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"Experiment is each scroll of white pages joined together": reading punctuation, mathematics, and science in Myung Mi Kim's Dura.


With its mathematical vocabulary, innovative geometrical form, lyric density, and funky deployment of punctuation, Dura exemplifies Kim's interest in poetic experimentation. This article investigates how Kim negotiates two foci through Dura: on the one hand, employing experimental linguistics that grant punctuation, mathematical notations, and scientific vocabulary multiple signifying possibilities, while on the other, pushing forth a political project that speaks to the continuing issue of radical social inequalities. Punctuation, mathematics, and science all operate under a rubric of efficiency. Punctuation enables more effective forms of communication, while mathematical and scientific advances enable inventions that provide greater comfort, easier transport, faster communication, and other improvements. But Kim's lyric style in Dura questions the logic of efficiency that undergirds modes of standardization and perceived trajectories of advancement. Hence, the use of experimental punctuation and nonstandard use of mathematical and scientific language enable Dura to stage a trenchant critique of driving forces behind colonialism and empire.


The final line of Myung Mi Kim's third poetry collection, Dura, reads, "Experiment is each scroll of white pages joined together" (1998, 108). These words help convey Dura's complicated and varied morphologies. With its innovative geometrical form and lyric density, Dura exemplifies Kim's interest in poetic experimentation. The collection further coheres around an anticolonial and antiracist rhetoric that establishes both linkages and disjunctions among various communities, historical events, and geographical terrains. This article investigates how Kim negotiates two lyric foci throughout Dura: first, the poem's employment of experimental linguistics that grants punctuation, mathematical notations, and scientific vocabulary multiple signifying possibilities; and second, its pursuit of a political project that speaks to the continuing issue of radical social inequalities. (1)

Punctuation, mathematics, and science can all operate under the rubric of efficiency. Punctuation enables more effective forms of communication, while mathematical and scientific advances enable inventions that provide greater comfort, easier transport, faster communication, and other improvements. But Myung Mi Kim's lyric style in Dura (1998) questions the logic of efficiency that undergirds modes of standardization and perceived trajectories of advancement. Hence, the use of experimental punctuation and nonstandard use of mathematical and scientific language enable Dura to stage a trenchant critique of driving forces behind colonialism and empire.


Kim's eclectic style and lyric progressivism are difficult to frame within any one poetic tradition. Her embrace by Asian American literary critics is certainly energized in part by lyrical content. Her collections consistently address how certain histories and social contexts have been overlooked and, in some cases, suppressed. In this sense, Joseph Bruchac's broader assessment of Asian American poets seems relevant to her: "Chinese-American, Japanese American, Filipino American, and Korean American writers are speaking for themselves--as individual human beings who have special heritages they can draw on as part of their inspirations as poets, fiction writers, and playwrights" (1983, xiii-xiv; emphasis in original). The salient point to draw from Bruchac's conceptualization of Asian American poetry is the notion of self-definition. While Kim is certainly inspired "in part" by a sense of her position as a Korean American woman, her poems often move far beyond an autobiographically inflected lyric "I." Her sparse use of the lyric "I" in any form, autobiographical or not, contrasts her work from a number of her well-known Asian American poetic peers. Further, her employment of highly dense word clusters, interlingual valences, playful use of page space and stanza format, and disruption of normative syntax generate a considerably complicated poetic matrix. (2) As such, Kim is often grouped alongside a smaller subset of Asian American avant-garde poets, including Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, John Yau, Tan Lin, and Catalina Cariaga. (3) Given the formally challenging nature of Kim's oeuvre, it is perhaps not surprising that her work is included in only one of the three major Asian American poetic anthologies published in the last two decades (see Lew 1995), despite the fact that she is one of the most prolific contemporary Asian American poets. (4)

To engage the experimental nature of Myung Mi Kim's poetics requires consideration of her varied writerly influences, influences that cannot be situated solely within an Asian American poetic paradigm. In an interview with poetry critic Lynn Keller, Kim explains, "I would mention the context of my work in conjunction with experimental women's poetry at large, more than locating my work within Language poetry as such--although of course these are related spheres," suggesting the importance of a feminist genealogy to her poetry (2008, 352). Her affiliation with the publication HOW(ever), which promoted and disseminated work from experimental women poets, gave her a communal space to showcase her distinct style and form. (5) Kim's work appeared alongside that of Pamela Lu, Harryette Mullen, Carla Harryman, and many others; she published under the September 1999 issue's guest editor Ann Vickery; (6) and she guest-edited four volumes of HOW(ever) herself. This eclectic group of poets and editors illustrates HOW(ever)'s commitment to poetic heterogeneity and stylistic experimentation. (7)

While Myung Mi Kim refuses a transparent link to Language poetry, she does describe her work as existing in a "related sphere." Certainly, her connection to Kathleen Fraser, founder of HOW(ever), and others such as Carla Harryman gestures to the importance of Language poetry to her creative development. In addition, the time she spent in the Bay Area teaching at San Francisco State University during the 1990s allowed her to interact directly with one regional branch of the Language school.

To understand Myung Mi Kim's work from the purview of the Language school, I turn to various considerations of the group's defining characteristics. In Michael Greer's estimation, Language poetry, while extremely difficult to demarcate as a whole, nevertheless shares some common traits: "The radical potential of {Language} poetry ... lies in its ability to make available new modes of subjectivity and communication by reworking the fabric of relations among writer, text, and reader" (1989, 343). (8) In this way, the Language poets seek to increase the interpretive avenues for reading poetic texts, situating poststructuralism at the center of their avant-garde impulses. Lyn Hejinian calls for a poetics of openness, one that "invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies. It speaks for writing that is generative rather than directive" (2000,43). Charles Bernstein further offers, "When we get over this idea that we can all speak to each other, I think it will begin to be possible, as it always has been, to listen to one another, one at a time and in the various clusters that present themselves, or that we find the need to make" (1992,8). (9) Echoing Bernstein's liberal listening-centered approach to poetics, Kim herself states that readers must "get beyond the anxiety around not being told in the way we're accustomed to and discover new ways of listening" (1997). As her poetry consistently shies away from representational transparency and pushes readers to challenge their faculties, it is clear that Language poetry has played a formative role in the development of her work. Her focus on interpretative "listening" is very much in line with the goals of Language poetry, which extends rather than constricts signification. Kim can therefore be situated within multiple traditions, including both the identity politics rubric that undergirds much of Asian American poetry and the experimental underpinnings of Language poetry.

While the political investments that first mobilized Asian American poets and the more formalistically inclined Language poets might seem to occupy opposite ends of the creative spectrum, Timothy Yu makes the compelling case for reading the two traditions alongside each other: "Central to both is a surprisingly acute sense of how race can inflect aesthetics, and of the relations of power that racial differences create among contemporaneous avant-gardes" (2009, 2). In following Yu's lead, I argue that Myung Mi Kim's Dura includes one characteristic feature of both Language and Asian American poetry: a clear critique of colonialism and its relationship to social inequalities. (10) In this article, I attend to how Kim employs punctuation, mathematics, and scientific vocabulary in Dura as a kind of experiment that exposes the power differentials engendered by global capitalism and the imperial enterprise.


