Korea is “a country that’s not a country, a divided country.” So says the old doctor Ahn Hak-sop near the beginning of poet Don Mee Choi’s riveting, genre-defying volume DMZ Colony (Wave Books, 2020), Ahn’s words recorded in an interview with the poet in 2016. During the Korean War Ahn had treated patients from both the North and South. His sympathies lay with the North, and in consequence he spent over 40 years as a political prisoner, periodically tortured and starved; Choi details the doctor’s sufferings in his own excruciating, fragmentary phrases.
Ahn lives within sight of the ironically named Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the two-and-a-half-mile wide area running along the 38th Parallel, which separates the two Koreas: the visible emblem of the nation’s division and, as Choi notes, “one of the most militarized borders in the world.” The DMZ, that arbitrary slash-mark of separation, is the metaphor underlying Choi’s meditations on history, violence, language, and identity.
The average American reader knows something about North Korea; we’re constantly fed stories about the crushing repression and deprivation suffered by North Korean citizens, warned of North Korean military aspirations, and shown images of the flamboyant Kim dynasty of dictators. Less is said about postwar South Korea, its checkered history obscured in the popular imagination by the global success of K-pop, Samsung, and Hyundai. As Choi’s DMZ Colony details, both sides of the DMZ are sites of appalling human tragedy.
Choi was born the year after General Park Chung Hee came to power in a military coup in 1961; he was still ruling when her family left for Hong Kong in 1973. When Choi came to the US as an art student in 1983, Korea was under the control of the military strongman Chun Doo-hwan. Much of the first half of the century had seen Korea under Japanese rule, and, following the Korean War (1950–53), South Korea has spent the better part of its history under the heel of authoritarian leaders, aided and abetted by American military and diplomatic forces. Korea’s 20th-century history, in Choi’s estimation, has been the story of a “colony.”
Choi’s father was a photojournalist, dedicated to capturing and recording the political events of his nation, risking his freedom and even his life to disseminate images of coups and protests. DMZ Colony is punctuated with photographs both by and of him: “My memory lives inside my father’s camera,” she writes. Photographs, of course, are documents, and DMZ Colony is nothing if not a work of documentary poetics, taking its place in a lineage that encompasses Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, and Ezra Pound’s Malatesta Cantos (and perhaps even Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book).
Just as collage artists might paste a scrap of newsprint or a piece of rattan chair-bottom to their canvas, documentary poets form their poetic work not merely from their own language, but from the language of history — of public records, of firsthand accounts, of newspaper reports. More important than the inherent interest of such “found” materials, however, is what the poet makes of them. Choi’s DMZ Colony is a haunting and intricately woven recounting of horrors that is shot through with affection and utopian aspiration.
Also documents are Ahn Hak-sop’s accounts of his torture and the South Korean Counterintelligence Corps’s record of the 1951 Sancheong-Hamyang massacre, in which 705 civilians were executed, the latter reproduced here as two handwritten pages. But Choi does not merely reproduce documents: she is both a poet and a translator, one who carries meaning and experience across from one space, linguistic or cultural, to another. (Etymologically, to translate is to “bear over.”)
This process of translation, at work throughout DMZ Colony, is most strikingly exemplified in the section “The Orphans,” where Choi “translates” the harrowing accounts of eight orphans from the Sancheong-Hamyang massacre. “Orphan Kim Gyeong-nam (age 16)” begins,
My little brother came home barefoot covered in blood. He got out alive from the mass grave. He said, I stepped on dead bodies. The grave filled with blood.
These grim accounts, which grow increasingly fragmentary and surreal, are “translations” on a double level: first, Choi is translating the accounts she has read, the documentary records of the massacre, into imagined first-person Korean poems (reproduced in her own handwriting on the left-hand pages); then, she is translating those poems into English, an English that can register both the horror of the massacre and the poet’s own struggle to come to terms with the materials she is grappling with. The very flatness, awkwardness of her lines record the difficulty of reaching back through layers of time and language to touch these repugnant but undeniable events.
In an early moment in the poem, Choi “translates” the patterns of migrating snow geese against the sky into a striking emblem of her own homesickness for a “divided” country. She photographs the birds in the air, then, on tracing paper, writes a pattern of Ds, Ms, and Zs over the the curves and angles they make. The geese, she senses, are on a journey of “return,” and have a message for the “homesick sparrow” she imagines herself to be: “SEE YOU AT DMZ.” “Alone again, I could only chirp to myself. Translator for hire! Hire, hire me.”
Late in the book, Choi presents her own “thoughts about translation”: “Translation is an anti-neocolonial mode …. Order words” — the language of authority, like that which divided Korea in 1945 — “compel division, war, and obedience around the world. But other words are possible. Translation as an anti-neocolonial mode can create other words.” I must admit I find Choi’s device of “mirror words,” “meant to compel disobedience, resistance” — in short, words spelled backwards (“Laturb Eripme!,” “Ew era evila”) — less than immediately convincing. But other instances of translation, as in the section “The Apparatus,” where she juxtaposes Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” with the Korean colonial state — as she calls it, the “Neocolony” — are striking. In Kafka’s tale, the prisoner is subjected to an “apparatus,” which carves the account of his misdeed into his living flesh; in the “Neocolony,” the relentless beating of female prisoners (until their bodies are written over with a single “blue”) is supplemented by an Althusserian concept of Ideological State Apparatuses, interpellating (hailing) subjects into unconscious compliance. By the end of the section, these two regimes have merged into one, but at the same time have surprisingly opened up into a space of aspiration: “ETERNITY.”
Utopian aspiration is the keynote of the poem’s final section, “(Neo) (=) (Angels),” a series of lyrically captioned photographs, either by Choi’s father or “taken by his colleagues and given to him as keepsakes.” Some are family snapshots; others capture key moments in South Korean history. They are haunting by themselves, but their true resonance comes from triangulating the images with their oblique captions and the detailed descriptive notes the author provides at the end of the book. Under a photo of a signing ceremony soon after Park Chung-Hee’s coup, and a detail from the same photo on the facing page, Choi writes,
Your excellency, is it martial law? Is it of grave significance? Is it written in a foreign language? Your excellency, no translators are currently available …. Our vowels are incomprehensible. Only the consonants pass from hand to hand, colony to colony …. We are your orphans. We are your angels. We are your mirror words. What’s written on paper is obvious — See you at DMZ!
And under a charming photo of the poet and her sister in Seoul as little girls, Choi writes, “In reality, we are all angels …. We are all orphans, orphans who aren’t orphans. Angels who aren’t angels.”
Angels, after all, are winged creatures, “like the white-naped cranes,” or like the snow geese the “homesick sparrow” has followed with her eyes and ears earlier in the poem. They can cross boundaries and demilitarized zones, they can return to their places of origin — or they can migrate to new worlds, bearing messages (angel, in Greek, means “messenger”) both of torments suffered and reunions envisioned.