Arlene Kim's What have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes?

I've had Arlene Kim's debut poetry collection What have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes? (Milkweed Editions, 2011) sitting in my to-read pile for a few months and am glad I finally got around to reading it.



There are so many lines in this poem that I just fall over in love with, and I particularly like Kim's linguistic sensibility. I love the way she shapes phrases that are provocative and beautiful in terms of meaning, sound, and rhythm.
Why did you leave us, Mother? Why did you not try harder
    to sew
    the song of you
    firmly to our tongues? ("Season of Frogs")
The image of sowing mother's song to children's tongues--ah! As the title's question suggests, there is quite a bit of interest in the sounds of words and the way they echo or make an impact on people and the world. These sounds are what connect people and family members in particular but also what divides them.

The book as a whole is steeped in folk tales from Western Europe as well as Korea. Epigraphs from an opera about Hansel and Gretel divide the collection into six sections. Many of the poems take up folk tale stories or the genre more generally. There are many poems with animal characters. Other poems feature familial relationships, predominantly parent-child ones, which are structured by loss and a predatory quality.
For nine
cloistered months,
Mother
was the world
I ate. ("Spool, Book, Coin")


The poems are also very literary, alluding to other texts and stories. In addition to an weaving intertextual relationships with folk tales, Kim references the story of Anastasia Romanov, the lost Russian princess; borrows lines from Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, John Keats, William Shakespeare, and other poets; and writes about figures of speech and poetic terms like iambs and enjambment.

I wanted to note two more poems that resonate with my other interests in literature. First, the poem "Verna" features a speaker who reminisces on an early memory of science fiction, folding it other childhood details:
The textbook didn't give the date (1955) or call it
    science fiction. No matter.
        Mother worked in a bank; Father courted escape; they
            both settled
                down for life. And missing persons--
And in "Exhibit A; Archive," the speaker begins with comments about cultural valences of girls' hairstyles, suggesting the possibility of cross-racial misidentifications between Koreans and Native Americans:
In Korea, a girl with a single long braid mean something (unwed).
Here it means something else (native).
To mother, Korean and now here, it means foreign (unwanted).
I also just love the line drawing on the cover. Ominous! Rabbits with blunt objects!
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