Subverting any narratively inflected lyric voice, Myung Mi Kim's oeuvre is characterized by highly fragmented word clusters and opaque phrases. Her use of punctuation also possesses its own uniquely disconcerting verve: periods appear in the middle of lines, colons function atypically, and brackets or parentheses generate new significations. Dura is composed in seven sections; "Cosmography," "Measure," "Labors," "Chart," "Thirty and Five Books," "Progress in Learning," and "Hummingbird." One of Dura's distinguishing features is a border atop various sections in which two colons appear close together, in close-enough proximity that the reader might even consider them double colons. (11) This ordering notation may suggest a modernist lineage linked to the employment of symbol; however, the problem with such a reading is that Kim destroys unitary significations of punctuation. The disintegration of the grammatical marker forces the reader to continually recontextualize how punctuation highlights various measurements and mis-measurements, related to and ordered by the proliferation of global capitalism and neocolonial hierarchies. Kim's "punctuational poetics" highlight the radical disorientation experienced by the various subjects who must survive, or last (that is, dura), in this late capitalist, neocolonial global milieu. (12)

Dura is Myung Mi Kim's lyrical meditation on subjugation, colonization, and violence. Josephine Nock-Hee Park argues that Dura possesses a tripartite literary kinship, invoking the high modernist image-oriented poetry (and parataxis) of Ezra Pound, the epic style of Walt Whitman, and the reformulations of these forms within Asian American literature as most effectively represented in the work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee (2005, 216). Park provides an important intervention by suggesting the diverse literary lineages from which Asian American poets can draw, pushing for literary critics to move beyond a strict conception of such poetry as primarily indicative of non-Anglo social contexts, what Shirley Geok-lin Lim has called "an ethnopoetics." (13) Indeed, Xiaojing Zhou's reading of Dura more forcefully considers the "nomadic poetics" inherent in Kim's poetry, employing the theoretical and philosophical approaches espoused by Gilies Deleuze and Felix Guattari. (14) Zhou contends that Park's historically located literary forebears are too restrictive in their scope: "By identifying Dura with particular texts as parts of a literary lineage--the American long poem that began with Whitman--Park's method overlooks those aspects of Kim's poetics and thematic concerns that resolutely set Dura apart from its ostensible forerunners" (2007, 66). Zhou's assertion and argumentative focus provide an arena to fully engage punctuational poetics through her dynamic employment of colons as well as their relationship to the disciplines depicted in the long poem, such as science and mathematics. Zhou specifically reads Kim's use of the double colon as a way to direct the reader "to attend closely to what is to be uttered" (2007, 71), but this reading is not fully sustained; my own analysis here fleshes out how experimental punctuation exposes the dubious logic of efficiency driving global capitalism.

In this way, Dura challenges colonially configured reading practices that promote linear and causal connections. As Trinh T. Minh-Ha writes, "Do not choose the offbeat at the cost of clarity. Obscurity is an imposition on the reader. True, but beware when you cross railroad tracks for one train may hide another train. Clarity is a means of subjection, a quality of both official, taught language and of correct writing, two old mates of power: together they flow, together they flower, vertically, to impose an order" (1993, 16-17). Trinh frames how value is already positioned within writing through the process of "clarity," but Dura tells us elucidation is not quite possible in concatenating heterogeneous events and historical contexts. This avant-garde style will inevitably estrange some readers, but Dura eschews transparency to emphasize how global capitalism's ubiquitous emphasis on value, efficiency, and technological progression obscures the simultaneous production of social inequalities under colonial processes. By analyzing Dura from this approach, I follow Juliana Chang's exhortation that critics promote "investigations of Asian American poetry that highlight, rather than contain, potential disruptions to these dominant ideologies" (1996b, 89).

My sustained readings are inspired further by the surprising lyric affinities that emerge through the use of experimental linguistic markers. In Jennifer DeVere Brody's estimation, punctuation embodies "paradoxical performances" that "produce excessive meaning, and that such performances are part and parcel of both the politics and poetics of punctuation"; her larger study explores "how punctuation marks mediate, express, (represent, and perform--the interactions between the stage of the page and the work of the mind" (2008, 5). The "excessive meaning" that Brody describes is found in Myung Mi Kim's Dura where the colon's performative nature is mirrored by the various colonial discourses invoked over the entirety of the long poem. If Dura is deliberately opaque about the kinds of colonialisms it questions, it is because Dura is a cosmography (the title, in fact, of its first section). The long poem unveils how entire sets of revolving bodies, objects, and cultures are transformed through commodification and surplus. Kim draws on a historically capacious swathe, which includes the trade routes Marco Polo opened in the thirteenth century, the fifteenth-century European Age of Exploration, the subsequent colonization of the Americas, internal colonialisms that structure US racial orders, and neocolonial formations within global capitalism. The long poem is not content to inhabit a singular colonial paradigm and, in this respect, Dura links these disparate lineages in an ambitious experimental mixture that catalyzes a poetic chemical reaction. (15)


The double colons atop most of the pages within Dura's first section immediately attune the reader to Dura's unique approach toward punctuation--unique because these punctuation marks do not function directly within sentences but act as paratextual markers of the importance of equivalence. Consequently, I diverge from Xiaojing Zhou, who reads the double colons as encouraging the reader to pay closer attention to language (2007, 71). Instead, even before the first line, the double colons ask the reader to consider how values are constructed and ratios made apparent, especially within the purview of capitalism and colonialism:
      : :
   Who even came this way, bellow or saw
   Thirty and five books
   Paper script document
   Vowels unwritten
   Kinglists proverbs praise phrases
   (Kim 1998, 9)

As Zhou effectively points out, the "who" in these first lines might refer to the individual involved in the process of exploration and discovery. The words "bellow" and "saw" at first indicate voice and sight. The subject who gets to observe, to "bellow," and then to name that which is observed suggests the colonial power structure that enforces a violent classificatory regime on foreign bodies and objects. The varied significations of the line emerge as both "bellow" and "saw" might also refer to technologically innovative tools. (16) Bellows are vital to the process of metallurgy (particularly involved in smelting and welding), while "saw" denotes an object made to cut wood. So, even as "bellow" and "saw"--in their verb forms--connect to the undefined "who," they might also act as nouns that connect directly to the litany of commodities, measurements, objects, and tools that appear later within the poem, ranging from books to paper, celestial bodies, chemical compounds, standards of measurement, inventions, weapons of war, and modes of transport (Kim 1998, 10-17).

What needs to be further considered is the double colon and the way it gestures to Dura's punctuational poetics. Indeed, if colons imply a relative equivalence or a ratio, and double colons imply an analogy (the double colon taking the place of "is the same as"), then what exactly is being compared? I argue that the double colons emphasize the importance of considering and reconsidering the language of the poem through relationships that surface under the logic of efficiency that undergirds global capitalism and colonialism.

These relationships are especially evident in the indented tripartite lines that emerge as uniquely situated fragments. For instance, the three terms "paper," "script," and "document" at first might seem to suggest a rough equivalence, but no colon (or other punctuation) is employed to determine this relationship. The inability of one word to take the place of another is at the heart of what the double colons emphasize, suggesting that connotative variance in each term enforces a more intricate approach toward definitions and derivations. In this case, paper might be the raw material from which a script (for a drama or movie) or other document (legal or historical) is constructed. This relatively obvious reading of how these terms connect is by no means the only reading. This line engages the way in which objects are specifically used as and determined to be commodities. But, other questions surface: Exactly how much paper does it take to make a script or document? What kind of paper would that require? The lyric does not answer these questions or provide a numerical ratio or any other relational value. Further still, paper forms such as scripts and documents are created under certain circumstances and direct us to consider how power transforms the value of objects. For instance, a document given legal weight might outweigh other accounts such as oral histories. In this sense, the type and function of paper upholds particular positions of authority. In the context of a script, an individual might be expected to follow lines of a given role and thus be bound by the words on a page.

The sixth line functions in a similar manner where the colons direct us to consider a ghostly, murky connection between "kinglists," "proverbs," and "praise phrases." All three constellate around written and oral accounts, whether genealogies of royalty, idiomatic and culturally specific sayings, or positively drawn maxims. At the same time, these words and phrases indicate religious affiliations: the term "kinglists" is drawn from the divinely inspired right given to the ruling family, "proverbs" indicates the similarly titled book of the Bible, and "praise phrases" refers to utterances offered up to exalt God. In any interpretive valence, there are connections between the terms, but their specific or quantitative relationship to each other can never be fully pinned down. Even in this instability, the words offer up a piecemeal invocation of power and domination hallmarked by lists that include hallowed names or maxims. The words found in these tripartite lines poetically reverberate throughout the long poem, something suggested in Dura's last section, "Hummingbird," to be "calls and responses" (1998, 99). Indeed, the kinglists, proverbs, and praise phrases might themselves all be found on "paper," demonstrating how one line is calling and responding to another found at a different point in the long poem. In a similar manner, reference is made to "parchment," "bark," and "skin" in another three-word sequence just a few pages following (11). All three terms refer to outer coverings, and all are terrains on which writing can take place.

