As with Jason Koo, I was not familiar with Choi before coming across his book while browsing. Though I did not read these two poets back to back, I felt some resonance between the two collections. Both poets describe heterosexual male desire, for example, and both identify a sense of loneliness and alienation in their lyrics.
Choi's poetry is disturbed me at times--in a good way, though. There are moments when a particular turns of phrase or images shocked me with its hints of a troubled past and of lingering violence. For example, the image of the father wielding a baseball bat appears a few times across the collection's poems, a haunting suggestion of abuse that never fully surfaces and thus retains a sense of mystery that lends it more power.
Another aspect of the collection that caught my attention was the mention of the poet's childhood in Latin America, his family's migration from Korea to Paraguay and then to Los Angeles setting the scene for some interesting layers of memories and cultural contestations.
I mentioned that Choi's poetry reminded me of Koo's in some ways. Coincidentally, his work also resonated with Don Mee Choi's poetry in their shared reference to Emily Dickinson's writing. (Though I pulled these three books of poetry off the library shelves somewhat randomly, there is certainly an interesting way to think of the three together as instances of Korean American writing in the early 21st century....) Here, for instance, is the first stanza of Chiwan Choi's poem "because i could not stop for death":
today i love emily dickinsonThere's a fascinating layering of memories through the figure of Dickinson that happens here....
because her rhymes make less sense than her pain.
i am in my cocoon of dirt and pulled weed,
father's sweat and yarn dog chewed into joy,
holding seven dollars in my fist
like fireflies over japanese graves.
Many of Choi's poems deal with the difficulty of intimate relationships, with a sense of loss, pain, and suffering even in moments of passing joy. In the poem "how we sleep," for example, this stanza strikes that discordant chord:
we like to lie on the couchOne somewhat frustrating thing about the poems is their elliptical quality. While I enjoy opaque texts generally, I like to be able to figure out what is being referred to, even if it takes some work on my part. In many places, I felt like Choi's references were too covered or two abstracted for me to be able to trace what he is discussing specifically. There are hints of particular violent events in the poet's past, for example, that are never fully articulated or revealed. In the title poem, which makes up almost half of the book, there are numbers that pop up in the lines--some appear to be dates, others references to the bible, and yet others unidentifiable:
and listen for the screams that arouse us
because i have grown up in los angeles
and all i know is violence.
6 3192 2623One date that appears multiple times in that poem is November 8, 1942, which a quick Google search suggests refers to the Allied forces' invasion of North Africa during WWII (though how that event connects to the poem is still an open question).
what was there last month
This collection of poems was fairly hefty, coming in at 181 pages, and there were certainly a number of poems that I really liked but will have to sift through the book to find again. I do remember that dogs appear occasionally in the poems, with one particular image of a hanging dog that haunts the poet's memories of childhood. :(
On a brighter note, and in conclusion, here is a picture of the poet's dog Bella!
Choi's dog Bella (from his web site)