BILL SCALIA Reviews
The Morning News is Exciting by Don Mee Choi
(Action Books, Notre Dame, IN., 2010)
The Morning News is Exciting is divided into 13 discrete sections, of varying styles and perspectives, united by a central controlling theme: translation, and its varying effects and species: sublimation, assimilation, alienation, domination, submission. Poet Don Mee Choi is a woman divided: politically, culturally, internationally, and in terms of tradition, gender, and self. Thus the controlling theme of the book: translation from one condition to another, while being in both at the same time. Choi is interested in translation and language, but also translation as metaphor. Choi has said, “I think of translation as a process of constant displacement, a set of linguistic signs displaced by another. And this displacement take place under a specific historical condition, sometimes acting out of orders from the darkness.”
However, it is to Choi’s great credit that she doesn’t isolate these effects entirely as political or cultural rhetoric. Marxist, socialist, feminist, and anti-Imperialist elements are present, certainly, and the text may be read exclusively that way if one chooses to do so. But Choi allows us this choice; she uses these concerns to highlight the experience of a woman living in two worlds, two places, two conditions. As with good poets, Choi’s work is grounded in the real, but her experience transcends the real. Perhaps this is another of her “translations.” The strongest sections of the book highlight these fundamental divisions. Choi is a native of South Korea and gives witness to atrocities committed by US troops during the Korean War; Marxist, Communist, and Maoist ideologies; and the life of a girl in a traditional setting, learning the folk traditions handed down by her mother.
The strongest sections, “Diary of Return,” “The Morning News is Exciting,” “Diary of a Translator,” “Journey from Neocolony to Colony” work the tension of translation as metaphor by which a person lives in two cultures at once, or the process by which one culture replaces (or displaces) another in a person’s heart and mind. Choi’s work as a translator for Korean immigrants is especially felt here. These sections deal specifically with language, cultural, and political displacement. Likewise, in the equally strong “Instructions from the Inner Room,” the speaker conveys instructions learned form her mother via the traditional kyubang kasa, or instructional poem songs handed down from mother to daughter, intended to inculcate cultural values and a wife’s responsibilities (mostly servile) to her husband (according to the poet’s gloss). In these sections the tensions are clear; though there are notes at the end of every section in the book explaining the political, philosophical, and linguistic origins of the quotes Choi uses in the text, we don’t need them to understand the human drama.
In the less effective sections of the book, “Manegg,” “Diary of a Weaver” and “Petite Manifesto,” one gets the feeling that the notes are instrumental to the text, which is a bit unfortunate. The glosses help, but I am not inclined to do research outside the text in order to read the text. That is, in the best of Choi’s writing the language hits viscerally; the notes direct me to the source of her quotes if I choose to track them down. But that choice is, and should be, the reader’s.
To my mind the most curious, and in a way puzzling, section is “Twin Flower, Master, Emily.” Here, Choi takes as her central conceit Emily Dickinson’s “Master” letters; Choi reimagines the letters, locating the voice of the letters somewhere between Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (“Master,” presumably), and another speaker. Dickinson’s influence on Choi is clear - - the line “Loneliness is a fine thing, said the clock,” from the section “Diary of a Translator” is worthy of Dickinson herself - - but I can’t see what she’s up to here. As base material for derivation, the Master letters are fair game, I’ll admit, and it’s fair for her to chase them. But to reimagine the work of a poet of Emily Dickinson’s unique talent (and her letters are among her finest writing) is daunting; Choi must engage, and in some ways transcend, the originals lest she fall short by the invited comparison. The book’s central theme of translation is evident in “Twin Flower, Master, Emily” -- what is more difficult to translate than poetry? -- and Choi is striving to engage the work for a different cultural and political context. But this theme is better addressed in the book’s other sections, and Choi’s homage to Dickinson is better expressed through Dickinson’s influence on Choi’s phrasing (especially in “The Tower” and “Instructions from the Inner Room”), word choice, and imagery (especially her close attention to the ephemera of household items and nature).
Don Mee Choi is a poet of unquestionable talent, a skilled eye, and formal abilities. I wish at times her material came more from her deep background of experience rather than her critical reading (the problem is not that it’s there, but that the critical interweaving is at times opaque rather than transparent). Some of her lines jump off the page; “No one spoke to her / but she married anyway” is one of the strongest opening lines I’ve read in a while, and some sections of the book encounter translation as a condition necessitated by the process of being displaced (and thus implies the dominant / submissive motifs in the book). This sustained tension of translation drives the whole of the work when it works at its best; Choi’s many worlds are never fully in sync. In “Notes of a Cowry Girl,” Choi repeats the line, “Therefore be considered a synonym.” We may take this expression as a motto for the book, particularly if we understand that “synonym” is an approximation of similar meaning and “considered” depends on who is doing (or has the power to do) the considering.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). His book Conversing in Figures: Emerson, Poetry, Cinema is forthcoming in 2012. Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.