River Antes by Myung Mi Kim
In River Antes, Myung Mi Kim excavates the marvels of language, meaning, and silence. While she sculpts some pages into delicate semantic pools, she allows other pages to fall tumultuously through indeterminacy. As a result, this collection forces us to remain attentive to each word and all possible connotations and denotations. Even the physical construction of River Antes, beautifully designed by Atticus/Finch, accentuates the reading experience.
This chapbook begins within a minimally narrated “household radix”:
she, the weeping work
parade of earnings
|| weight of forelegs and hooves under water
a ripple | birched
“Conjugate” not only becomes a theme of marriage and pregnancy, but also a perceptive direction for the reader. The “weeping work” suggests the difficulty of childbirth, while the fetus described as “forelegs and hooves” foregrounds the pain of such work. The violent movement from “ripple” to “birched” hinges on the vertical line punctuation and flows into the sudden, releasing sound of “alyssum”. From this abstract scene, Kim sketches the social (“within a few years it learns to read—if it is a boy—”) and intimate (“He is not making rent. // She is tired of being alone with the child”) structure of the family.
After constructing the initial narrative structure, Kim continually shifts tonal course and texture in unexpected ways. This challenges us to map the narrative changes and eventually surrender to the difficulty:
At the quarry
Leaving the quarry
Bringing hand tools
Approaching the river
The workmen are prisoners
A chariot is pulled by two servants
At the left heads are counted and the booty is piled up in front of clerks who are recording the details in a book and on a scroll
At the bottom of this poem, we read: “Tablet V Panel 53 / 692 BC”. This strange time-shift pulls us away from the “household” and into a completely different space. Perhaps “River Antes” suggests a ruined city (the “weeping work” of narrative) discarded to the river of time:
central clearing hall
The poet, like the clerk, records the details; the poet, unlike the clerk, casts this narrative into the spatial river of the page, directing the tension in the stream of attention. Even though we’ve moved beyond “the weeping work” of the “she”, we’ve entered a derivation of that work. Kim draws a parallel between the labor and possible internment of pregnancy and the larger issues of industrialization. This thematic movement from private to public work creates depth in an otherwise sparse poetry. From the objective gaze, the poems move to the subjective first person:
I go to my father’s house
I wear a grief hat
I am told to put on coarse hemp and to proceed on my own
Is the “I” the child now grown? the poet? the “she”? Within the ambiguity, we register the shift and proceed. At this moment in River Antes, the chapbook’s form changes as the remaining pages open into triptychs. Although I question the decision not to format the entire chapbook in this way, the asymmetry does suggest a material “birching” of form. In this section, the poems oscillate between conjugation and birching:
wicked rounding swept cliff || burial mound numb dispense
guard ravine hoarse hail || pilfer citizen signal extract
|| mendacity one head four faces
The associative lists ripple into perception as the words radiate not only to neighboring words, but also to the surrounding pages. Although we return to an objective abstraction, each word seems to pulse within the subjectivity of the “I” struggling within the father’s house of language and tearing that house down.
Throughout River Antes, narrative force intensifies and disperses into every phoneme and morpheme. This conjugate pair creates a dynamic poetic space in which displacements enter through small incisions. River Antes carries the ruins of narrative across time and space, presenting us with “tablets” that record the details of riving perception.
Craig Santos Perez is a co-founder of Achiote Press and author of from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008). His reviews have appeared in The Colorado Review, Pleiades, The Denver Quarterly, The Latino Poetry Review, MiPoesias, First Intensity, Rain Taxi, and Jacket, among others.