
The opening Say no male! Say we care, signals an examination of gender relationships and a warning or omen that to speak in tongues can ward off sense: To mix languages and distort syntax can make emotion feel like a card almost obscured in a shuffle of signifiers. And that the we wants something, wants it now. But it is hard to know what in a representation of the noise of outrage and demands than actual story. Choi almost lost me in this first foray (Oh tizzy rain more) until I saw the notes for the poem placed immediately after the poem and not at the end of the book. In them, the reader learns that the poem Manegg is a homophonic translation of Manteg by Monchoschi in Cahiers de Posie and that the italicized portions are from Foucaults Discipline and Punish.
This is an interesting placement of the notes, and makes the work feel modern in the sense that it presents a puzzle as if it might be completed, as if these primary texts should provide the political value of the poem. Choi throws down a gauntlet of destroyed authority, as if whatever we might think about violence and punishment ultimately results in misunderstanding and chaos. In her procedural mode, Choi articulates, but not in her poetrys surface per se, that there is no way to know what these ideas really bring to the felt, experienced world.
Choi uses procedure to investigate the idea of the news. She quotes pidgin from actual Korean soldiers. The effect is always to highlight raw emotion rather than create a prosody or imagery. To her, voice conveys everything in its brokenness and force rather than in its words. This deconstruction simmers with violence against the historical sex trade population of women, with associative meanings like weeds, plastic bags that may or may not be used to smother the self.
Chois second long poem, Diary of Return so raises the spectre of violence against women in Korea that Choi shifts to the more anchoring mode of narrative to establish political witnessing. This mode gives the book a point of political departure more clearly than the first section. The deliberate lack of softness or embellishment allows the political to insert itself recognizably, quotably. This quote is quite graphic, so skip down if you are squeamish. Choi writes:
Yun Kum-is head was smashed with a Coca-Cola bottle. She was found dead, legs spread with the Cola bottle in her vagina and an umbrella up her anus. That is not to say empire does not endorse one planet or Fathers umbrella. On the contrary, it enforces grammaticality within and without before and after Father sprinkles white disinfectant powder on the index finger. No one is supposed to be ignorant of grammaticality… (17)
This idea of language being so violently bodily, this notion of what is almost idly said in propaganda or religion allows that the most horrific excuse-making, the most egregious use of logic disregards the needs of the human, the body, the actual. Grammar, some order that has been imposed on everyones thoughts and ways of thinking doesnt conflate the violence with an absence of sense but offers a creepy sangfroid of the matter-of-fact tone and its distortion of actual fact.
The third, eponymous poem, The Morning News is Exciting! further develops this idea of the news as over-pitched or misplaced enthusiasm:
May all weeds dislocate themselves. Girls should. I clench my fist and watch the morning news. Dandelion leaves are bitter yet tender. Girls should. Chrysanthemums are admired. Beware. The early morning news is exciting.
It shifts from a more settled narrative back to play. Choi pits a canned news voice against a desperate repetition of the phrase, the morning news is exciting, of what goes on in the lives of women and daughters. Here puns supply the relief of meaning, and the repetition soldiers the poem on.
The brightness of the news tone turns a little garish, and the woman finally cannot recall what has actually happened and so is considered, an error, an errorist. Choi manipulates sentence length and repetition to create a sense of ominous militarism, a sense of being chased by an idea that was never a real obsession, but an obligation enforced with violence. The books obsession with this phrase The Morning News is Exciting gives it an ironic brightness, taking the excitement of violence and stripping away recrimination. The excitement gains a false ring, and operates as a function of ignorance and as a habit. So when we feel something for the victims of violence related here, were reprimanded too, as somehow insincere, or the contemporary witnesses to military prostitutions horrors memorialized with a pop glare.
Chois choice (I suppose in my experience, this is all the poets choice, but if it bothers you, change the subject) of the books font looking like newspaper print, brighter or more at home with convention and feelings than the violence seems to demand. The reader is thrown off-balance in some ways, but also allowed to watch a spectacle of collage. The same disgust I sometimes feel at a conceptual art show, a visceral overload, happens here: both too much, and too little at the same time. This makes the work feel presented, and the experience of reading it feels like checking the concepts as one progresses through the text rather than being able to sink into the text. Choi seems to know this and so maintains the movement from distressed surfaces to comprehensible voice and back throughout the volume: Procedural texts like Instructions from the Inner Room and The Tower carry the sound of corporate coaxing, ad language, but feel disjointed enough that one bumps along the surfaces propelled by weariness towards the opaque gestures.
What is most satisfying, at least to this reader, are the parts of the text that reflect back to a voice that isnt making elaborate reference via notes or an appendix. Diary of a Botanist and A Journey from Neo-colony to Colony, give a performance of the personal that serves as a kind of skeleton for the book. Choi adds weight and a direct narrative about an immigrant mother obsessively cleaning a refrigerator door:
I will tell you what the parrot said to me. I will tell you botanist, a botanist, the botanist. She lives in a forest. Eucalyptus leaves never rot. How sane. Her tongue, bagged in plastic, splits. Arrived insane, she scrubs kitchen counters, cutting boards, knives, the edges of a dish rack. She scrubs the fridge daily. The door stays wet (61)
The obsessive noise in the rest of the book finally comes to a head in this scene that trains on one character. The act of being domestic shows the mother tending to and dissecting herself, bagging and storing her tongue language which doubles as meat or a meal. She thinks of the act of disinfecting as a way to survive. This obsessive cleaning also picks up the idea of the news being exciting, the new cleaning off her past, her vulnerability to harm. But always something touches you, even meat that touches the fridge door, which the poems symbols suggests might even be her own tongue, and so she is trapped in a never-ending chore. Choi makes a beautiful shift from this to what is grammatical:
She follows me, for needles pierce. A, an, the. She prefers nothing (61).
Whatever tongue can do to point, the definite articles and indefinite articles like an array of tiny needles or knifepoints, this mother stands back from the power of speaking in specifics. The generic, faceless nature of people that permeates the book here is anchored in a terrific system of symbols, and the grammaticality referred to earlier in the book, the idea of violence moving around does not connect to the individual ability to point with a definite article.
The poems Epistolary, and dear master dear Emily dear twin flower take their subjects from a entire personal literary history, a history of books allows the personal and the idea of voice to ghost through the poems without actually giving the reader a clear sense of scene as, say, a news article would. And so Choi enacts the inevitable misunderstanding of the personal in the struggle to outline history: That we can never know a voice, only certain edges of it, and attempt to be moved by it, even at the great distance of the newss distortions.
Performing multitudes, collaging voices of the oppressor and oppressed together in poetry, and allowing them to intertwine and react to one another to interrogate occupations or divisions has been happening more frequently on the subject of Asia or Asian-America since Theresa Hak Kyung Chas work Dictée. Craig Santos Peross Unincorporated Territory; Ching-In Chens The Hearts Traffic; Sarah Gambitos Matadora; Juliette Lees Underground National… These poems ask what happens when languages collide. What lurks in the gaps between. What made Chas Dictée great is that she asks what happens when the Other grieves by partly absorbing the ways of the Oppressor, slowly and incrementally. Her meanings are not always clear-cut. Chois work asks what happens when the mixing of voices and cultures is distorted by archival limitations, by the news clipping, by strict nearly voiceless collage—enacting the impenetrable qualities of history.