Don Mee Choi Hardly War

ISBN 13: 9781940696218

Hardly War

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9781940696218: Hardly War
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Hardly War, Don Mee Choi's major second collection, defies history, national identity, and militarism. Using artifacts from Choi's father, a professional photographer during the Korean and Vietnam wars, she combines memoir, image, and opera to explore her paternal relationship and heritage. Here poetry and geopolitics are inseparable twin sisters, conjoined to the belly of a warring empire.

Like fried potato chips – I believe so,
utterly so – The hush-hush proving
ground was utterly proven as history –
Hardly=History – I believe so, eerily so
– hush hush – Now watch this
performance – Bull's-eye – An uncanny
human understanding on target –
Absolute=History – loaded with
terrifying meaning – The Air Force
doesn't say, hence Ugly=Narration –

Don Mee Choi is the author of The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010), and translator of contemporary Korean women poets. She has received a Whiting Writers Award and the 2012 Lucien Stryk Translation Prize. Her translation of Kim Hyesoon's Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream (Action Books, 2014) was a finalist for the 2015 PEN Poetry in Translation Award. She was born in Seoul and came to the United States via Hong Kong. She now lives in Seattle, Washington.


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About the Author:

Don Mee Choi is the author of The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010), and translator of contemporary Korean women poets. She has received a Whiting Writers Award and the 2012 Lucien Stryk Translation Prize. Her translation of Kim Hyesoon’s Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream (Action Books, 2014) was a finalist for the 2015 PEN Poetry in Translation Award. She was born in Seoul and came to the U.S. via Hong Kong. She now lives in Seattle.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

From Hardly War

"Race=Nation"

     I was born in a tiny traditional tile-roofed house, a house my father bought with award money he received for his photographs of the April 19, 1960 Revolution. The student-led revolution overthrew the authoritarian South Korean president, Syngman Rhee, installed by the U.S. government in 1948. He tells me even elementary school students came out to join high school and college students in protest, their arms locked shoulder to shoulder. And what he cannot forget are the shoeshine boys, Korean War orphans who eked out a living on the streets of Seoul. Many of them gave up their lives in the uprising. Police opened fire, killing about 180 and wounding thousands. We bade farewell to the house I was born in during the height of the U.S.-backed dictatorship under Park Chung Hee. Even after several decades of living outside of South Korea, this is the house I still return to. It is my psychic and linguistic base, a site of perpetual farewell and return, a site of my political act translation and writing.
     My early education in South Korea trained me to think race as nation and nation as race, hence race=nation. A Korean term, uri minjok our race, our national identity was imagined, a crucial construction and a mobilizing force in the anti-colonial, independence movement during the Japanese occupation 1910-45. When Korea fell under the control of the U.S. military government in 1945, a part of our race had split off as ppalgaengi, Reds or Commies. But really, anyone in those white pajama things,” traditional pants, which majority of the Koreans wore back then, was seen as a gook. This is how a gook=nation was born. Our race, our national identity, even our clothing became racialized and geopoliticized within the global class war. Therefore, when I was born in the tiny tile-roofed house, I was already geopolitically raced. Hence, me=gook.
     While I was growing up in Hong Kong, I saw more of my father’s photographs than of my father because he was always away in various war zones. He would bring back photographs of the war he saw, then leave again. He also left us a map, a wall-sized map of Southeast Asia, framed and hung above our dining table, so we could track him across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. What I am attempting to do with my poems and my father’s photographs is what I used to do as a child when I stared at my father’s photographs and maps trying to imagine race=nation, its language, its wars. I am trying to fold race into geopolitics and geopolitics into poetry. Hence, geopolitical poetics. It involves disobeying history, severing its ties to power. It strings together the faintly remembered, the faintly imagined, the faintly discarded, which is to say race=nation gets to speak its own faint history in its own faint language. Its mere umbilical cord is hardly attached to anything at all. Hence, hardly=war.

"Woe are you?"

