By Charles Rammelkamp
Tanya Ko Hong’s heartbreaking collection of poems is all about bearing witness and the need to testify to a truth against all the forces of silence from both without and within that try to suppress its expression. This truth is all about treachery and betrayal. Interestingly, it is in the very last stanza of the final poem in the book, “At Tara Station in Dublin,” where we find an invitation to speak. The speaker in the poem finds herself stranded in an Irish pub drinking coffee when she is approached by a “sweet-looking girl” who asks,
not in Gaelic but in fluent English:
“Love! I am a hungry angel of the street.
Get me a McDonald’s hamburger and a cup of coffee,
and tell me a story of your star,
the land where you came from, please.”
All the poems that precede this one are the story. So much of the horror of the story Tanya Ko Hung tells is suppressed – hence the title of the collection, because the war rages within the heart of the Korean woman. These poems, then, are the cathartic expression of these cruel truths.
There are so many forces that tell the Korean woman to be quiet, to “suck it up.” There are the long cultural expectations for Korean girls. The poem, “Asian Woman” begins:
This is what you do with your life:
Take what your father gives you
care, food, shelter
Learn to be wife
cook, sew, maintain your household
Obey orders, serve your family…
In a word, the Asian woman is expected to submit. She also writes in “The Cost of Breath”:
Nice girls don’t speak
their minds or
In the three-part poem, “Look Back,” the speaker of the poem, who has immigrated to America, tells her daughter that the reason she came was for “better education, better opportunities, / and a better life,” which is only part of the truth of why she’d fled, and her daughter knows. “‘Oma, it’s so boring. All Asians in my class / have the same answers.’” “I didn’t want to look back,” the speaker confesses. She goes on, “to survive, I learned / to pretend not to know.” Similarly, in “Mother Tongue,” she writes, “life’s not so bad / if you don’t pay attention.” Denial, then, is another force holding the Asian woman back.
And besides, nobody will hear her anyway. She writes in the title poem, “The War Still Within”:
White man said
No one listens to you
No one sees
Open your mouth
Cut and burn my tongue
You can’t set fire to my secrets
My other tongue
Against all this, balance the need to tell the story of “the land where you came from.” But it takes courage, fortitude. The brief aphoristic poem that begins the collection, “The Way to Cross the Desert,” reads:
Do not think about
The truth that Tanya Ko Hong is compelled to tell involves the inhumane treatment of Korean women, their betrayal by their families and countrymen. The epigraph to the poem, “Asian Woman,” comes from Na Hye-sok, the twentieth century Korean feminist: “Isn’t it about time Chosŏn women lived like humans?”
At the heart of this inhumanity is the legacy of the Comfort Women – Wianbu in Korean – the 200,000 Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II. It wasn’t until 1991 that Hak Soon Kim came forward to denounce the Japanese. The horror had been suppressed for over three decades. In a stunning suite of poems entitled “Comfort Woman,” Tanya Ko Hong shows us the horror. In “1941, That Autumn”:
They put a long stick between my legs –
Open up, open, Baka Chosengjing!
they rage, spraying
the smell of
In “1943, Shanghai, China”:
a soldier asked all the girls
Who can do one hundred men?
I raised my hand
Soonja did not
The soldiers put her in boiling water
and fed us
The horror continues beyond the Japanese occupation. The poem “Yang Kong Ju” about a Korean woman trying to survive in American occupied Korea starts:
Koreans called her
The fallout from all of this is the scorn and disdain of one’s countrymen, perhaps the most compelling reason to flee. “Tiki Boy” is a poem about a Korean woman who has an American G.I.’s son.
The women said, You’re so pretty –
but when she wasn’t there:
That yang kalbo,
her lips look
like she’s eaten mice.
We read the sad story of a homeless elderly woman in “Grandmother Talks of Camptowns” in which betrayal follows betrayal, first by the government, then by the children, the brother, the sister, the lover.
In a footnote to the poem, “A Blonde Whispers Korean in My Ear,” the poet writes, “As an immigrant of the Korean diaspora, I know what it feels like being invisible, voiceless and powerless.” Coming to America is not easy, either. We read about the difficulties of the immigrant in poems like “Second Period,” about the classroom experience, and “American Dream,” which ends with the poignant question:
Who am I to you,
The War Still Within is moving and enlightening at the same time, a compelling collection of poems.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Still-Within-Tanya-Hong-Hyonhye/dp/0998037567
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.
Reblogged this on James Walton Poetry and commented:
Tanya Ko Hong’s poetry of the horrors of the comfort women, and how it continues. Disturbing, compelling, not to be missed. Deep and wonderful review by Charles Rammelkamp in North of Oxford.
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This is an emotionally hard book to read, This is a necessary book to read, This is an awesome book of poetry that touches our hearts and helps us NOT to forget those times when humans became what they are not.
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