I offer these readings as a way to see the double colons, specifically in "Cosmography," as signifying punctuation marks that highlight a poetics of indeterminate equivalence. The reader must tease out the interrelations in the three-part lines that appear repeatedly, especially in areas where the words and phrases seem to lack more meaningful associations. For instance, not long after the poem's opening, a particularly mysterious lyric sequencing appears:
   Plural stellar famish
   Viaducts to carry away and bring back
   Sewer and thread restitutive
   Recast deliberate meteorite
   (Kim 1998, 10)

Whereas the words "plural," "stellar," and "famish" seem to have little to do with each other, the word "stellar" provides an introduction to "meteorite" as an example of a celestial body. Once again, these sections begin a dialogue, allowing the reader to make diffuse but inexact connections among terms and their various significations. Within the commodity-laden imagery of the long poem, the meteorite serves as an exploitable resource only because it is a celestial object that has fallen to Earth. Containing bits of iron and other such precious metals, the meteorite is itself a kind of plurality or hybrid mixture. This plurality becomes the defining mode through which to read the words, as "stellar" might also indicate a superlative adjective that places value and meaning on certain objects or bodies. The word "famish," connoting hunger, is yet another esoteric word, resulting in an aporia: Whose famine? In addition, the state of being famished implies an extreme, the body lacking but desiring food, a divergent sensibility compared to the word "stellar." Covertly, "famish," as representative of the desire to consume, can also imply the capitalistically configured fetish for objects and commodities. "Plural," "stellar," and "famish" all present, therefore, multiples and potential extremes, but these differentiated meanings also suggest that relationality cannot be contained within one line and must be read across different word clusters. A word like "recast" seems to suggest the need to continually interrogate contexts, ones that enforce a multiplicity of significations; its following term, "deliberate," also focuses attention on meditation and thought rather than immediacy and impulse. What becomes clear is that without punctuation these words, lines, and phrases can be dynamically unmoored from and yet somehow still linked to each other. Such a free-flowing form is present throughout the long poem. (17)


"Cosmography" sets up the long poem by providing tripartite phrases and word clusters that exist in uneasy tension with each other. A linguistic experiment is brewing here but is not yet fully set into motion. The various reagents and compounds are provided in a mix of commodity catalogues, mathematical language, and scientific vocabulary that signals a move into a kind of laboratory. Who, though, is directing this experiment? Myung Mi Kim does include one line with a lyric "I" in this section: "I see ... and look about" (1998, 11). The line suggests the appearance of a postcolonial migrant who does not make herself fully known until some sections later. This lyric "I" gestures to a force behind this poetic experiment, urging it to move forward. The catalysis for the chemical-poetic compounds set up in "Cosmography" appears in the following section, "Measure," in which colonial contact occurs:
   Motion on the seas
   Larded ships
      : Gather soil and water
      : Morning risen evening fallen mushroom
   So writ the purpose
   Voyage laid bare
   (Kim 1998, 23)

In her reading of this passage, Xiaojing Zhou contends that "although the first two lines evoke activities on the sea, they do not quite correspond to those suggested by the last two lines, whose official involvement and purposefulness foreshadow officially sanctioned voyages of conquest, colonization, and slave trade" (2006, 262). Taking this critique into account, I more forcefully argue the first two and last two lines both move alongside the colons and enforce a "purpose" "laid bare" in its commanding scope. While Josephine Nock-Hee Park considers the landscape described on the left side of the colon as referring directly to an Eastern land (2006, 245), Zhou makes clear that the location or temporality cannot be sustained nor so conspicuously pinned down (2006, 263). In this sense, one colonial process is not invoked at the expense of another. To be sure, Kim does allude to Marco Polo through an epigraphic quotation from The Travels of Marco Polo (1998, 19) and later with the reference to "No fewer than a thousand carriages loaded with silk" (24). But later she refers to "Ships of trade accompanied by ships of war" (26), a lyric that suggests other economic transactions and colonialisms occurring concomitantly.

At the point of cultural and economic contact, the double colons disintegrate, leaving only one colon, which denotes a restructured relationality. The lines alter in form to create a kind of geometric block:
   A way is open(ed), a hole is made
   Introduce single horse turnback
   Introduction ride alone
   (Capital) (fight alone) make a turn
   (Kim 1998, 27)

The hole that is "open(ed)" indicates how the double colons have been acting as a barrier device, drawing an explicit contrast between the colonizer and the colonized. The loss of a colon set proves to be the hole that is and has been opened. Once contact has occurred, the entire section's mathematical form alters. Prior to this point the basic poetic form relies on a two-by-two-by-two-line structure, but after one colon is extracted, a series of words and phrases appears in an incomplete three-by-three column. In this new configuration, a barrage of what has been "introduced" by conquest and capitalism cannot be reversed or "turned back." Brian Reed argues that this three-by-three column is a form of postlinear poetic, what he calls the "word square," whose columns might be read in multiple ways. Reed notes how the word sequencing would alter if the columns were viewed as a traditional Korean reader would read them (2004).

What critics do not note is that this three-by-three column includes parentheses, whose standard grammatical use is to denote supplementary information. In other words, something has been added. If the parenthetical clauses are taken out and "make a turn" is moved into the space left opened just above it, the lyric form returns to its previous two-line structure (a "word rectangle," rifling off of Brian Reed's concept). "Capital" and "fight alone" suggest the combination of commodification, profit, fragmentation, and violence enabled by contact. Not only is capital introduced, but the horses might suggest European colonization of the Americas as Spanish conquistadores employed these animals in their quest to claim the New World. Hence, "Measure" moves beyond a binary conception of West colonizing East (i.e., Europe and Asia) and maps an extensive web of relationships enabled in the pursuit of more resources and more bodies to subjugate (e.g., Europe and the Americas). Following this reading, the word "open(ed)" enforces the simultaneity of past and present, in which colonialism cannot simply be escaped or discarded. Instead, it mutates into different forms.

The subsequent page in "Measure" uses single colons to set apart a series of clauses that indicate ownership and command over another set of people:
   To speak of another region and its goods
   Figure judgment, abutment
   That even invisible currency
   Transported as goods travel to gladdened hands
   Off the hook trammel
   In semblance of order anoint appoint
   Gifts not its own
   Signets to authenticity and foremost authority
   (Kim 1998, 28)

The colonial power constructs "another region" to its needs, as the word "goods" is repeated twice to augment the trade deficit, and the colony must uphold its role as service and resource provider. Taking up these valuable commodities, the dominating nation-state possesses "gifts not its own." In contrast to earlier sections, the colons appear in "Measure" to demonstrate bilateral power dynamics, as one region's economy must negotiate with another's.

In "Cosmography," the postcolonial migrant is introduced through a kind of awakening, as she begins to "look about" (Kim 1998, n). "Measure" reintroduces this figure through the thematic of visuality:
   One flower when first my eyes wake
   (Kim 1998, 25)

This line suggests again that the poem's speaker possesses a stronger personal link to these colonial encounters, but I propose that the subject of "my eyes" and the "I" invoked in "Cosmography" cannot simply be collapsed together; instead, these references suggest a fragmented subjectivity present across different times and places. There is a sense that the "I" within "Measure" might be an ancestor or a figure more temporally connected to older forms of colonization. The long poem pushes for a radical disintegration of lyric unity by implying the presence of multiple speakers and multiple figures affected by colonialism and commodity capitalism. In this respect, Dura advances the necessity of interrelationality that links mobile subjects across times and places, as they engage the radical social inequalities produced by the imperial enterprise.

