Online Edition: Spring 2003

Translating Mo'um by Cathy Park Hong

Translating Mo'um

Cathy Park Hong

Hanging Loose Press ($13)

by Gabriella Ekman

These days it is common to speak of the "borderland" tongues of second- and third-generation immigrant Americans--the hybrid linguistic pyrotechnics and "doubled consciousness" that result from growing up in two cultures at once. Cathy Park Hong is Korean-American, and Translating Mo'um, her fierce debut book of poems, certainly exhibits the split identity and alienation from Anglo-American culture that one also finds in the work of Virgil Suárez, Li-Young Lee, and many others. Yet Hong's meticulously honed, visceral poetic is wholly her own; she takes us far beyond the "borderlands" of the usual and expected. "Zoo," for instance, introduces us to "Korean" in the following manner:

Ga    The fishy consonant,
Na    The monkey vowel.

Da    The immigrant's tongue
    as shrill or guttural.

Overture of my voice like the flash of bats.
The hyena babble and apish libretto.

Piscine skin, unblinking eyes.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Words with an atavistic tail. History's thorax considerably cracked.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

La    the word
Ma    speaks
Ba    without you

This is language that takes no prisoners, that startles and threatens rather than entices. Here, sand is "wolf-hued"; "antidepressants" line up "like clever pilgrims"; a word is "undressed" and becomes "blueprint, revolver."

In a language simultaneously beautiful and furiously anti-beautiful--using blanks in sentences, long parentheses, and sets of Korean and English that gradually transmogrify into nonsense (see "Wing 2" and "Wing 3")--Hong manages to create a space for the irreducibility of meaning, its androgyny and monstrous "not-belongingness." Her world, consequently, is not so much the immigrant's split and doubled landscape as it is the "many-limbed", many-countried realm of an array of Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, homunculi, "freaks in taxidermic clinics," and a "man who was only / a torso and head," recalling Ovid's Metamorphoses--after, rather than before, transformation.

And as in Ovid, breakdowns of communication haunt the peripheries of Hong's world. Her narrators speak invariably without being heard or reciprocally recognized: "a stutter inflated and reddened the face: / eyes bulged and lips gaped to form, / a fortune cookie cracked and a tongue rolled out. / Wagged the Morse code but no one knew it." Like the roster of historical "freaks" Hong conjures throughout the book--Saartje Baartman ("the Hottentot Venus"), Chang and Eng, Tono Maria--the translating "I" in Translating Mo'um seems doomed to mistranslation, to not being translated at all. "Still mute," we are told in "The Shameful Show of Tono Maria," "I was sent to Special Ed / with autistics, paraplegics, and a boy / who only ate dirt." The devastating "Ontology of Chang and Eng, the Original Siamese Twins," briefly, effortlessly, and often humorously sketching the outlines of two individual lives lived in-between a single body, culminates in the sound of a single voice, speaking and meeting no answer:

"My lips are turning blue, Eng" / Eng did not answer.

"They want our bodies, Eng." / Eng did not answer.

"Eng, Eng! My lips are turning blue." / Eng turned to his body and did not answer.

In the book's title poem, Hong confesses: "I took the gold, the ventriloquist's voice, the locks of hair, took / the code, the breasts, the lush vowel, and the infinitive / that could suit anyone (to eat, to suckle, to lust, to drink, to come, / to wash, to speak, to touch, to fuck, to speak. I have spoken, I have / spoken earnestly, I have lied.) I took the body." Reading Translating Mo'um, one can only hope that Hong continues to lie and speak earnestly, that she continues to grab, threaten and throttle "the wolf-hued sand" of "the body" of the word--so that it keeps burning, not only on her tongue, but also on ours.

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Spring 2003 Table of Contents