- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 27, 2004

GLACIER LILY

By Chung Mi Kim

Red Hen, $15.95, 150 pages (paper)

REVIEWED BY YEARN HONG CHOI

We live today in a world of high quantity, low quality communications, consisting of instant messaging, crass reality TV, and the daily misery of listening to others’ mundane conversations as they yak into their cell phones. But even into this dark and noisy world, a little light must shine, which is one of the reasons we have poetry books.

There are not many of them, because there are not many readers of poetry left in America. This makes poetry publishing in this country a very tough business. Poets who get their works published should be congratulated. And perhaps first-generation immigrant poets who find their poems between covers should be congratulated most of all. Often, they’ve overcome huge language and cultural barriers that native speakers of American English haven’t had to face.

Most first-generation Korean American poets are not so well known, nor are they as prolific as Chungmi Kim, who has published in a number of poetry magazines and has made her poetry known publicly through a variety of venues.

Her most recent book is “Glacier Lily.” The 85 poems included in this volume deal with her life as immigrant and student in Southern California.

Ms. Kim came to the United States as a student at University of California at Los Angeles, where she majored in theater arts. After that, she resided in Los Angeles, working as a poet and playwright. Not long ago, she moved to the Washington D.C. area.

Ms. Kim writes in English, not Korean. This is unusual: The majority of first-generation Korean-American poets and writers produce their works in Korean, then translate them into English. Still, her first language was Korean and her attachment to Korean language and culture can be seen clearly in her poems.

Thus, in “Glacier Lily,” she groups her first 10 poems under the heading, “In My Homeland.” Her poems are relatively simple and direct. The first poem in this volume, for example, is “A Girl on the Swing,” an evocation of how it feels to be adrift, care-free on a swing:

She sees the mountain

upside down.

With her long hair

sweeping the fallen leaves

she swings

like a pendulum.

From the lagoon at sunset

a hundred sparrows fly away.

Wishing them back

she whistles softly.

And downward

she falls into the sky.

And here are two characteristic stanzas from the book’s title poem, “Glacier Lily.”

You are a poet

a woman like a glacier lily

existing solely

in the ice-covered mountaintop

lonely

pure and colorless.

and

Poetry of frustration

you write in such simplicity

in such purity

revealing yourself

as a virgin.

The immigrant’s life can be lonely, divided between two cultures. Ms. Kim’s poems convey that loneliness. They also speak of racism and attitudes characteristic of Korean-Americans. In her poem “America! (‘92 L.A. Riots)” she writes:

America

you burnt our dreams

to the ground.

Our neighbors became so-

cial bandits

raging

at the crimes you committed.

And in “Humiliation,” she declares: My Asian modesty always makes me/look away quietly when I’m confronted/ with hostility.”

The poet James Ragan, author of “Lusions,” has summed up Ms. Kim’s achievement in these words: “Kim explores the themes of longing and displacement in a culture she sees as … [both] askew … and engaging.” In her work, he continued, identity is found in “the coloring of age” and is “vibrant and transforming.”

Her work is also a bridge between two cultures, America’s and Korea’s. Ms. Kim’s is a significant voice in the effort of Korean-Americans to give definition to what it means to be a Korean in the United. States.

Yearn Hong Choi is the founding president of the Korean Poets and Writers Group in the Washington D.C. area, and currently president of the Korean-American Poetry Group.

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