If "Measure" depicts early colonial contact and global exploration, the next section, "Labors," portrays a more permanent process of colonization:
   Banner hung
   Name speaking
   Due west directly west
   Occupation must within a reasonable time
   Be added to the discovery to constitute
   A valid title to territory in the New World
   Three mile swath reaching each direction
   (Kim 1998, 32)

The presumption here is that residing within a territory gives one claims to the land, regardless of who already lives there. The "New World" reference places this section in dialogue with European colonization of the entire American hemisphere. The phrase "name speaking" comes directly from the banner, which further proclaims territorial ownership. This historical context is also supported by the conception of Manifest Destiny that encouraged the continual westward expansion of the United States. The lack of colons in this sequence amplifies the lyrical content; there is nothing to stop or block the aggressive and quick trajectory of conquest.

Within "Labors," the colons move directly into the the play of language. The debut of this more lyrically embedded colon differentiates two basic phrases or terms. The first set reintroduces conceptions of value and profit: "Afford: could nearly lose" (31). In this case, the term on the left side of the colon implies a commodity that can be bought or that exists in surplus. In contrast, the term on the right side of the colon suggests what is purchased may be cleaved or taken away. The subsequent lines that include the colon perform similarly, as one phrase exists in uneasy tension with the second:
   Proven pulse: barb light
   Collapsible pillar and roof
   Donor: dolor
   Placement between l and r
   Domain: matching years and service
   Attributable cause: surfeit's laws
   Braving cut: neck without collar
   (Kim 1998, 33)

The medical phrase "proven pulse" refers to a pulse oximeter, a device that employs light wavelengths to measure a patient's oxygen levels. That the oximeter is "proven" denotes the unequivocal functionality of this technological apparatus, which allows doctors and healthcare workers to maintain a watchful eye over the body's respiratory equilibrium. In contrast, "barb light" presents the interlingual valences in Myung Mi Kim's work as she later states "placement between l and r." The Korean alphabet makes no phonetic distinction between the l and the r sounds. A phrase such as "barb light" could easily be inverted to denote "light bulb." For a pulse oximeter to operate properly, it must not function in the presence of excessive light, but the oximeter also records specific light wavelengths that bounce off hemoglobin. The colon therefore structures the unstable but necessary connection between the two clauses, one in this case mediated by an interlingual borderland. Following this pattern, "donor" and "dolor" play off of the profound ways that one letter can completely change the meaning of a particular word. Whereas "donor" implies a giving, its meaning is completely changed when n is replaced with l in "dolor," denoting pain. At the same time, the linguistic function is not divorced from the way the colon once again promotes a questionable hierarchy. In this case, what is donated perhaps cannot function without pain in various forms, such as the hard labor to produce things that will be donated or the necessity of a surgical incision following an organ transplant from one body to another.

The colon consequently seems to encourage the inter-relationalities among terms, as tools and inventions so often require other resources and labor support. For instance, a pulse oximeter can operate only in the presence of light. A donor grants a sum or an object, an act that often requires some sort of self-sacrifice. A domain, understood to be a bounded landholding, must be policed with "matching years and service" of a protecting military force. The phrase "attributable cause" moves us back into the realm of the body as it is often used in medical forums to describe the diagnosis of a deleterious health condition. This phrase is paired with "surfeit's laws," connoting some sort of surplus related to legal forums. The relationality between the two phrases seems diffuse. But placed into the context of this entire poetic sequence, the link surfaces: capital relies on surplus to drive the colonial enterprise. Thus, "attributable cause" might not describe an individual patient's diagnosis but instead a diagnosis related to the social ills that have plagued societies, especially under the ominous shadow of conquest. The last colon contextualizes violence and war through its reference to a "braving cut." The "braving cut" is paired with "neck without collar," a modification made to military uniforms to close off the area connecting the head to the neck, allowing less access to the body. In conquest and occupation, to confront the "cut" that a soldier might face in warfare through the use of sharp weapons such as swords or machetes, the body must avoid exposure. Taken together, these colons contextualize how labor and resources can be encrypted under capitalism and colonization. Every tool (such as an oximeter) requires a source of energy (light); lands (domains) require a force to maintain their borders (matching years and service); clothing must be reconstructed as armor for defense.


Whereas the colons do reappear at the top of the pages in "Thirty and Five Books" just as they had in "Cosmography" and reassert a kind of grammatical equilibrium, this section deviates from the other six in its narrative specificity. "Thirty and Five Books" draws out line length, giving this section the most progressive unity in the collection. Some clear historical allusions emerge: the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Brian Kim Stefans specifically notes how "Thirty and Five Books" "contains many of the themes of the earlier sections but in brief prose paragraphs, slowing the rhythm of the montage for a more stable persistence of vision" (2006, 85). Perhaps this section's "persistence of vision" explains why it has received the most critical attention, but I am particularly interested in its punctuation: Kim uses period-like markers repeatedly for the first time. (18) Here, these notations cut off sections within lines, limiting them primarily to one, two, three, or four sectioned lines. While the colons had previously acted as a barrier point between two cultures and as evidence of a colonial milieu historically situated in earlier epochs such as the Age of Exploration, "Thirty and Five Books" is more firmly rooted in the material conditions in which colonialism has shifted in its scope and taken on different configurations, especially in this contemporary era of multinational capitalism and neoliberal globalization. Other critics make parallel arguments with respect to "Thirty and Five Books," (19) but I argue that the period marks in this section are actually mutations or transformations of the colons, which have now disintegrated--halved in this case--so that two dots are no longer stacked on top of each other.

Reading the dot forms simply as periods ignores that the clauses lack subjects and verbs, or the typical sentence structure. It is this section, which includes the lyric line "Punctuality. Decay," that provides one way to consider the colons literally littering each line as remnants of such "decay." Thinking of the colons as ratios or rough equivalences gives the subsequent dot-form transformation a more fragmented perspective, one that no longer involves a dynamic equilibrium between two or more relational quantities. But why bother with the decay of "punctuality" here? I contend that punctuality functions doubly, as do the dot forms themselves, as markers of time. If punctuality as a subjective measure of timeliness is in decay and the periods do not appear to function in the places they are supposed to, then we understand that time has become unmoored and history is itself being made more expansive. Understanding "Thirty and Five Books" with this widened sense of time is essential precisely because Myung Mi Kim's poetry attends to interracial histories and tensions across centuries.

Rather than investigate this section in its intricate entirety, I concentrate on the areas that deviate from the traditional form that typifies the majority of "Thirty and Five Books," areas where the colons either reappear directly within the body of the section or disappear altogether. This question is catalyzed by what I would call Dura's climax point, the sequence that cobbles together quotations from Dai Sil Kim-Gibson's documentary Sa-I-Gu. This passage combines the words spoken by the mother of Edward Lee, who was shot and killed during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, with a series of terse phrases and words in which the indented sections correspond to his mother's voice:
   Punctuality. Decay. Is that accurate.
   In fact, the tariff.
   Asphalt and rooftop rifles.
   Body moving in circle be fire
      What looked black in the Korean newspaper was
        my son's blood
   Body moving in circle be fire
   If fire be the body carried round
   (Kim 1998, 64-65)

Xiaojing Zhou provides one vital reading of this section, arguing, "The juxtaposition of 'Punctuality' with 'Decay' suggests a process and accumulative effects, resulting in hopelessness and anger which contributed to the eruption of violent protest and upheaval, including looting and burning of stores, most of which were owned by Korean Americans" (2007, 80). An extension of Zhou's reading would be to think of punctuality in relation to punctuation and how it too has undergone a process of "decay" on the two pages where this excerpt appears. Indeed, almost every other page from "Thirty and Five Books" is notated with period-like dots, but not long after the line "Punctuality. Decay. Is that accurate." these notations vanish. So, too, do the double colons that nested atop all the pages in "Thirty and Five Books." In addition, the phrase "is that accurate" might insinuate a question, but there is no question mark (and instead a dot form), suggesting, then, how ineffectively grammar and other linguistic ordering markers render the sentiments expressed. Of all the potential portions from this section to excerpt this decay of punctuation, why denote it so spectacularly with a sequence referencing the 1992 Los Angeles riots?

To answer this question, I look directly to an interview conducted with Myung Mi Kim by James Kyung-Jin Lee. She explains first that "the section you're referring to incorporates the voice of Edward Lee's mother from the documentary Sa-I-Gu. I was tremendously moved by this devastatingly clear voice of a mother who has lost a child. I wanted to honor this voice" (2000, 101). Kim later adds, "How is it possible to interpolate between the crisis and the forces that have produced it (the entire complex of historical, economic, and political confluences that shape an event). So there's the work of recognizing the fact of an event, the fact of a crisis (the death of Edward Lee, the LA riots), and the accompanying work of understanding that the crisis must lead into a negotiation with an entire historical/political continuum" (101). Kim's contextualization provides a way into investigating this excerpt's exceptional nature. She imports another's voice directly into the text, radically disrupting any unitary lyric sensibility; and she never employs this same voice again at any other point in "Thirty and Five Books" or, more largely, Dura as a whole. Granting the mother her own lyric sensibility involves a different formalistic approach to the poem's shape and content, in which lack of punctuation and different indentation serve to "honor this voice" rather than subsuming it within Kim's poetic project.

Not surprisingly, this voice also provides one of the most specific and concrete narratives in all of Myung Mi Kim's Dura because it is sustained over two pages, suggesting its essential place within the long poem. Indeed, as the poetic climax, the questions that Kim asks about facticity and experience are apparent in the depiction of the riots, which she figures as a "negotiation with 'an entire historical/political continuum'" (Zhou 2006, 260). The gravity of these words cannot be overstated as it places one event in a longer genealogy. But the individual experience of Edward Lee's mother results in a tragic and extreme form of equivalence. His mother divulges that her misrecognition splintered one photograph into two perceptual experiences, one of dismissal and one of confirmation: "It could not be my son" (Kim 1998, 64). And yet there is no ratio to be made, as the photograph is ultimately the same and not a comparison between two or more quantities. As in "Chart," the complete absence of the double colons intensifies sentiments of disorientation. This moment of the mother's misrecognition and loss is structured around terms associated with fire and violence and that literally surround the mother's "voice." The decaying punctuation helps illuminate the chaotic conditions of the riots themselves. That the mother's misidentification occurs in the context of two different, linguistically situated newspapers is important in teasing out conceptions of authenticity and truth. Whereas the Korean newspaper employs black and white print representation that obscures the mother's ability to identify her son's body, the Los Angeles Times presents the mother with a rather unequivocal fact of his death "in color" (65). The Korean newspaper's distortion is itself an interesting phenomenon because it requires the mother to consider that newspapers, even in one's "home language," can be misread even when they supposedly act as truth-telling apparatuses.

Intriguingly, the word "tariff" appears in this excerpt to denote the ways in which immigrant bodies are transformed into taxable beings. Having successfully crossed into the United States, they must shoulder other burdens in this movement, ones that appear, in "fact," through violent social upheavals often situated in deteriorating inner cities. This section, therefore, most concretely illuminates the oppressive conditions experienced by working-class migrant bodies under global capitalism, as subjects move in search of better opportunities. Further, the "tariff" or tax serves to underscore a more insidious question of cost. That is, what costs are produced in the reproduction of violent moments? Indeed, Edward Lee's mother must make sense out of photographic representations, but these representations are themselves structured within cost-benefit regimes. Reproducing pictures in color involves extra and often exorbitant expenses. The Korean language newspaper chooses not to spend its money in this manner in contrast to the larger, more fully funded Los Angeles Times. There appears an underlying polemic concerning the socioeconomic underpinnings that fuel photographic representation. The immigrant subject is positioned as having to sift through these proliferating simulacra, even while the "continuum" that draws out these events is clouded. (20) Consequently, rather than the rhizomatic branching that Zhou argues represents Dura's poetics, Kim's poetry involves a circular geometry: "Body moving in circle be fire" and "If fire be the body carried round" (Kim 1998, 65). These framing lines could be attached to multiple moments of social upheaval in global history, reproductive and circuitous "costs" that target immigrant and ethnic families, who become positioned in the crossfire.

This section ultimately reveals, then, the production and reproduction of violence and brutality across time. This issue underlies a stronger and more critical implication, as the lines clarify how the postcolonial immigrant as embodied by Edward Lee's mother is just one instantiation of a figure who has endured great trauma in the process of transnational movement. (21) In reading Elaine Kim's explanation of the Korean "naming" of the Los Angeles riots as "sa-i-ku," Lisa Lowe contends, "we can understand Korean American nationalism in the aftermath of the L.A. crisis not as a direct transference of the meanings of Korean nationalism but as a rearticulation of them, one that includes both the history of Koreans as colonized subjects displaced through immigration to the United States and a consideration of the racialization of Korean immigrants in Los Angeles as a community of color" (1996, 94). Lowe's assertion makes clear that the delineation of the 38th parallel did not categorically eliminate colonialism from Korea, as it was transformed into a neocolonial form. This neocolonial form involves Korea's dependence on US finance to rebuild its economy, the proliferation of the US military presence as exemplified by camptowns, the infiltration of US images and ideas through the process Edward Said (1993) has coined "cultural imperialism" and, later, through immigrants traveling abroad, seeking more opportunities in light of instability engendered by economic reconstruction. (22) I further argue that Dura draws on Korean immigration to the United States as yet another variant of ongoing colonialism, one ultimately correlating inner city decay and US interracial conflict as challenges borne through the continued importation of raced labor. (23)


In this section, which explores Kim's poetic use of mathematics and science in Dura, I return to my earlier discussion of Myung Mi Kim's relationship to the Language poets. Belying their name, Language poets have often incorporated mathematics and geometry directly in their works. Literary critic Brian Reed has read Susan Howe's work through the geometrical construction of poetic blocks, calling them "word squares" (2004). In addition, Lyn Hejinian structures her poetry collection My Life (1980) using numerical quantities based on her age. My Life has been described variously as "a hermeneutic puzzle" (Ma 2008, 154) and "a new, digressive logic of discursive sequence within the medium" (Reddy 2009, 55). Dura is also full of numbers, references to geometry, science, and other mathematically based disciplines that often correspond to Kim's life. Early on in "Cosmography," there are references to "Bora," "barium," and "buffer" (1998, 12), an alliterative line that alludes to chemistry. Bora is a compound related to and derived from the chemical element boron. Barium is also a chemical element, while buffers maintain the pH (acidity or alkalinity) within a given solution. These terms later find echoes in the lines "Made of particles hooked one to another" and "Gas to liquid, solid to liquid" (17), which also invoke chemistry. The concatenated particles can refer to chemical compounds or polymers, whereas "gas to liquid" describes condensation and "solid to liquid" describes melting. "Cosmography" also draws on geometry with "radius," "round," and "across" occurring within various lines; it touches on geology in lines containing "Axis" (11), "borer" (12), and "molten" (15).

The so-called hard sciences are described as such for their quantitative properties, a fact that supposedly distinguishes them from a field such as philosophy or history. Dura subverts this understanding of the "hard" disciplines by reducing them to individuated terms, relieving them of particular contexts and therefore unmooring them from traditional utility. In this vein, Myung Mi Kim's long poem dismantles the conception that scientific rationality is the best means by which to achieve objective truth. (24) Instead, her lines continually turn to the violence that results from empire's employment of mathematics and science--for instance, in its use of technological innovations and greater modes of efficiency to increase profits, with a corresponding increase in labor exploitation. Thus, Dura can also be read as a reactive mixture connecting language, punctuation, and poetic form across disciplines to illuminate how numbers and scientific methodologies can undergird the hierarchies and brutalities enacted by colonial encounters. In this respect, Kim proceeds with her poetic experiment with its own set of hypotheses and lyric interventions.

My brief return to "Cosmography" highlights one of the major final sequences within "Thirty and Five Books," which queries the ability of numbers, mathematics, and basic logic to orient subjects in a global capitalist milieu:

Propose: constant translation. Propose: the application of the compass to navigation. Propose: from a settlement, a capital grows. Propose: foray, expansion. Propose: as relates to an America. Propose: as relates to immigrant. Propose: knowledge becomes the parlance of the state. Propose: sound combinations. Propose: nameless days.

(Kim 1998, 78)

This series structures experimental hypotheses in which each proposal denotes specific conditions that must be honored. Taken together, their application seems to derive from the general conditions that give rise to the long poem. In other words, all nine proposals have been driving Dura forward as ordering rubrics, ranging from interlingual play and exploration to colonialism, immigration, and so on. Kim's use of hypothetical language, one that invokes scientific methodology and logic, is ironically deployed since all such elements described have already been featured in the poem in some form or another. This series of propositions is thus a linguistic mix of chemical compounds, moving forward toward a particular reaction. One result takes the form of Dura's lengthiest autobiographical moment, one narrated through a numerical series. An excerpt appears here:

8.5 Fried meat dumplings and sweet rice cakes

9.8 One of the first words understood in English: stupid

10.9 Diamondback on Oklahoma red dirt

11.4 A lambswool coat for straight A's

(Kim 1998, 79)

Without an introduction, this sequence is disorienting because the reader must attempt to discern what these ascending numbers mean. The phrases to the right of the numbers provide no connection to a particular subject or person. However, knowledge of the author's life clarifies some of this excerpt. Kim immigrated to the United States when she was nine years old. Therefore, the line "One of the first words understood in English: stupid," which is paired with "9.8," denotes the first number as Kim's physical age, while the second number would seem to correspond to the month of the year. (25) At the same time, the content of the line connects back to the series of proposals granted to us, such as the experience of "constant translation" or an event that "relates to an immigrant." Following this methodology through, in September of her tenth year she observes a "Diamondback on Oklahoma red dirt." What is the importance, however, of placing this autobiographical and numerological sequence at this point in the long poem? Especially since the content of these lines suggests the minutiae of the everyday, how does one understand Kim's life in the sociopolitical context of colonialism and capitalism as alluded to in the other proposals? That these autobiographical admissions appear after the proposals implies that Kim understands the postcolonial migrant's life as being intertwined with and constituted by complicated forces that move beyond specific everyday moments. The mathematical nature of this section appears also in the attempt to discern the years in which certain events took place. Once the point of reference to Kim's life is established, her birth year of 1957 takes on greater meaning as a basic template to decode this lyrical sequence. Tracking Kim's experiences suggests how the poet-writer must negotiate a creative representation that barrels through and intervenes in the intersections of history, colonialism, and capitalism.

As an exemplar of the subject caught within the force of these nine proposals, Kim follows this section with a series of proofs. Here, the term "proof' evokes multiple discourses, ranging from mathematics to scientific experiments to legal forums. In these cases, the proof exists as a concept, statement, or finding that must be proven valid or invalid:

Proof: an America is a woman is a sea path is.

Proof: 1492, the first terrestrial globe.

Proof: figures are enumerated by gender.

Proof: a woman face for to see monstrosity.

Proof: no such things exist.

Proof: skill of artifice or tilting, empire and colony.

(Kim 1998, 81)

Here, the double colons at the top of the page reappear for the first time in "Thirty and Five Books," their inclusion calling back to "Measure." However, in this section, each paired proof accomplishes a different function in which truth, quantifiability, and transparent communication are destabilized and challenged. In keeping with themes of illegibility, the first proof cannot be substantiated because blanks appear between the phrases "an America is," "a woman is," "a sea path is." In the second proof, "1492, the first terrestrial globe" is a phrase that seems to characterize Christopher Columbus's discovery of the Americas, but the "terrestrial globe" implies a land-bound world, which stands in contrast to Columbus's "sea path." Additionally, these lines call into question the very fact of claiming discovery of a land. Ultimately, they reveal how such proofs cannot be validated.

The second set of proofs, like the first, begins with an opaque line: "figures are enumerated by gender." It is not clear what kinds of figures this line refers to, but the word "gender" does strike oddly here, suggesting that "figures" refer to bodies. At the same time, given the invocation of the proof, "figures" might instead denote numbers, especially given the following word, "enumerated." How, then, might numbers be gendered? In this instability of signification, this proof remains tenuous and disorienting. These lines do suggest the possibility of a postcolonial feminist reading as the poem constantly refers to mothers (e.g., the mother of Edward Lee and even Myung Mi Kim herself) as well as female bodies. If numbers might be gendered, then this lyric reminds us of the stereotypical notion that the hard sciences are traditionally populated and driven by men. The following proof involves two fragmented terms and plays them off one another in nebulously sequenced words: "a woman face" appears, followed by a gap, followed by "for to see monstrosity." This spacing recalls the earlier proof, and here, too, the reader is pushed to bridge the divide. "A woman face" presents an opaque image precisely because the phrase is rendered without a possessive marker (a woman's face). This slight but nevertheless important change disrupts our ability to connect the woman to the face. Are the woman and the face part of the same body or not? In the second phrase, "for to see monstrosity," the preposition "for" clashes against the infinitive verb "to see." Without a more naturally fitting prepositional clause such as "in order to," the sentiments expressed here become clunky, evoking perhaps an inaccurate translation. In either case, both phrases, "a woman face" and "for to see monstrosity," might be seen as linguistic challenges related to minute changes in words, syntax, or punctuation markers that begin to undermine clear meanings and relationships. The pursuit of knowledge is further frustrated by the gap within the lyric, rendering the proof, like the three before, moot. This instability and inability to map this "woman face" and this "monstrosity" connect back to the "figures ... enumerated by gender" by challenging the belief that "proofs" and hard sciences establish discrete measures of value and quantitative data that in turn determine objective truths.

The final set of proofs, which begins with a very general phrase, "no such things exist," makes more transparent the stakes in these queries precisely because the reader cannot figure out exactly to what "things" the lyric refers. The second proof does suggest the way in which "things" can be reformulated as not existing through "skill of artifice or tilting." Here, Dura seems to call forth the dangers in representational art forms in which "things" written can be construed as fictitious or literary constructions. Similarly, the word "tilting" implies a skewed surface, one that can place "things" off-kilter. The second proof concludes with the phrase "empire and colony," as if to underscore the danger in casting off literary representation and lyric form as a way to intervene in the social inequalities catalyzed by colonialism.

What, then, do Myung Mi Kim's proposals lead us to understand, and what do her proofs actually prove? By employing the vocabulary of logic, mathematics, and science, Dura undermines the notion that quantifiability leads to greater clarity or comprehension, to greater efficiency and technological progress. Even as questions pile one on top of the other as the proofs continue, the disorientation generated by these lines makes the reader wary of the directionality that the so-called hard disciplines are designed to create. As such, this passage emphasizes the damage that scientific and mathematical innovations can produce, especially as conditioned through their deployment in the guise of empire. Left "tilting," the readers must navigate "empire and colony" in their perilous and biased quantifications. Indeed, as Dura shows, particular bodies, especially women and minorities, become the unfortunate target of the often brutalizing forces of transnational dominion.


The concluding section, "Hummingbird," moves away from the use of scientific and mathematic vocabulary and reintroduces the colon, reminding us of the punctuational are within the long poem. Whereas "Cosmography" begins with the double colons sitting atop each page in order to mark the uneasy relationships among different word clusters, "Hummingbird" employs the colon to explore the confrontations that erupt over linguistic meanings. Accordingly, this section begins with a translation exercise, directly integrating the colon as a way to query linguistic equivalence. The twelve-line translation exercise, later referred to as "twelve calls and responses" (Kim 1998, 99), does call out and respond to an earlier section marked off in twelve-line segments (99). That is, in "Thirty and Five Books," the mathematically demarcated autobiographical timeline appears in two pages broken up in twelve lines each. In this specific case, the translation exam again invokes the position of the writer as being part of Dura's representational boundaries. The chaotic nature of "Hummingbird" is augmented as Myung Mi Kim employs a number of devices used in earlier sections, such as colons, italics, and extra line and word spacing. In this chemical mixture an experiment is taking place, one perfectly illustrated by the last line of the poem: "Experiment is each scroll of white pages joined together" (108). As words become compounds that come together in a reactive mixture, the poem continues to consider how an emphasis on clarity and quantification generates social inequalities.

In the final use of the colon, Myung Mi Kim continues to bring us to the challenges related to linguistic meaning, whether it is rendered through legalistic discourse, writing, or translation. As it is stated:

Argue: precedents, oaths, public records, witnesses

Deliver: introduction, narration, statement of the case, and peroration

The writing hung on the wall] [whose writing is it

Meal means: stuff, material

(Kim 1998, 106; emphasis in original)

This last lyric sequence grants the colon its traditional grammatical function: to introduce lists. The importance of the colon here can be traced to the previous line, the one including the inverted brackets. "The writing hung on the wall" might draw from the idiomatic phrase used in the biblical Book of Daniel, in which the "writing on the wall" signals a negative harbinger, an ominous sign of things to come and thus a negative decline or conclusion. That this lyric appears after the legalistic discourse suggests the ways in which law induces problematic equivalences and signals a future temporality structured through exclusionary language. One might read this lyric as referring to the last appearance of the colon in the line "Meal means: stuff, material" (106). "Meal" might be defined as "stuff, material," but such a denotation fails to connect the word to the eating process or, more specifically, to ground food. If meal is understood as stuff or material, what does this meal fuel or constitute? The lines already suggest how meals can be configured through a utilitarianism that strips social context and individual experience.

The phrase "the writing hung on the wall" might also connect to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee (2001). Myung Mi Kim identifies Cha as an influence on her poetic projects, so this encrypted intertext is not beyond the scope of possibility. Cha's avant-garde work opens up with a photograph of Korean (Hangul) inscriptions on a wall, which includes the phrases: "I am hungry," "Mother, I want to see you," and "I want to go home." As various literary critics have noted, these statements could have been written by Korean laborers forcibly assigned to work in Japanese mines. (26) Their larger import in relation to Dura stems from the connection between the laborers' hunger and the inclusion of "meal," the very "material" and "stuff" that constitutes physical sustenance and that has been withheld from the laborers. However, there are other figurative meals being withheld, such as the mother figure and the home. The final inclusion of the colon then questions access: Who has access to the various meals that sustain life? The colon's placement alongside legal language suggests that access and sanctioned subjectivity is rendered through those with the power to create law. Legal discourse allows a certain figure to emerge as citizen-subject, but the writing inscribed on the walls does not appear with the same import. So tenuous is this form of writing that the question "whose writing is it" appears as a testament to the illegibility of the bonded laborer. Concluding Dura by questioning what subjects appear legible under commodity capitalism attests to the overarching lyrical framework that problematizes how bodies are transformed within an economy of surplus and profit and the pursuit of efficiency and technology. The Korean colonial laborers' hungers are denied and questioned, while their physical work is exploited for gain. In this respect, the meal signifies that which is material, intangible. While one institution, individual, or nation gains, another can potentially be excluded, written out, made hungry. (27)

At the same time, Juliana Spahr has noted that the origin of the writing that appears in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's photograph itself is contested, potentially being written at a point subsequent to Japanese colonization of Korea and therefore the work of Korean nationalists; or it may have been composed during World War II, in the passageway of a Japanese home (1996, 37-38). If true, the question of "whose writing is it" elaborates on the larger instabilities related to points of origin; but regardless of authorship, the sentiments expressed convey that bodies react against hierarchical structures related to domination and colonialism through physical inscriptions. As Myung Mi Kim's verse calls attention to the inability to decipher a unitary author, the legal discourse does little to help recover certain forms of materiality, especially since Kim's terms, ranging from "witnesses" to "peroration," concentrate on oration and speaking. Within the realm of potential hearsay, these accounts cannot necessarily grant justice. By focusing on indeterminate materialities, ranging from written texts to hunger, Dura aggregates around a larger trajectory that links expendable commodities (in the form of replaceable labor) to various colonialisms.

If Dura literally signifies "to last," one might suggest that survival is at the core of this collection. The late capitalist subject is increasingly buffeted by modes of commodification and by enduring but evolving forms of (neocolonialism. Rather than producing an epic in which a "hero" must be formulated and constructed, Dura attempts to negotiate these incredible forces, where multiple subjects, both human and otherwise (in the case of the hummingbird) engage the perilous equivalences induced by global exploration and exploitation. Myung Mi Kim's employment of punctuational poetics interrogates how language, mathematics, and the logics of equivalence are complicit in processes of subjection. As Leny Mendoza Strobel testifies:
   For a postcolonial subject like me, the rules of English usage
   didn't come in a vacuum. They came nicely packaged as a "gift" from
   the empire to its colonial outposts--so that what is unintelligible
   might become intelligible; what is obscure might become clear; what
   is dis-united can be united within one language. So much the better
   for management of the empire and its unruly colonies. (2005,

In mapping a connection between punctuation and empire, language and colonialism, Strobel enables one to apply such a reading to Dura, especially as this long poem challenges and subverts communicational transparency for the express purpose of disunity and tactical unintelligibility. Dura appears as an "unruly" yet innovative poetic vision, one that continually challenges us to place ourselves in numerous uncomfortable but necessary comparative relationships. In this respect, the poetic text helps us imagine the often unexpected convergences in contemporary American poetry, as Asian American poetry continues to develop its avant-garde character and Language poetry finds itself moving ever closer to what Barrett Watten has called a "cultural poetics" (2003, 347). In this vein, I follow Dorothy J. Wang's exhortation that we must continually approach poetry, especially minority poetry, attending to its "full complexity" (2014, 33). Dura's experiment is finally then embodied in its ability to show us the dynamic equilibrium between form and content, aesthetics and politics.


I want to thank effusively Paul Lai, Timothy Yu, Kazim Ali, Jennifer Ann Ho, Juliana Chang, Josephine Nock-Hee Park, and Saikat Majumdar for reading this piece in its entirety and providing timely and integral feedback. Xiaojing Zhou and Joseph Jonghyun Jeon also offered instrumental support. Finally, Haerin Shin and Long Le-Khac were essential in the completion of research for this article.

(1) My argument is heavily influenced by the work of cultural critics--Joseph Jonghyun Jeon, Josephine Nock-Hee Park, Dorothy J. Wang, Timothy Yu, Xiaojing Zhou, and Steven G. Yao, among others--who have been exploring racial formalism in Asian American poetry. For these cultural critics, race and lyric, politics and aesthetics are inseparable. See Park (2006), Zhou (2006), Yao (2010), Wallinger-Schorn (2011), Jeon (2012), and Wang (2014).

(2) In terms of syntax, one can approach Kim's poetics through her affiliation with the Language poets. In Bob Perelman's extension of Rob Silliman's conception of the "new sentence," Perelman asserts that "parataxis is crucial: the internal, autonomous meaning of a new sentence is heightened, questioned, and changed by the degree of separation or connection that the reader perceives with regard to the surrounding sentences" (1993, 313).

(3) For Yu's consideration of the experimentalism of the early Asian American poets, see chapter 3 of Race and the Avant-Garde (2009). Xiaojing Zhou (2004) places Myung Mi Kim in an Asian American experimental grouping that includes Catalina Cariaga and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. In his in-depth analysis of John Yau, Yu (2000) considers Yau a potential off-shoot of the Language poets along with Kim, Cha, Lin, and Berssenbrugge.

(4) All five of the existing paradigmatic Asian American poetics anthologies provide conceptually productive introductions that attempt to theorize the field of Asian American poetics at large. They are, in order of publication: Bruchac (1983), Hongo (1993), Lew (1995) J. Chang (1996a), and V. Chang (2004). Whereas Bruchac offers an extremely terse introduction concerning the importance of Asian American poetics in a self-definitive mode, Hongo complicates this equation: "Many here in The Open Boat may have some ambition to widen the interpretive field of whatever might be called 'Asian American literature,' to oppose canonical orthodoxies, to resubjectivize and vivify existing sociological interpretations and exclusively materialist models of our experiences, and to encourage diversity, intellectual passion, and an appreciation of verbal beauty. It may be that we seek a kind of serious bewilderment that clarifies experience" (1993, xxxvii). V. Chang's edited collection would approach Asian American poetics through its historical archive, forcefully dispensing with the notion that Asian American poetics appeared during the cultural nationalist movements of the late sixties and seventies. Lew's anthology also attempted its own recovery by addressing a lacuna in earlier anthologies: "Previous anthologies have been either too small or conservative to convey the astonishing diversity and eloquence of new poetries spread out among numerous networks and poetics--both esoteric and activist, imagist and deconstructive, pidgin and purist, diasporic and Americanist, high literary and pop cultural" (1995, 575). It is perhaps no surprise that given Lew's attempt at various inclusions that Kim's work appears in only Lew's anthology. For an in-depth comparative critical piece on Lew's and Hongo's anthologies, see McCormick (2004).

