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Kim Jacobs-Beck

Kim Jacobs-Beck

Kim Jacobs-Beck is the author of a chapbook, Torch: Poems (Wolfson Press). Her poems can be found in GyroscopeApple Valley Review, SWWIM Every Day, roam literature, Peach Velvet, and Postcard Poems and Prose, among others. She has reviewed for The Rumpus, Gigantic Sequins, Crab Creek Review, Entropy, Los Angeles Review, and drizzle. She is the founder of Milk and Cake Press and is a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College. A native of metro Detroit, she now lives in Ohio with her husband and three cats.

Kim Jacobs-Beck reviews "Civil Bound" by Myung Mi Kim

Civil Bound
Civil Bound
by Myung Mi Kim

96 pages
Omnidawn

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Review Of Myung Mi Kim's Civil Bound (Omnidawn, 2019)

At its heart, Myung Mi Kim's challenging, intriguing Civil Bound plays with language. It's a book about abusive power and disempowerment, as well as an indictment of the colonizer's insistence on English as the dominating language in North America, Kim weaves several poetic approaches to that language into a story of the destruction of the natural world, demonstrating as she does so the damage to indigenous cultures both physically, through the destruction of their land, and psychologically, through the suppression of their language and cultural traditions. As heavy machinery digs out space for the Panama Canal, it also uproots and displaces those who have lived and prospered there. Kim's book, essentially a series of five long poems, uses space to visually reinforce her themes, and provides documentary inclusions that serve as evidence of her central argument. Most pages contain just several lines, or only one line, the page's white space providing an opportunity to linger over her created images.

Kim contrasts the natural world and the heavy machinery there to displace it for the purposes of commerce:


habitation wooden crates in a nameless territory
 

 

dented objects gathering water

plastic footwear two sizes too small       how the cracked heels hang over
 

 

the vine suggests sweet potato but notice the cradle of thorns

 

 


skiff ferry           militarized (88)

This list, a mixture of manufactured items, a plant which appears unfamiliar to the narrator, and a small, often unnoticed human body part , the heel, demonstrates Kim's facility with compression and clarity, in a way that feels like collage, or a jumble of discarded items, both of which interpretations work within Kim's theme and aesthetic.

To reinforce her point about the oppression of English as the language of colonizers, Kim takes to inventive forms. Using commentary about the primacy of English during the period of the construction of the Panama Canal, Kim turns their words sideways by arranging the letters in columns that read from to top to bottom and left to right. In doing so, they resemble a word-search puzzle, disrupting the message and forcing the reader to struggle to read, as a non-speaker of English would. This approach to English words and sentences casts them in the structure of non-Western languages like Korean, one of Kim's languages. Kim employs this technique three times within Civil Bound and makes clear that the "value" of a language is in the eye of the beholder.

Kim reinforces this idea with several images as well, without additional comment; she lets the juxtaposition of these images with her text do the work. On page 59, she reproduces a photo of a Korean classroom from the 1930s. According to the caption, "King Lear" and "Cordelia" are written on the board in Japanese. The double remove for the Korean children, learning about an English play in the foreign-to-them language of Japanese, is reinforcement of the colonizer/colonized relationship. Likewise, Kim includes a program from a 1908 concert of the Carlisle Indian Band and Girls' Mandolin Club. The program lists the numbers played by these groups, all written by European or European-descended composers, including, in what must have felt like a nod to the students' ethnicity, "Powhatan's Daughter," a march by John Philip Sousa, written to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown (65-66). Kim makes it clear: the erasure of indigenous people is accomplished through erasure of their culture by a military march, and the insertion of the colonizer's culture in its place.

Kim draws an emotional, unsettling connection between these themes, all of which seek to question the notion of progress: commerce, construction, English, and education, all seen by dominant white culture as positive forces, upend natural habitats and traditional cultures for the purpose of constant "growth" in the economic and political sense. Her deft deconstruction of familiar (English) language, even while she works in and through it, offers a thoughtful examination of the interwoven elements of oppression.

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