The title of Seattle poet Don Mee Choi’s second book, Hardly War, is a curious combination of words that seems innocuous enough if you’re, say, skimming spines on a bookshelf. But if you give it two seconds’ thought, those two words, “hardly” and “war,” obviously belong nowhere near each other. War is a binary; you’re either at war or you’re not. There are no small wars, or halfway wars, or hardly wars. If you go to war and a bullet splinters your skull, there is never a moment when you are semi-dead. The lights are on or off; some words have no dimmer switch.
Constructed from poems, chunks of prose, sheet music, photographs, collage, and even the script for an (incredibly short) opera, Hardly War is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. (As excellent as Choi's debut collection The Morning News Is Exciting was, Hardly War has taken an evolutionary leap of a generation or six beyond its predecessor.) Choi assembled the book around documents from her father’s career as a photographer in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Stitched together like this, it could be shuttled from one bookstore section to the next, never quite finding its home: biography, anthropology, theater, history, poetry.
Hardly War begins with several angular paragraphs built from choppy sentences—some from Choi’s perspective, others in the voice of soldiers: “The kids were hungry until we GIs fed them. We dusted them with DDT. Hardly done. Rehabilitation of Korea, that is.” The language that Choi employs to discuss war is unsentimental without being chilly. It’s vivid without being romantic. This is not Hemingway’s glorification, or Heller’s satirization, or the wallowing of a Vollmann: “The tank aimed and fired a shot to the midpoint of Mount South and everyone scattered like crickets.”
Choi uses found prose to characterize the horrific industry of war, as with an excerpt from a 1967 article about the International War Crimes Tribunal: “One day the soldiers discovered that rice is one of the most maddeningly difficult substances to destroy, so off they went to a bigger and better option that will actually kill off the rice paddies.” And she examines the marks that war has left on her identity, even one generation removed from the turmoil: “I used to think that my father was a foreigner/I wanted to grow up to be a foreigner like my father/I eventually became a foreigner/I no longer pretend to write in English/Because English is a foreigner like me.”
Translation is a recurring theme in Hardly War. Choi’s English translation of South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon was a finalist for last year’s PEN Poetry in Translation Award, but she still seems to be flummoxed on some elemental level by the very idea of translation; one poem in Hardly War even contains the warning “Translate me and I’ll kill you." This reticence to accept translation is understandable; there is an intrinsic violence to seizing a word, examining it with forceps and rubber gloves, and forcing it to fit snugly within the framework of another language.
The language in Hardly War is purposefully strident—it doesn’t feel like the domesticated English that we invite into our homes every day. Some might find Choi’s resistance to language to be a little flummoxing; if so, the solution is to read the page aloud. Choi isn’t always employing a word for its definition. Sometimes the sound or feeling or aesthetic of the word is what’s important. Choi is always pushing weird words up against each other and seeing if they fit.
The most endearing aspect of Hardly War is its fascination with adverbs. From the title on down, the book is lousy with modifiers. Hardly war. Partly history. In one poem we’re told “…the naturally convincing BBC/reported the morally essential point” that war in Korea was necessary. “I wantonly resisted nothing in particular/yet superbly so,” the poem concludes: “I was narrowly narrator.” Those words lean on each other, clinging together despite their incongruity. The –ly at the end of “narrow,” the –ly at the end of “wanton,” force the words into dependence, but they will not settle down into subservience without a fight. “Narrow” and “narrator” do not belong together, but by adding those two letters at the end of the first word, Choi is forcing us to consider what they could mean when employed in tandem. That friction from one word to the next is what keeps us reading. Sometimes the rough abutment of a word pair seems so unnatural that a little etymological war breaks out there on the page. Writing is hell.
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