By Melanie Hyo-In Han
Scrolling through an online list of Korean poets some time ago, I learned about Emily Jungmin Yoon’s Ordinary Misfortunes. The book caught my eye because its themes are similar to ones I’ve explored in the past. As someone whose grandmother lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea, I grew up hearing stories about what life was like for Koreans back from the early 1900s to the mid-1940s. After learning about the “comfort women” (essentially sex slaves) and the atrocities committed by the Japanese soldiers of the time period, I wrote several pieces centering on the loss of language and culture, and the continuation of anger and sadness that so many Koreans feel to this day.
In Ordinary Misfortunes, Yoon focuses primarily on different aspects of history that have made Korea into what it is today, taking care to spend the majority of her time foregrounding the comfort women of the Japanese occupation. I haven’t had a chance to read A Cruelty Special to Our Species, her full-length collection, yet, but from what I have learned, it deals with similar topics of the horrors of the occupation, war, and comfort women in Korea. In any case, the chapbook is cohesive, taking readers on an emotional journey through history and through culture and time. The driving theme behind Ordinary Misfortunes is the misfortunes of women (specifically Korean women), but also the country of Korea as a whole, and how ordinary it all seems to the world. The thing about this collection is that, just as the title suggests, these misfortunes are ordinary in the sense that they happened, are still happening, and will continue to happen to people in varying degrees.
The chapbook opens up with a poem called “News,” which is about a Korean ferry accident that happened in 2014. The first lines of the poem start in such a mundane way, the narrator talking about an “article on how to eat an apple.” That quickly develops into homonyms, and the narrator skillfully incorporates different Korean words and makes connections with things that don’t seem connected, intermingling and weaving language and culture and history without sounding forced. The narrator plunges into details of the accident, bringing in visceral imagery: “divers pull bodies, find a boy and a girl strapped together by life vests. The poem goes on to describe what Koreans do and feel in the midst of this difficulty, but then it jumps back into the homonyms and haunting imagery of this misfortune. Yoon’s decision to open Ordinary Misfortunes with a poem detailing a relatively recent event in history compared to the Japanese occupation is effective because it gives readers a chance to start in the present before considering the past. What the poem also does well is juxtapose misfortune and something that seems ordinary by flanking it with homonyms and apples and pears.
The next few poems deal with the present, the everyday life of people who live in Korea or have lived in Korea. In the poems, there are jumps between the past and the present, but it is all told in a way that makes the readers feel like they are connected to the narrator. Yoon also embeds conversations, usually marked by italics, within these poems, bantering between different people trying to live their lives, highlighting the struggles they face in interacting with one another.
Whether the focus is on a girl trying to hide her identity as a woman in order to avoid being raped or on the guilt that someone feels about being a woman, these poems circle around the themes of what it means to be a woman, what it might evoke being a Korean woman, and how these are things that happen all too often to too many people. Again, Yoon does this by skillfully juxtaposing horrific things (e.g., “things erased: your name, your child, your history”) with very ordinary things (e.g., “On Wednesday, I ate plain yogurt. / Opened a notebook. / Vivaldi as I folded my laundry.” Creating mini-emotional roller coasters that shift between negative and barely positive memories and snippets within each of the poems, Yoon prepares readers for a build-up that leads to a drastic lurch in the arc of her chapbook.
Situated in the middle of the chapbook, “Testimonies” comprises the collection’s most poignant poems, each one from the point of view of a comfort women who lived through the Japanese occupation, each one raped over and over again, each one watching others die. Utterly harrowing, these poems address the dying and an erasure of culture. They also openly address rape, drugs, murder, sickness, and all of the things that, to the comfort women at the time, were “normal.” In one of the poems, the narrator states:
I am a Catholic
I should forget and forgive but I cannot
when my head turns toward Japan I curse her
I want to find solace but I cannot
When I wake up every morning I cannot
These devastating lines serve as another reminder that some of these women are still alive, are told every day that they’re supposed to move on, but how can they after everything they were put through? They can’t.
The poems in “Testimonies” have neither a standard form nor fall neatly on the page; Yoon evocatively uses jagged edges and lines, interspersed with line breaks and gaps, as gestures toward somehow revealing how the comfort women may have felt during the years of the occupation and continue to feel, even to this day. The positioning of the sentences, as well as the “brokenness” of the English, which plays on words and conversations, is artfully done, and it really adds to the chapbook’s overall dynamism.
Just as quickly as the “Testimonies” section begins, it comes to an end abruptly as Yoon shifts back into the block-y prose-y form of the previous poems. In the next few poems, Yoon returns to the “ordinary misfortunes,” yet continues the chapbook with the intensity of the previous sections.
At the end of the Ordinary Misfortunes, Yoon offers another transition, another departure: “The Transformation,” which she prefaces with the following: “In early 2016, thirteen sperm whales beached themselves on Germany’s North Coast, their stomachs full of plastic litter.” Here we find imagery filled with nature, the present, the mystical, and the physical. Seemingly out of place, especially after a long series of poems that address trauma, war, and history, “The Transformation” compels allows readers to return to an image of the sea similar to the one that appears at the beginning of Ordinary Misfortunes.
In short, Ordinary Misfortunes is remarkably moving, its rawness, its visceral imagery, its diversity of forms, its range of harrowing events, etc., a vital, empathetic act of witness.