A Review of Jennifer Kwon Dobbs’s Interrogation Room (White Pine Press, 2018).
By Stephen Hong Sohn
Rejoice! Jennifer Kwon Dobbs has brought us another elegantly crafted and exquisitely arresting poetry collection: Interrogation Room (White Pine Press, 2018). A master at something I can best describe as an avant-garde, interlingual, confessional poetics, Kwon Dobbs traverses a wide geographical and historical swathe in this collection that shuttles us primarily between the tense relationship between the United States and Korea (both North and South, prior to and after the main years of the Korean Conflict).
We’ll let B&N give us some more background: “In Interrogation Room, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs’s second collection, poems that restore redacted speech and traverse forbidden borders suture together divided bodies, geographies, and kinships to confront the unending Korean War’s legacies of forced distances and militarized silences. Kwon Dobbs powerfully entwines uneasy, tentative reconciliations among South Korea’s relatives in the North, her birth family in the South, and the transnational diaspora to which she belongs to resist the war’s deprivations of language and imagination.”
I appreciated the phrase “restore redacted speech” precisely because so many of these poems riff off of existing cultural productions. There’s a poetic palimpsestic process at work, with Kwon Dobbs able to revise and transform existing discourses of militarization, trauma, and subjection. One of the best and most poignant examples is “Reading Keith Wilson’s ‘The Girl,”” which reuses snippets from the lines of the aforementioned Wilson poem in order to give a more prominent context and voice to the titular Korean girl. As Kwon Dobbs opens the poem, the lyric speaker tells us: “I’ve thought about tone/ how white space stages” (53) what will come to be understood as a violent period of time, “Korea 1953” (31). Immediately, the time and place remind us that we’re at war, so that the girl’s objectification is made evident as something produced out of tremendous duress.
But Kwon Dobbs is suspicious of this lyrical sympathy as it is one that not simply brings this girl into representational being, but also silences her. A moment in Wilson’s original Korean War poem relates how the girl writes some Korean words, which are not understood. For Kwon Dobbs, this moment exists as a violent mode of erasure, something the lyric speaker denotes as a process in which “he scratched out/ the foreign words/ coaxed from the men’s creased hems” (32). The lyric speaker’s final utterance: “It had to be a girl” is an invocation of the ways in which representation elides the material violence faced by females during wartime. Sympathy only does so much, the lyric speaker reminds us, so the “tone” must take us elsewhere, to a sense of anger and to this revision which casts a dark gaze over the military personnel who partake of the imperiled lives of women in war zones.
Another excellent example of the riffing process that Kwon Dobbs engages in occurs in “A Forest in Jeju, South Korea,” which is a poem written for Jane Jin Kaisen. Kaisen ends up directing a documentary based upon the 1948 Cheju (Jeju) island massacre; this film is the inspiration for Kwon Dobbs’s lyrics, which transform the jeopardy of islanders into textual form: “He hides under brown/ improvised/ from neighbors’ corpses,/ conceals/ his baby sister inside/ a cow’s gutted stomach” (20). The grotesque imagery here focuses on the layers of subterfuge at work in this moment. While this figure is forced into hiding for his very survival, that moment is of course also further encrypted by US military forces and their accounts of the massacre itself.
Thus, Kwon Dobbs’s lyrics are always exposing us to a wider, more textured understanding of the violent encounters produced by war. The urgency in these lyrics is always made ever more palpable by the clipped quality of Kwon Dobbs’s lines: never maudlin or overwrought, Kwon Dobbs keys us squarely into the quietly miraculous nature by which so many have managed to endure under the catastrophic designs of empire.
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Review Author: Stephen Hong Sohn
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook
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