(5) HOW(ever) saw two separate print runs, the first between May 1983 and January 1992 and the second beginning in 1999. Kim was involved in both print runs. She guest-edited all four issues of the sixth volume from the first print run; these issues were published in January 1990, October 1990, Summer 1991, and January 1992. The archives to (HOW)ever can be accessed online at www.asu. edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/archive/.

(6) Vickery has been a vital figure in the growing critical discourse on experimental women's poetry, having written Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing (2000).

(7) (HOW)ever would also demonstrate the continued importance of experimental influences on Asian American women poets, eventually publishing the work of Hoa Nguyen, Sawako Nakayasu, Sun Yung Shin, and Shin Yu Pai.

(8) For the foundational articles and book chapters on Language poetry, see Perloff (1985), Bartlett (1986), and McGann (1987). For other useful discussions of Language poetry, see Brill (1990), Middleton (1990), Watten (1999), Izenberg (2003), Sussman (2003).

(9) Bernstein also asserts, "If the poem is at times puzzling or open-ended or merely suggestive, rather than explicit, maybe it gives its readers or listeners more space for their own interpretations and imaginations" (1999, 9).

(10) The anticapitalist strain of Asian American poetry stems often from a lyric commitment to unmasking the way race and racial difference are structured onto economically exploitative gradients. The examples from Asian American poetry are numerous, ranging from explorations of colonial violence in Barbara Jane Reyes's poeta en San Francisco (2005) to lyric invocations of the Chinese immigrant laborer found in Marilyn Chin's Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (2002). For the Language poets, too, a Marxist politic can easily be situated. This viewpoint is emblematized by Ron Silliman, who contends that "objects of consciousness, including individual words and even abstractions, are perceived as commodities and take on this 'mystical' character of fetish" (1987, n). Silliman's critique follows what he considers to be an increasingly referential nature of language as it is constrained within a profit-motivated literary marketplace. This movement toward a representational terrain dominated by realism can be disrupted in part by a poetics that attends to the "gestural" (11) and by exposing the "repressed signifier" (18). Bernstein makes a similar point regarding referentiality: "Not 'death' of the referent--rather a recharged use of the multivalent referential vectors that any word has, how words in combination tone and modify the associations made for each of them, how 'reference' then is not a one-on-one relation to an 'object' but a perceptual dimension that closes in to pinpoint, nail down (this word), sputters omnitropically" (1986, 34). While critiques of the Marxist foundations of the Language poets have been made by a number of scholars, including Marjorie Perloff, Vernon Shetley, and David Marriott, Kim's Dura shows how an experimental poetics that disrupts syntactical unity as well as grammatical normativity can effectively and productively combine with a historicist lyric imaginary. For these various critiques, see Perloff (1985, 232-34), Shetley (1993, 147-53), and Marriott (2003, 338-43).

(11) While the critical focus of this essay rests on Kim's Dura, there has been significant attention paid to her other work as well. For criticism on Under Flag, see Charles Altieri (1995; 1996, 779-82), Elaine H. Kim (1997, 175-76), Laura Hyun Yi Kang (2002, 233-42), Jeannie Chiu (2004, 95-96), Joseph Jonghyun Jeon (2004, 127-33), Josephine Nock-Hee Park (2006, 236-41; 2008, 146-50), Brian Kim Stefans (2006, 85), Xiaojing Zhou (2002; 2006, 229-42). For criticism on The Bounty, see Chiu (2004, 96-100), Jeon (2004, 134-36), Zhou (2006, 242-55). For criticism on Commons, see Jeon (2004, 138-40), Zhou (2006, 267-74), Liu (2007, 252-66). Dura has also had sustained critical interest. For the purposes of parity, I include references to critical studies on Dura here; see Jeon (2004, 133-34), Reed (2004), Park (2006, 241-54; 2008, 150-56), Stefans (2006, 85-86), Zhou (2006, 255-65). Penury (2009) is Kim's most recent published collection.

(12) In Benjamin Huang's approach to teaching Asian American poetry, he completely avoids Myung Mi Kim along with John Yau precisely because he "thought the class would find" their poetry "too obscure" (2005, 83).

(13) Lim (1987) provides three taxonomic ways to investigate ethnopoetics: through language (often interlingual), elements of style (cultural markers), and intertextual dynamics (which connect the Asian American poet to a lineage distinct from the American canon).

(14) For more concerning the rhizome, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari extensively theorize this concept in the now-classic critical theory text, A Thousand Plateaus (2003). Zhou's general deployment of this theory is a novel consideration that I, too, bring to bear in my own reading, extending its utility in investigating more specifically Kim's punctuation.

(15) As a result, Kim's own trajectory within Asian American literature becomes more intricate because, I argue, this long poem advances a rubric that could well fit under the concept of what has been termed "postcolonial literature." However, the two literary bodies are not mutually exclusive at all as has been detailed by a number of literary critics who have considered Asian American literature from this intersectional focus, including Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Stephen H. Sumida, Rajini Srikanth, Victor Bascara, Allan Punzalan Isaac, E. San Juan Jr., among others.

(16) I invoke the Derridean sense of the term "poststructural," outlined in various ways in "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" (1978, 278-94), as well as his continuing theorization of language in Of Grammatology (1998).

(17) Indeed, as a "call and response," Kim will later include a lyric, "placement between l and r" (1998, 33), that operates to query the interlingual nature within this poem. Words such as "plural," "stellar," and "deliberate" can be challenging for the Korean immigrant speaker learning English precisely because the Korean language makes no phonetic distinction between the English letters l and r.

(18) The period appears in two of the sections prior, at the conclusion to "Cosmography" (Kim 1998, 18) and at the conclusion to "Labors" (34), but the use of the period is fleeting.

(19) Both Park (2006) and Zhou (2007) make such arguments in relation to "Thirty and Five Books" precisely because this section gestures toward various concrete events such as the 1992 Los Angeles riots. This reading operates on the lynchpin that there is a form of internal colonialism in the structuring of race and ethnicity within the United States.

(20) I use the term "simulacra" in accordance with Baudrillard's (1983) conceptualization.

(21) Song (2005) makes such a reading.

(22) For a fierce study of the neocolonial phenomenon, see Yuh (2002).

(23) One might even push this reading further by suggesting that yet another encrypted colonialism appears through the "internal colonial" model that Korean immigrant subjects often engage through their business ventures, moving into socioeconomically challenged urban areas. For more on internal colonialism, see Staples (1987) and Silverman (2000). For more specifically on interracial politics of the black-Korean conflicts, see Min (1996) and C. J. Kim (2000).

(24) This approach places Dura within Lyotard's (1984) conceptualization of the oppositional micronarrative.

(25) I base my reading on the fact that the second number sometimes goes into the double digits, but never past the number 12, suggesting that these numbers correspond to the months in the year.

(26) For other readings of Cha's writing on the wall from Dictee, see Yun (1992, 94), Wong (1994, 45-46), Frost (2002, 181), Cowart (2006, 104), Wester (2007, 172-73).

(27) As further evidence of the "call and response" modality within which Dura functions, one can recall the disembodied word "famish" in "Cosmography" which appears in "Hummingbird" again.


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STEPHEN HONG SOHN is Assistant Professor of English at University of California, Riverside. He is the author of Racial Asymmetries: Asian American Fictional Worlds (2014), the editor of Anime Wong: Fictions of Performance (2014), and the co-editor of Transnational Asian American Literature: Sites and Transits (2006).
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Title Annotation:ESSAYS
Author:Sohn, Stephen Hong
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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