Poems from his American life, a poor foreign student to a retiree.
Buy your copy!
Moon of New York
by Yearn Hong Choi
PublishAmerica, Baltimore MD
Softcover, 105 pp
Reviewed by J. Glenn Evans, poet based in Seattle and editor of poetswest.com
Yearn Hong Choi is a collector of images and memories. In his poetry he explores with an endless curiosity all of those memories and images and vistas and journeys and lives. The memories help to ground him but at the same time they rouse anxiety. There are memories of happier and carefree times but he will build a new life with a young woman.
Yearn Choi landed in Seattle in 1968, a poor young Korean man who came to town with $70 and ambition in his pocket. Befriended by a young couple, he has never forgotten their kindness and hopes to find them when they are no longer a young couple. His own nation’s history comes alive in the people from Korea that he meets here and there, as in “Black Korean.” But he has doubts and fears in this new land. What fate awaits him? Yet when he views his new homeland, he is clear-eyed. He is not fooled by its arrogance, its inequities, its racism, or its rampant consumerism, as in the two or three poems with the identical title of “America,” in “Accent,” or as is so well identified in “War Against Terror.” The reality of the streets is never far from his consciousness, as in “Blues,” “Hate Crime” and “Ulcer.” So his relationship to his adopted land is clear-sighted and alert. This attitude allows him to relate to the dispossessed indigenous population in Arizona and to recognize what is essential for survival.
Ah, but in New York, the city that looms so brightly in the title of his collection, do we really want to live there? The title poem, nonetheless, is a very personal poem. Triggered by memory the moon’s reflection in the river is the same moon that the coyote howled in the Arizona desert.
In his poems there is a frequent reference to the sea and it is both a cause of uncertainty ― and a path to a new life ― yet he yearns for the solidity of land. This land becomes palpable in poems of the desert in Arizona and New Mexico. This same western landscape, from which he sees the expansiveness of the universe, can overwhelm the poet and leave him speechless. These different vantage points of landscapes are given various perspectives in other parts of the globe. In Spain he gives us an aerial view and in Russia he compares its many layers to the onion of its cathedral.
Memory returns again in “For a Reunion.” What is it like to shake hands with each other and hug while looking into each other’s eyes? Yes, how could I forget you? I really enjoyed the humor and understanding he displays of the human condition, as in his poem “Woman of the Yi Dynasty.” The poem brings a smile to the reader’s face.
His lyrical verse celebrates the seasons, especially the autumn with the changes in color and light. The seasons also bring back memories. Time and space and light change in the places where he is and has left. There is the light of seasons and climate changes in the Wisconsin winter. Time also reminds him of the passage in years and it is time to make a will.
Family and home loom large in these poems. He reminds us that we can’t go home again and expect to find it to be the same, as in “Going Home” and in “Journey to Korea.” In a series of poems: “Name,” “Photo Album,” “Departing,” and “Mother and Dove,” a gentleness of spirit pervades the wistful memories of family. His grief at the death of his mother is assuaged by knowing that his parents lie together and may talk about life with their son / Under the stars and moonlight, / and discuss their son’s poems. Oh, how satisfying it seems to the Western writer to know that Yearn Choi’s father actually wanted him to be a poet!
This same gentleness of spirit sees the sublimity and beauty in the natural world. He loves the woods in all seasons. The trees give comfort even while humankind interrupts their space. Then the fog can make it all indistinct. But winter in the woods is solitude and an orchestra / whose members are the wind, the tree, the bird, / the creek, the leaves and the poet / They play a symphony in nature / winter wayfarer / white Christmas / the Lord conducts / My lover sings, “Yeoboseyo, I love your music, darling! And memory returns again in the warmth of a fire and good company in “December.” This reviewer doesn’t see Yearn Choi as a particularly religious person but rather his spiritual nature is expressed in the best sense of its meaning in “A Christmas Poem.”
The only thing the reader may not be sure of is the rationale for the order in which the poems are presented. A similar topic will appear at various times in the pages. There may be a chronological order in which he has revisited the places and scenes. Yearn Choi uses language that is simple and direct in poems that are accessible to the general reader. His metaphors come from the eye and the ear. In “Self-Portrait” the poet is an amateur burglar or a professional one or even a fisherman.
