In "Fetish," poet Emily Jungmin Yoon tells a Korean joke. A woman "wails for hours" at a wake and then asks, "So who died?" "Perhaps she is a moirologist," Yoon writes, "which means / professional mourner, but sounds more like some kind of / scientist. Perhaps she is both, her research field, sorrow."
It's a role analogous to the one that Yoon plays in her debut collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, just out from Ecco Books. Yoon mourns for the "comfort women," Korean and other Asian women pressed into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army; for the prisoners whom the Japanese subjected to torturous experimentation; and for the women everywhere who still encounter harm as they navigate a world where men hold power.
But Yoon does not mourn passively. Instead, she investigates the political, historical, and human conditions that have led to these sorrows, a poetic practice that opens avenues for reparation and resistance.
Yoon lived in Korea until the age of 10, when her family moved to Canada. She now lives in the United States. She was born in 1991, the same year that a former comfort woman, Kim Hak-sun, first offered public testimony about her experience. A series of poems based on the comfort women's stories are "in the heart of this collection," she writes in the author’s note—in, not at. She positions her own experiences of sexualized and racialized violence on a spectrum, at the extreme of which we find the horrors that the comfort women faced.
Yoon's poems are graceful, assured, and often quietly devastating. Written mostly in the first person, they're narrated by a rotating cast of speakers. They're fluid in other ways too. In several poems, Yoon delves into the etymology of English and Korean words, telling a story about the language she's using to craft a given story. She repurposes and re-contextualizes key words in a poem, allowing her to cross the distances between past and present, Korea and the West, self and other. "I'd like my poetry to remind readers that even if a part of history may not seem to be relevant to their lives, it is—it is their reality too," she writes in the author's note.
Americans are not at the center of the comfort women tragedy. But we did fail to hold Japanese officials responsible for some tortures perpetrated during the war, as Yoon reminds us in one poem. And we left our own legacy of sexual violence during the American occupation of Korea. She offers the words of her grandmother, who runs from an American soldier she encounters in the street. "We didn't fear war. We feared the allies."
In addition to the series of poems drawing on comfort women's testimony, A Cruelty Special to Our Species contains a second series—a set of short prose poems called "An Ordinary Misfortune." The name is pointedly ironic: It is no ordinary misfortune to have a soldier order you to "drink this soup made of human blood," as happens in the first of these poems. But so many women were "drafted" into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army—estimates range from 20,000 to 410,000—that it actually was a fairly ordinary occurrence for women of that place and time.
There's irony, too, in the term "misfortune," which implies that mass rape amounted to an impersonal spot of bad luck. Yoon uses the comfort women's testimony to undermine this premise, and to shine a light on the human actors who threw teenage girls into trucks and trains and carted them off to be systematically raped.
Yoon's poems take part in the feminist tradition of rejecting silence around sexual violence—a silence that only serves the people who perpetrated it. There's an American version of this tradition, which dates back to the second-wave feminist movement, when groups like the New York Radical Feminists held Rape Speak-Outs and organized conferences around the issue. Korean women poets have also grappled with the question of how to express the realities of women's lives—especially within a patriarchal society.
As I read A Cruelty Special to Our Species, I thought of the explanation that Korean poet Kim Hyesoon gave for her "grotesque" aesthetic in an interview with Guernica: "Women who have been disappeared by violence are howling. The voices of disappeared women are echoing. I sing with these voices." Though Hyesoon and Yoon work in very different styles, it's a statement that could apply equally to Yoon's book, in which Yoon overlays her voice with the voices of the comfort women, leaving us with a sense of how the past survives in the present.
Yoon also draws on the tradition of the poetry of witness, which became prominent in the early 20th century as Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Reznikoff, and other poets began using verbatim testimony as the basis for major works. Poetry of witness tends to be politically engaged, and to have the aim of drawing attention to overlooked tragedies. Done poorly, it's exploitative and appropriative. "To bring it down to concrete reality, when a person loses their loved ones, home, pets, and belongings as well as the city of their birth, control of their story may be all they have left," writes Abe Louise Young in "The Voices of Hurricane Katrina." Taking away that control can be devastating.
I wondered what insights Yoon was offering by shaping these women's testimonies into verse. Her approach makes an implicit argument that we should treat their words as poetry, as something precious to be read and reread. Like a composer, she extracts motifs and varies them, driving home particular words and phrases. In "Kim Sang-hi," the words "but I didn't die," bookend statements of suffering. There's a striking contrast between that recurring phrase and the final lines: "When I wake up every morning I cannot." Because of her suffering, the poem suggests, the speaker has developed a preternatural resilience—she did not die—but also a numbness to everyday life: She cannot live.
When Yoon makes poetry from testimony, she breaks the women's words into short lines and adds gaps within lines. Our attention catches on the holes within the narratives, where something has been left deliberately unspoken. The poems offer few insights into the girls' emotional states, nor intimate, grisly depictions of the trauma inflicted on their bodies. Instead, we read unadorned facts: "American soldiers sprayed me with so much DDT / all the lice fell off me / It was December 2nd / I lost my uterus / I am now 73 years old." We must fill these gaps with empathic imagination, or allow these women the dignified silences they've surely earned.
The issue of how to make amends to the comfort women has still not been settled. About 40 are still alive, with an average age of 90. There are still protests every Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Though the Korean and Japanese governments claimed to have "finally and irreversibly resolved" the issue in 2015 with the payment of reparations to Korea, many are still waiting for a fuller acknowledgement of responsibility and direct reparations to the victims.
Rather than reach toward pat resolution, Yoon's poetry takes us to where the past lives and asks us to listen.