It was hardly war, the hardliest of wars. Hardly, hardly. It occurred to me that this particular war was hardly war because of kids, more kids, those poor kids. The kids were hungry until we GIs fed them. We dusted them with DDT. Hardly done. Rehabilitation of Korea that is. It needs chemical fertilizer from the states, power to build things like a country. In the end it was the hardliest of wars made up of bubble gum, which GIs had to show those kids how to chew. In no circumstance can man be comfortable without art. They don’t want everlasting charity and we are not giving it to them. We are just lending them a hand until they can stand on their own two feet. A novel idea. This is why it occurred to me that this particular war was hardly war, the hardliest of wars.

My father was hardly himself during the war, then I was born during the era that hardly existed, and, therefore, I hardly existed without DDT. Beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing. I prefer a paper closet with real paper dresses in it. To be born hardly, hardly after the hardliest of wars is a matter of debate. Still going forward. We are that is. Napalm again. This is the THE BIG PICTURE. War and its masses. War and its men. War and its machines. Together we form THE BIG PICTURE. From Korea to Germany from Alaska to Puerto Rico. All over the world, the U.S. Army is on the alert to defend our country, you the people against aggression. This is THE BIG PICTURE, an official television report to the nation from the Army. This is Korea! Is one thing better than another? These South Koreans are alright. Woe is you, woe is war, hardly war, woe is me, woe are you? My father is still alive and this is how I came to prefer a paper closet with real paper dresses in it.

from Purely Illustrative

"I, Lack-a-daisy"

I, Lack-a-daisy, born two miles from here. Here is DMZ. In fact, I, Lack-a-daisy, born two miles from every place you’ve been. How orange yes, ma’am. I, Lack-a-daisy, born two miles from every place you’ve been, which is known as the human core, which translates to born two miles from every flowering bellybutton. Here is DMZ. Mark-a-daisy. Every belly is a suspect. I, Lack-a-daisy, born two miles from every place, every suspect, every petal kicked open, am deeply moved by world memories. There is no choice in the matter. What are world memories? It turns out that they are war memories. And what are war memories? They are orphan memories. Orphan memories are like the fetuses thrown out in bottles. Fishy smelling blood clots. I, Lack-a-daisy, never saw the fetus-filled bottles with my own eyes, but when you are a little girl, what you hear is as good as seeing with your very own eyes. Here is DMZ. We talk about blood at great length. Fetuses captivate our imagination, particularly orphan fetuses. After all, I, myself, was nearly an orphan fetus. Luckily, I happily survived. I, Lack-a-daisy, thank orphan memories. I’m bloody fetal. I’m purely petal. I’m hardly war. Now, ask me a difficult question. How orange yes, ma’am. He’s my son.

"Daisy Serenade"

1      I, Lack-a-daisy=like a daisy=lack a daisy=like a daisy=I, Lack-a-daisy
2     Nine nine=mind your daisy=9 9=paisley daisy
3      Motherly stamen=style style=overly ovaries!
4      O fear veer=you are my Schneewittchen
5      Or 0?=Do you know?=O or 5?=Do you know?=Yi Sang knows
7      I style stigma=style anther=then sepal ovule=Over
6      I sang=I sang=like a daisy
6      I fugue=I fugue=like a daisy
8      I nearly=narrowly=ovary=Over
9      Paisley Daisy
9      Oopsy Daisy
10      Or Lyndon?
9      Or Barry?
8      Or Crazy?
7      Oxeye Daisy?
6      Or I Sang?
5      Or London?
4      Or Yoke?
3      Or Vote?
2      Or 18?
1      Overly Overly
0      We must love one another or die

       Beauty=18=18=18=18=18=18=18=18=18=18=0=Nation
        Beauty=4=4=4=4=4=4=4=4=4=4=0=Nation
        Beauty=Me=Me=Me=Me=0=Nation
        Me=Over

from Hardly Opera

Act 1. I was surprised!

CAMERA ELMAR

I-like-a I-like-a
I take a look I-like-a
A copy of LIFE magazine
O-Pinkville O-like-Me
As far as war is involved such thing is happening
anywhere any place any nation
I-like-a

CHORUS (dead orphans of the world)

Anywhere any place any nation
I-like-a!