What holds this book together is its collection of images and memories that give meaning to life. He asks the big questions on the mysteries of life on which we all reflect from time to time. Yearn Choi tells us about himself in dealing with the vagaries of life and his poems illuminate human experiences by their connectedness to those questions: who we are, where we are, and where we should be. He examines the ins and outs of things so that we can weigh the issues of culture and society. His sorrow that a countryman killed thirty-two people on the campus in Virginia is poignant and he looks for solace in the music of Brahms. The poet is sponge-like in the way he takes in all of life’s quirks, its mysteries, stages, losses and its gifts. He keeps returning to his homeland and memories of family, to the family home, his grandmother in the potato fields of Idaho, his children, retirement, and always back to Korea, as in the beautiful lines of “To Koh Choong-suk”, where he remembers when LiPo drank alone by the moonlight / but I drank all night long next to you. / We were two happy drunkards in the world. As this poet navigates the regions of our feelings and emotions, he stops to look while the rest of us drive on by.
Moon of New York
Moon of New York
Reviewed by Suzanne Cremins
Yearn Hong Choi
Baltimore: Publish America, 2008
The poems in Dr. Yearn Hong Choi’s second collection of Poems printed in the United States, Moon of New York faces the complexities of living, loving, longing and listening to the inner heart. Putting pen to paper the writer’s emotions is open to his readers in a forthright, and compelling expression of these elements.
Dr. Choi sails in his poems between his native land and customs and his adopted country
Venturing to express the beauty of his life in both venues. The paradigm of one keeping his skiff close to the shores of the Pacific while in several instances describing his flight above the Atlantic, recurs in artful and endearing phrases. The lines in his initial poem, My Sail, “Alas I am searching for happiness. Below, the soul of glistening azure/ Between the vast expanse of the sky/ And the waters.”
In Will, the poignancy of the lines, “No need for a wooden casket/
No need for a tombstone/ No need for a séance” fleshes-out the stern reality that he is flesh of two worlds, two cultures and to both at the end of life he will be dead to both.
In most of the poems that recurring chorus of the spirit of a man infused with the knowledge of old beauty, the plum blossoms, and hunger for what is beautiful now in this present moment is palpable. The economy of words bring a forceful dimension of an understated urgency to express the elements of the voyager’s heart that stays restless “ ‘til it rests in Thee.”
The lyrical expression of the romantic yet realist, the dichotomy existing in the mind and expression of this artist plays off each other in A Poet. “ He watches his broken watch While waiting for Spring blossoms.” There is a solidity and strength in expression of Dr. Choi’s musings and a fine poetic mind directing the flow, meter and cadence of deep and precise thought expressed in the language of the poet.
I have selected Dr. Choi's poem "My Sail". It is the initial poem in this new collected works. I have chosen it because I think it is excellent and typifies his search and longing to express his parallel world's of cultures, desires, dreams, anxieties and position of the heart in each of these arenas.
I don't know if you have access to this so I will reprint it here for you.
And solitude with the solidity of a thing.
My sail shines fresh venturing alone
In the shadow of the Pacific.
What am I searching for in a distant land?
What have I cast off in my native land?
The waves are playing,
The winds whistle,
And the masts bows and creaks.
Alas! I am searching for happiness!
Below the soul a stream of glistening azure,
Between the vast expense of the sky
And the waters.
He expresses that unique loneliness of one casting off from the familiar and the real to venture into the unknown of a new culture with distinctly different mores. There is the anxiety of letting go of the known and the loved and reaching very bravely for the new and unexpected. He gives a genuine sense of the formidable and the chance involved in his decision to "set sail" with the waves, wind, mast bowing and creaking, all the unknown of the future yet with the determination to find hap pines in this new venture. The dichotomy is there in his torn soul floating between two worlds, known and unknown.
His heart is set to the wind.
He embraces the journey.
I think most poets put that which they consider their best work, first. They want to reel-in their reader and hook him quickly. That feature appealed to me as well.
