I got a little nervous when I saw Don Mee Choi standing next to a small band onstage at Hugo House last September. I knew Choi primarily as a Korean-born, Hong Kong–raised, Seattle poet/translator who often uses puns and funny/grotesque imagery to deconstruct English and the colonial ideologies fossilized therein. I didn't know she had a band.
Typically, whenever I see a live band and a poet sharing the same stage, I make sure to locate my nearest emergency exit. The live band + poet combo almost never works. But once Choi's performance got going, my fears were quickly allayed. The drummer, Jay Weaver, and the bass player/composer, Doug Lilla, produced an ambient, haunting sound that enhanced the power of the black-and-white war photography projected behind them. The photos were taken by Choi's father, who spent much of her childhood in Vietnam filming the war. Choi sang a modified version of a Korean children's song about losing a father, which was written shortly after the Korean War. She used to sing the song as a kid all the time because she missed her father, and says she saw her father's photographs more often than she saw him during that time. The sad song combined with the images of war and the haunting music made for a mesmerizing performance. It was the most successful live music + poetry thing I'd ever seen.
Hardly War, Choi's latest book, is like a print version of this performance. Just as you wouldn't call Choi and those musicians onstage a "band," you wouldn't really call Hardly War a traditional book of poems. It's a collage of her father's war photography, her own prose poems and poem-poems, postcards, untranslated Korean, theory from writers like Deleuze and Barthes, musical scores, and opera.
As you might be able to tell from that description, Hardly War is not a straightforward father/daughter narrative about a photographer who exclusively shot war photos for 30 years before deciding to take photos only of flowers. Like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's influential novel Dictee, Hardly War is a category-defying, auto-ethnographic, strongly anticolonial book. As such, the book requires a lot of active engagement on the part of the reader. The connections within and between poems are easy to miss if you're not constantly asking yourself questions like "Well now, what does this photo of a tranquilized tiger have to do with this list of massacres and these flowers?" It'll take a couple reads to learn the language Choi is trying to get you to speak, but once you do, the extra effort pays off.
Choi is particularly skillful at mixing registers and tones to create brilliant and multilayered critiques, as when she plays childlike innocence off images of war. For instance, at one point in a poem called "Kitten Stew," a kitten reframes a Bing Crosby Christmas classic as a neocolonial indoctrination tool: "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know, Sir!"
Choi finds some of that language-of-innocence/language-of-war stuff in the primary documents themselves. In the second section, Choi includes a postcard from her father, which he wrote to the family, never sent, but still kept. The picture on the front features an aircraft carrier named the USS Kitty Hawk, a "supercarrier" stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin during the American war in Vietnam and the site of an antiwar protest led by African American soldiers in 1972. Choi follows the postcard with a poem called "Shitty Kitty," calling attention to the creepiness of the ship's name, Kitty Hawk. A cuddly domestic pet and a bird of prey that would eat that pet. Am I the only person who gets a chill when the military plays fast and loose with cute/death imagery? And why didn't Choi's father send the postcard—did he forget, or did he misplace it, or did he feel weird about explaining aircraft carriers to his children? It's hard to tell unless you flip back to the endnotes, and even then Choi never gives you a full explanation. She leaves his writing untranslated, his photos uncaptioned.
I must admit that I'm always a little suspicious of the proposition that a book of poetry—especially a challenging, highly referential book that leans on Gertrude Stein–like puns and specialized political terminology—can have any real political effect. More people read and are moved by essays, protests, etc., and so wouldn't it be better for the cause of anticolonialism and antiwar if the poet spent more of her time writing and doing that other stuff instead of writing poetry, which, as W.H. Auden famously writes, "makes nothing happen?" I asked Choi about that. "Just to survive is to make something happen," she said. "If the language we create, reformulate, and recode can survive under the forces of language that occupies, militarizes, tortures, kills—then we made something happen."