Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Su Cho, The Symmetry of Fish



My grandmother picks up
the bottom of her white hemp
mourning dress and hurls
a fluorescent green bottle of soju
into the fire. The great bier
with magenta and neon yellow
streamers cracks inside the smoke.
Facing the marble headstone
are pastel rice cakes
and apples stacked five high.
Pouring soju into ceramic glasses,
she toasts to the harvest,
tosses wedding portraits,
fine linens, cabbages, and his
work pants into the pyre,
and sits in front of the marble table
with a bowl of rice and drink, waiting
for him to pick up his chopsticks and eat.

Born in South Korea and raised in Indiana, poet and essayist Su Cho’s full-length poetry debut is The Symmetry of Fish (Penguin, 2022), published as part of the National Poetry Series, as selected by Paige Lewis. Rich with a lyric detail and precision, Cho’s narratives explore memory, family and uncertainty, writing out delicate and careful turns around holding back, crafting lines in her hands. “If you can’t peel the skin // of a pear in a thin spiral with a fruit knife // you can’t get married.” she writes, as part of an early poem in the collection. I’m curious about her use of form, including repeated abecedarians, allowing the constraint of particular forms the possibility of directions that perhaps she otherwise may not have worked. Cho’s poems explore narrative with an eye toward lyric detail, offering a perspective of being caught between cultures, including as the child of immigrant parents who don’t speak English very well; or at least, well enough for their own comfort, leaning on their daughter for support. As the abecedarian “HELLO, MY PARENTS DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH WELL, / HOW CAN I HELP YOU?” reads: “The expensive sticky rice, stones in my stomach. / X-rays of what I eat at home scattered for the school to see. / Yet twenty years later, I am on the phone in a different time / Zone, speaking for my mother, how we just want some accountability.” What is fascinating, in part, about her use of the abecedarian is through her use of an alphabet of a language set as a distance from her parents, even as Cho wraps and works Korean myth through the sacred relics and references of western culture. And through this distance, these distances, she draws her distinctive lyric narratives around some of the shapes of these silences, outlining those silences with such strength that they finally begin to speak.

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