Moon of New York
Yearn Hong Choi’s poetry book, Moon of New York (Baltimore, PublishAmerica, 2008)
I am honored to introduce Dr. Yearn Hong Choi’s latest volume of poetry, MOON OF NEW YORK. As a professor of multi-ethnic American literature searching over the past decade for important writers to introduce my students to, I found Dr. Choi’s work. As the coordinator of the Writing Program at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland, I wanted my students to meet and be inspired by such a hard-working lifelong writer. His contributions to American literature via his groundbreaking anthologies of Korean-American writing and his own accomplishments as a Korean writer in America—of essays, memoirs, and poems—are unparalleled. And he is not even a writer by vocation! I am in awe of someone who possesses such surplus dedication and talent to be able to write—and so prolifically!—in addition to excelling as a career lifelong government consultant and social science professor! Or, to modify some lines from his poem, “To Koh Choong-suk,” his “poetry-loving heart” has accompanied him “beyond [his] professional fields.” With the breadth and depth of his knowledge, his eclectic interests, and his wide-ranging life experiences, he can engage an audience—in publication and in person—diverse in age, race, ethnicity, nationality, and language.
Last year, when I relocated to the metro DC area, I tried to locate Dr. Choi. His biography indicated he lived in Virginia. His publisher forwarded me his e-mail. And that is how I came to meet him. Dr. Choi visited Montgomery College in Rockville last month and regaled close to 200 professors and students with stories about his life and his writing and the history and conventions of Korean and Korean-American literature; he read and discussed some of his poems; and he fielded wide-ranging questions about art, history, and politics over three hours! I should note that Dr. Choi’s visit occurred the morning after the presidential elections. Most of the crowd was tired from election night and basking in the afterglow of this historic moment. Yet, he took them to new topics and moods with each poem he read and discussed.
One of the students asked Dr. Choi why he wrote; another asked why he wrote poetry. Dr. Choi responded: “The question is the same as ‘Why do you climb the mountain?’
The best answer I know…is: because the mountain is there. Yes, the mountain invites the hiker. The poetry invites the poet. Does this statement make sense?...I am not satisfied with the answer…I just wish and hope my writings positively affect many readers. But I know poetry has little utility to this society and is not comparable to Bill Gates’ Microsoft’s mighty power…I do not know the utility of poetry in this modern world, but I can compare my poetry as wild flowers in the field. I appreciate wild flowers whenever I walk into the field. I wish and hope you appreciate my poetry as I appreciate wild flowers.” Everything seems to command Dr. Choi’s attention, and thus, everything must be made into poetry.
As Dr.Choi notes in his introduction to this volume of poetry, the poems in MOON OF NEW YORK “are confessions of a Korean-American life from 1968 when I came to Indiana University as a foreign student to today.” Early in the book there is a poem called “Resume”: despite its title, it is a poem, and it glosses in ten-year increments changes of epic proportions in the personal and political spheres. “Born in the last days of the Japanese rule/In Korea./When I was ten years old,/I was a refugee in the Korean War./When I was twenty years old,/I was a college student/with poetry and arts./When I was thirty years old,/I was a college teacher in Wisconsin./When I was forty years old,/I was a bureaucrat in Washington./When I reach fifty,/I will soothe my two children’s growing pains./When I reach sixty,/I will be ready to depart from this world./But no one knows tomorrow,/No one knows one inch’s future.” Keep in mind that this poem appears early in the volume. Dr. Choi eclipsed the decades he imagines in this poem, and later poems in the volume pick up where this one left off. At the end of the book, we are not at the end of a life. Even in the poem “Retiree’s Last Words” near the end of the collection, Dr. Choi writes, “He did not know where to go next.” Yet, before the end of the poem, he is embarking on another adventure. It’s not the last poem; so these are not his last words, either. His closing of this book necessitates and, thereby opens, another book in the future.
