Saturday, February 1, 2020

Poem366: “The People’s Field” by Haesong Kwon

The People’s Field by Haesong Kwon

The People’s Field by Haesong Kwon, Cape Girardeau, Missouri: Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2019

It is a pleasure to feature a title from a Show-Me State press on today’s Poem366. The People’s Field by Haesong Kwon is the winner of the Cowles Poetry Book Prize from Southeast Missouri State University Press in the historic Mississippi River town of Cape Girardeau.

While the press is local to Missouri, poetry itself is transcendent of time and place, and Kwon lives in Shiprock, New Mexico. He teaches at DinĂ© College, which serves the Navajo Nation, and many of these poems are about war-era Korea. Here’s a moving example, included in full because of its brevity:


A nest of sun rays
rattles about the grassed
tombstone of Hamchunk.
He wept so dearly
for the U.S. soldier
creamed in a booby trap.
There were fence
doves and leaves
to see his passage
to the next.

I have had a hard time finding any information about the poet, though one review by a writer who knows him acknowledges that he is elusive. A bio I found identifies him as being of Korean descent, having been born in Incheon, Korea, and moved to the United States when he was eight. A scene like that in “Beret” feels as immediate as if from personal observation, but I’m fairly certain the timeline doesn’t synch for that to be the case. This suggests that Kwon is writing about cultural, rather than personal, memory, and that’s a project that interests me very much.

More clues to his connection to Japan- and U.S.-occupied Korea are found in the long poem “The Kuomintang Had Been Duped,” where Kwon describes his grandfather:

Early, slow
to impose, resembling
his boy, my
father, watching
the sidewalk glow.

A mass of garish
phoenix birds
on backs
and arms
of U.S. soldiers.

This sort of imaginative DNA puts me in mind of recent research establishing how trauma can be passed down through generations via chemical tags on our genes. Storytelling gets us there more directly, I suppose, and in a Navajo community, Kwon spends his days steeped in a storytelling tradition. It’s no wonder he writes so evocatively about memory older than self.

I lost myself today in this beautiful collection. Connective tissue within and between poems is sheer; sometimes it’s a leap from one line or even one word to the next. But it’s rewarding to contemplate or invent the connection, and the effect is to involve the reader in meaning-making.