“There is a Korean belief that you are born/the parent of the one you hurt most,” writes EJ Koh in her debut poetry collection A Lesser Love. . It’s such a perfect idea that it hurts your heart just to think about it.
There’s a justice to the thought of being entirely responsible for the person you will wrong most in this world. They wake you every night, squalling and wordless and purely filled with rage. You feed them and clothe them and try to explain the world to them. Eventually, after many years of thankless work, they turn on you and they set out to drink and fuck and do a lot of drugs while you sit at home and fret and imagine them lying dead by the side of the road. But finally, when you grow weak and dumb, they care for you and clean your ass and they teach you about the boundless forgiveness of humanity. There is no greater punishment, or salvation, than the curse of being born human.
Koh’s poetry is intensely interested in exploring the complexities of those human interactions: father to daughter, daughter to mother, lover to lover, occupier to occupied and back again. History is a theme in her work. She is interested in the history of nations battling nations (one of her best poems is titled “Korean War,” and it is an attempt to capture all the complexities of a geopolitical conflict onto a single sheet of paper) and in the history shared between people.
In “Testimony Over Tape Recorder,” Koh writes
The historian said, It was necessary,
girls like me, for war, girls for war,
girls for boys dying in war, girls must die
for boys dying in war, we cannot be
sorry for girls dying for boys dying
in a war of dying, girls for war, girls for
winning the war.
The permutations all amount to the same thing: dying and war. There can be no peace here, between the girls and boys. There’s too much expectation here. It is necessary because it was necessary, and it will always be necessary.
Koh has broken up Lesser into three sections. The book opens with “Heaven.” It breaks out into “War,” and it concludes with “Love.” This is exactly the right order.
“Heaven” contains most of the stories about Koh’s childhood. (It’s where the couplet that opens this review is published.) Several of the poems are titled after street addresses—“656 Sunnyhills,” “1807 Oleander”—and they find a young Koh struggling to survive:
Each morning in my garage-home,
I boiled salt water with pepper-sauce,
used the same chopstick to stir.
I drank it.
If this is paradise, it’s the kind of paradise described in the Old Testament: one where Adam and Eve are holy only because they haven’t eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. In these poems, Koh is a survivor, but she survives in part because she doesn’t understand what it means to be a survivor.
In “War,” she learns. These are stories of violence and atrocity. “He had charged at me across the swamp/with a razor blade bound to a stick,” the narrator writes of a man whose corpse carries “no sign of country or faith.” It’s a war with no nation. The man is killed with a machine gun; his jury-rigged weapon is simply outclassed. In the end, Koh concludes, the razor-blade-toting man wasn’t charging from hate or patriotism; he was “racing/toward the whiteness of his glowing mind.” War is its own cause, and its own effect.
But what can you do after you watch a country rip itself apart from the inside out? You can’t pretend you’ve seen nothing. You can’t live in a continual state of war. At some point, you’ve got to move on and at least pretend you didn’t die on the battlefield.
That’s where “Love” comes in. These aren’t innocent sonnets; these aren’t poems that pretend the war never happened. Instead, they’re a choice to keep going, to try. But love is not always synonymous with a happy ending: “he shape-shifted into two rivers,” Koh writes about a man, “I stole into him, then drowned.” We see a broken plate, and a man apologizing for a fit of rage by blaming it on a televised soccer game.
There are traps in many of these poems, and very few purely happy endings. Koh has seen too much, and her memory is far too sharp to pretend that everything is all right. The narrators of these poems die, they see their children stolen from them by foxes, they imagine what it must be like for an all-knowing God to watch us make mistakes again and again and again.
In the right light, all of these poems contain a glimmer, a conviction and a buoyancy that saves the book from a feeling of relentlessness and despair. Every new poem begins with a cooing excitement, a chance to make things right. Every birth is an opportunity to take revenge for what came before, and a chance to improve those who wronged us. Koh reminds us that the choice is ours to make, every single time.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant