Don Mee Choi in Berlin in 2019. 

In 2016, in the Fred Wildlife Refuge event space, Don Mee Choi glowed. A projector hit her white paper dress with white light. The effect was impossible to ignore—celestial, as if she might at any moment take flight. On two screens above her a vast black and white image appeared: a solider raising a baton to strike a person whose head was lowered. She read, “Ruoy Ycnellecxe, Si ti Laitram Wal? Ro na elbattegrofnu nossel?”

She’d just sung a protest song in Korean, the language she was born into. But what language was this now? None you might place on a map. The effect was uncannily like the Red Room in Twin Peaks, where time moves backwards. Makes sense. Look again, and start at the end: “Your Excellency, Is it Martial Law? Or an unforgettable lesson?”

At this event, from Seattle poetry press Wave Books, Choi did not decode the piece, nor did she explain. She read another poem, then left the stage. This year that image and text, part of a section called “Mirror Words,” appeared finally in a book, DMZ Colony, which Wave published this April. On November 18, Choi won the National Book Award for Poetry for DMZ Colony, making her the first Seattleite to take the poetry award since Theodore Roethke in 1965.

Like Choi’s 2016 collection Hardly War, also published by Wave, DMZ Colony is a rejoinder to atrocity, an interrogation of colonialism and neocolonialism (like the U.S.’s continued occupation of South Korea). In the case of “Mirror Words,” she creates a new language, reversing the words of empire. Throughout the books she upends what a “normal” poetry collection looks and sounds like. You won’t find pretty, personal lyrics marching down pages. These are book-length events, constellations of photographs, drawings, prose, quotation (Roland Barthes, Édouard Glissant), transcribed interview, imagined monologues that appear in Korean and English, and the language rending poetics of Samuel Beckett. (Choi listens to Beckett while driving.) DMZ Colony takes its name from Korea’s 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone between North and South, “one of the most militarized borders in the world.” Choi’s written a book about a border that subverts those of genre or medium.

If that sounds difficult, it can be. Her work is not escapist. It demands coffee-and-a-pen attention—an experience as engaged as working through a crossword. Take a particularly tough passage from a section of DMZ Colony that juxtaposes language from Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” with that from Louis Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”:

“(ideology)” “(before Freud)” “(is for Marx an imaginary assemblage)” “(bricolage)” “(a pure dream, empty and vain)”

So this book probably won’t be Rupi Kaur-ing all over your Instagram any time soon. If you’re up for the challenge, though, the rewards are mesmerizing and powerful. And Choi’s not ruthlessly obscure. She tells you, up front and quite clearly, what she’s up to: “I am trying to fold race into geopolitics and geopolitics into poetry. Hence, geopolitical poetics,” she writes at the start of Hardly War. In that book, she told me in an email, she sought a "language of war and wound.” In DMZ Colony, “I needed a language that could orbit around memory, overlapping memory—a language of return.” In that return, to her own past and to Korea’s, Choi has achieved her most elegant, piercing work yet.

 

Choi was born in Seoul in 1962 in “a tiny, traditional, tile-roofed house” her father bought with money from photographing the April Revolution (a mass protest in South Korea in 1960), she writes at the beginning of Hardly War. That revolution was followed quickly by a coup led by General Park Chung Hee, who took power in 1961. In 1972, as South Korea grew more oppressive, Choi’s family fled to Hong Kong. But her father kept working as a war photographer. “While I was growing up in Hong Kong, I saw more of my father’s photographs than of my father because he was always away in various war zones.”

These details are foundational to Choi’s art and she returns to them in DMZ Colony. Throughout she’s asking, “Cruelty and beauty—how do they coexist?” Early in the book, she includes an image from the day Park declared martial law in Seoul. Choi’s father is in the bottom left corner, filming. Choi writes, “Because I was an infant, I have no memory of this infamous day except through my father’s memory. Memory’s memory. Memory’s child. My memory lives inside my father’s camera, the site where my memory was born, where my retina and my father’s overlap.” This vantage, this attention to image (photographic, poetic), imbues the book’s histories with a personal resonance, and a cinematic one.

On this page from DMZ Colony, Choi's father (bottom left) films the 1961 declaration of martial law led by General Park Chung Hee (copyright 2020 by Don Mee Choi). 

In 1981, Choi moved to the U.S. for art school. She’d eventually get an MFA, working with various media, ultimately 8mm and 16mm film. Living in Arizona, she began translating contemporary Korean women poets. She came to Seattle in 1996. She continued with translation, particularly the work of South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon. Eventually she started writing her own poetry and in 2010 published her first collection, The Morning News Is Exciting.

In 1983, not long after Choi left Hong Kong, her family dispersed, to Australia, to West Germany. After leaving the political darkness of South Korea, she writes in DMZ Colony, “in light, we lived like birds.” The idea of flights—of soaring imagination, of escape, of avian lift—permeates the book. It begins with birds. The second passage finds Choi in Saint Louis, Missouri, on the 38th parallel, the same latitude as the DMZ. There she hears a flock of snow geese overhead. She looks up and gets a bout of vertigo. “My ears flapped about dizzyingly like a sparrow and followed the migrating snow geese above. The geese promptly instructed me, a chorus: … return… return… return…”

So she does. In the next of the book’s eight sections, she lands in South Korea in 2016 and interviews Ahn Hak-sop, a North Korean sympathizer who lives on the South Korean side of the DMZ. Choi translates, and sometimes deconstructs, his monologues about torture he endured as a political prisoner between 1953 and 1995: starvation, beatings, blasts of frigid water in frigid months. In a later section, “The Orphans,” Choi imagines the stories of eight girls who survived the Sancheong-Hamyang massacre in 1951. There’s a terrible friction—horror rendered in the language of children. 

Yet through the book Choi liberates such stories. Even metaphors in the Ahn Hak-sop passage—his toenails compared to planets—become an act of “literary resistance against geopolitical borders,” she told me, “including the borders and redundancy of literary conventions.”

In Wave Books, which has its offices in Eastlake, Choi’s found a publisher equally willing to fight conventions. Wave started 15 years ago and tends to push the idea of what a poetry press can be. “Even as we publish some nonfiction, some critical work, some fiction, it’s always tied in a really significant way to poetry,” Heidi Broadhead, Wave’s senior editor, told me. For instance, Maggie Nelson’s incredible Bluets is a fragmentary lyric essay on the color blue. Tyehimba Jess’s Olio—which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry—includes dazzling sonnets, along with photos, drawings, and foldout sections.

The press has become, Choi told me, “an extension of my creative process.” She sent the book to Broadhead and Joshua Beckman, Wave’s editor in chief, before it was finished. “My book fully comes alive only after it passes through the creative minds, hands, and eyes of everyone at Wave.” In the book’s last passage, photographs appear over prose poems, an idea she went to Wave with: “I told them I was trying to figure out how to make a filmic poem.”

A sort of cinema may be the best way to think of DMZ Colony as a whole. “Tone poem” gets applied to films frequently. But DMZ Colony demands a new language, as if poetry had been translated to film then back into poetry. Ultimately, the effect is aesthetic as much as cerebral. The book’s imagery works how film works—24 frames per second, each slightly different. Certain language returns and returns, so that when you reach the final pages, the words—flight, sky, orphan, halo, geese, angels, return—have transformed. Their definitions blur into something ineffable and moving.

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