In “The Memory Keeper,” from Arhm Choi Wild’s stirring debut collection, Cut to Bloom, readers learn that the author’s family “left Korea in ’92 / without knowing / we wouldn’t return; / all photos of Mom’s parents, all / the happy ones of Appa / left behind.” The potential for sustained happiness also got left behind with the photographs when the Choi family relocated. In contrast with the usual assumptions about the benefits that emigrating parents wish to pass on to their children in a new country, the three siblings found themselves in the crossfire of a turbulent marriage, the years-long fallout of which gives Cut to Bloom its energy.
Choi Wild, who uses they/them pronouns, grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, the middle child of three siblings, the elder born like their parents in Korea, the younger born like them (the author) in the US. Choi Wild places readers at the traumatic heart of their particular immigrant experience. We are raised like them by parents who suffer from the aftershocks of violence, having themselves grown up in the aftermath of the Korean War (known among Koreans, a footnote explains, as “The Forgotten War,” which is also the title of one of the major poems in Cut to Bloom); we experience the physical abuse that the three sisters and their mother suffer under the heavy hand of their father; we find our feet in America after their parents’ marriage collapses; and we come to terms with what it means to be a queer Korean American in the present moment.
In “Allegiance,” Choi Wild and their sisters return to their mother’s house for Thanksgiving. In the taxi home, the author’s aware the driver likely doesn’t believe any of his passengers know English; their mother doesn’t speak, embarrassed by how her Korean accent inflects the language of her adopted country, which her daughters speak more fluently than the language of their ancestors. “If I could speak Korean well enough,” Choi Wild admits, “I would tell her how relieved I am / to finally find articles where race / is no longer just black and white / and I can write in the margins / this is like my family.” While a gap in their ability to communicate exists between mother and daughter, the author has, early in their young life, seen how issues of race have come to be spoken of with more nuance. This growth in awareness has led them (Choi Wild) to see themselves, their family, and other non-Black, non-white Americans reflected back by mainstream culture with more frequency and perhaps with more accuracy, although it’s a visibility still to be noted and experienced in the margins.
Cut to Bloom is a welcome addition to an impressive contemporary literature by young, queer, Asian Americans who each raise their voice to raise in conversation with a readership whose curiosity stands apart from—and above—that of readers from previous generations. Perhaps the most recognizable among these writers is Ocean Vuong whose first two books, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (poetry) and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (a particularly poignant novel), have enjoyed international acclaim. Like Choi Wild’s, Vuong’s parents came to America after surviving another of America’s unsuccessful attempts to stem the spread of communism in Asia, the Vietnam War. Both of Vuong’s candid and lyrical books affirm Choi Wild’s quiet, plainspoken observation that nothing is any longer wholly “black and white,” in terms of the truth as well as race, however much this may still be contested today by some, including the current US president.
“At What Cost,” set during a visit to Korea, begins archly: “Gay people don’t exist” there. Choi Wild observes a “Boy on left / with his hand in back pocket / of boy in the middle who reaches over / to brush the hair out of other’s eyes, / all three laughing, all free / to show love without risk / in this homo-blind world.” Such displays of affection are automatically read (and misread) as queer in North America and, despite a growing permissiveness and attainment of legal protections, are freighted with meanings good, bad, and threatening, unlike in South Korea where gay people “don’t get dragged behind cars or dream of lynching ropes, / don’t scream underneath burning houses or the fire hose.” In South Korea, queer people are potentially always safe because their affections blend in; in the West, where acceptance is widespread but not universally embraced, they may suffer the still-sometimes deadly consequences of letting their guard down in the wrong place at the wrong time before the wrong audience.
Cut to Bloom is a welcome addition to an impressive contemporary literature by young, queer, Asian Americans who each raise their voice to raise in conversation with a readership whose curiosity stands apart from—and above—that of readers from previous generations.
The most tender writing in Cut to Bloom is, of course, found in the love poems. Even in these, however, Choi Wild acknowledges the inhibiting reach of past family violence, an acknowledgement also rendered tenderly:
Fickle inheritance. You learned
the romance of being unseen. The moment
you should move from chair to under table,
just when your father turns away, just
before he picks up the hammer
and wonders where to throw.
When she looks at you,
holds out a hand, does she realize
what she is asking?
Does she see how deeply
your memories of him
wrap around your spine
with their greedy long limbs,
claiming tailbone, your tongue,
your skin too sweaty to grasp?
In “Story of My Name,” Choi Wild unpacks the often insurmountable challenge that non-Korean speakers, including their wife, face when attempting to pronounce her first name, “Arhm,” finding they (Choi Wild) allow themselves to “deny / my parents’ immigrant ignorance / and the culture that lets / me be luck and hug and beautiful.” Yet Choi Wild observes “this woman I love mimicking the sound of it,” asking at the end of the poem “why am I falling more in love / with the woman listening so intently / to the way my mother commands my name? // I must convince her it’s ok / if she doesn’t say it right // but I must admit / I am so happy when she does.”
This happiness is at the core of Cut to Bloom, making it a far more uplifting collection of poems than this review may suggest. The joy expressed throughout counterpoints without erasing the unhappiness in Choi Wild’s past, an unhappiness that has been shaped by the sorrows suffered by their parents and the country they left to give Choi Wild and their sisters the chance of a better life—in Choi Wild’s case, to be Korean American, female, and queer.
REVIEWED BY JOHN BARTON
John's twenty-eight books, chapbooks, and anthologies include Polari, Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets, We Are Not Avatars: Essays, Memoirs, Manifestos, and The Essential Douglas LePan, which won a 2020 eLit Award. His twelfth collection of poems, Lost Family: A Memoir, a book of sonnets, was published in September by Signal Editions. The Porcupine’s Quill published The Essential Derk Wynand in October 2020. He lives in Victoria, BC, Canada, where he is the city’s first queer poet laureate.