(repeat as an undertone, shaking pine needle branches in their hands
chorus is dressed in white color of death)

CAMERA ELMAR

One day I called my friend’s office
O-like-Me O-seaweed
I was surprised!
He was sent to a military training camp
I should have been drafted too but I was younger than him
according to my family registry document
When he came back after Seoul was regained
he rushed to see his family
He arrived with a M1 rifle
wearing a helmet
His neighbors cheered
O-sway-me sway-me O-like-Me.

CRAZIES (or Eternity)

Two Reds!
Terrible acts! Kill Them!

(shaking red hydrangeas in their hands)

CAMERA ELMAR

O-told-me such a case
His neighbors grabbed my friend
and took him to the house
where the Reds were hiding
Crushed the gate
O-a-like-a-like-a

CRAZIES

Reds! Reds!

(shaking red hydrangeas)

CHORUS

Hydrangea agenda!

(repeat as an undertone)

CAMERA ELMAR

O-crazy-daisy!
His neighbors grabbed the Reds
a man and a woman
O-ringspots!
Dragged them to the town’s storehouse
O-orphans!

CRAZIES

Kill them! Kill them!

CAMERA ELMAR

My friend worked for a third-rate newspaper
I worked for a first-rate newspaper
O-a-like-a-like-a O-now
The man trapped in the storehouse worked for
a second-rate newspaper
O-bonnet! He was a sports editor!
My friend knew him O-flower!

CRAZIES

Kill them! Kill them!

CAMERA ELMAR

O-rose-of-sharon!
Like-a-lily! Luckily, the sports editor
didn’t recognize my friend
so he shot the two Reds
the sports editor and the woman
O-lily-bang-bang!
Otherwise the crazies
would have killed my friend
Such a case countless cases
O-lily-me

CHORUS

O-flower! O-flower!

(frantically shaking pine needle branches)

CRAZIES

Sports editor! Sports editor!

(repeat five times and chorus and crazies merge on stage,
shaking red hydrangeas and pine needle branches)


*

Act 2. What’s going on? OK OK

SWAYING HYDRANGEAS

(a mass of pink hydrangeas in paisley dresses with flowered hats
sip tea, eat cake, smoke cigarettes through fancy holders, adjust bra straps,
take notes, etc)


A funny story which is just another story
There is only one road from south to north
Dusty when dry
Muddy when rainy

CAMERA ELMAR

One day during the war I came upon a story
in Chosôn Daily
Only a front and back page
for paper and ink were scarce
At the bottom of the front page
there is an editorial usually written
by a top editor
something humorous
something political O-blouse

SWAYING HYDRANGEAS

Paisley-daisy blousey-daisy

(sip tea)

CAMERA ELMAR

An American Army major drove down
from north to south
he himself alone
He pulled over because
he saw a funny looking ceremony
O-ribbon-bon-bon O-orphans!
AMERICAN ARMY MAJOR
What’s going on?

WHITE HYDRANGEAS

(in baggy white pajamas)


OK OK

AMERICAN ARMY MAJOR

What’s going on?

SWAYING HYDRANGEAS

OK-bang-bang!

WHITE HYDRANGEAS

OK OK

CAMERA ELMAR

O-bonnet-bon-bon!
What’s happening was a wedding ceremony
An old custom of Korean farmers
a strange manner O-pajamas!
The bridegroom is tied up by his feet
And hands onto a beam
Village people whack him with sticks
O-bon-bon O-bad-guy
You steal a nice beautiful girl from our village
It’s just a play O-madness

SWAYING HYDRANGEAS

Paisley-daisy, blousey-daisy

AMERICAN ARMY MAJOR

Why are you hitting him?

WHITE HYDRANGEAS

OK OK

AMERICAN ARMY MAJOR

Is he a communist?

WHITE HYDRANGEAS

OK OK

SWAYING HYDRANGEAS

OK-bang-bang!

Yes, ma’am

AMERICAN ARMY MAJOR

A communist! I’ll kill him

HITE HYDRANGEAS

OK OK

SWAYING HYDRANGEAS

Yes, ma’am

CAMERA ELMAR

He pulled out a 45
O-Yankee-bon-bon!

SWAYING HYDRANGEAS

Yes, ma’am

CAMERA ELMAR

O-bonnet!
Suddenly the whole world became quiet
The major got back into his jeep and drove off
O-OK-bon-bon OK was still the best word in Vietnam
O-scribble!

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