In the poem, “To Koh Choong-suk,” Dr. Choi describes how writing poetry “helped me to renew and refashion the dreams of my heart.” His poems testify to those dreams coming to fruition. This book charts the course of his life to date. It begins with a poem called “My Sail,” wherein Dr. Choi wonders, in leaving Korea for America, what he is leaving behind and what he will find. The poem is literal and figurative, and it is apt as the prefatory piece. Dr. Choi is physically making a crossing, a pilgrimage; the poems describe his travels across the US and the world and the journey of his life-course, from schooldays to retirement, marking the milestones of marriage and parenthood along the way, as well as reunions with and losses of parents; and he explores on a cultural and an emotional level who he is and charts how he changes as he moves over that space and time. In his last poem, “Vienna Waltz,” he’s traded the waters of the Pacific for a stream in his Virginia backyard. He doesn’t feel split or adrift, as in the first poem, between Korea and America, but whole, engaging selectively with the European heritage of America. Yet, he is still discovering America, for he refers to it as “a new world.” In the first poem, a boat transports him to what? He is searching for happiness, a.k.a. opportunity, “the vast expanse” between the sky and the ocean, yes? In the last poem, he transports himself through music and dance to freedom. He is blissed out. He is not “alone” in a “distant land.” He is at home, one with nature, a “citizen” of the world. This is a different rendering of the American Dream. Accomplishment and prosperity are in the background; personal satisfaction through exploration and self-expression are celebrated. Shades of Walt Whitman? Definitely. On a sidenote, Dr. Choi alludes to this classic modernist American poet in the title of his memoir in progress, Song of Myself: A Korean-American Life. While steeped in the traditions of Korean poetry, Dr. Choi demonstrates an awareness of and facility with the anti-traditions of American poetry. Or, as he states at the end of the poem, “America,” “Sleeping in rugged individualism/Is the most attractive in the USA.” Yet, in many of his poems, in “Journey to Korea,” for example, when he aches for family, he refers to himself as “a son living abroad/So long in a foreign land.” Yet, coming full circle, many of the poems in the second half of the volume describe some of his sojourns in Korea, referred to not as a homecoming, but as a “visit,” in, for example, the poem “An Empty House.”
While these poems were composed in Korean and translated into English, so that, according to Dr. Choi, “there may be some loss in translation,” these poems are far from derivative; more than merely “the same values” remain—these poems reveal some exquisite crafting of the English language and are their own unique pieces of art. Dr. Choi relishes in alliteration. His poems flow, too, because they are rhythmic. Were time to allow for it, I would like to showcase this aspect of his artistry. First, however, I should provide a thematic overview of the collection.
There are 86 poems in MOON OF NEW YORK. Dr. Choi has a lot to say about a lot of subjects! Reminiscences predominate. There are poems about the seasons and nature, the desert, flowers, the woods, and water, especially the ocean. The ocean serves both a symbolic and stylistic function in these poems. It ebbs and flows, just as these poems pulse and fade with alternately disturbing and then ephemeral thoughts. In the poem “Reminiscence,” Dr. Choi equates his life with the ocean through the phrase “By time and tide.” Like Dr. Choi’s poetry, it is both beautiful and functional. Symbolically, it represents the repository of the ancient history of the Earth and humankind; source of nourishment and rebirth; symbol of constancy or recurrence in waves and tides and of change in storms and streams.
There is writing about writing. Because family serves as the impetus for writing, poems about family address issues about writing, too. In an essay Dr. Choi shared with me, he wrote: “I read children’s poems and stories before I went to school. My parents taught me Korean and Chinese letters when I was a pre-school child. They told me later that I was an avid reader, and later a writer. I seemingly enjoyed metaphor in my early age…When I look back my life, I was born to my parents who loved poetry and literature. They were compassionate human beings who cared for disadvantaged people and things, and tearful about the sad things around their lives. Tears and sad things are the sources of my poetry and literature. I left my mother and my family, and my country…I remained in the United States very long time. I became an immigrant to the States. Writing hundreds of letters every year over 40 years was the source of my poetry and literature…Life is a process of departing and separating myself from the dearest persons in the world…Life is essentially a tragedy. This tragedy makes me write.”
There are poems about and including classical music. Jesus gets a long and lovely treatment. The poems, in totality, could be seen as a travelogue, too, for many document his encounters with people and places around the world. And there are love poems. Romantic enthrallment with women, primarily, his wife, and the wonders of the world. Love—in the broadest sense—for family, friends, even strangers. The most affecting poems address his mother, father, grandmother, daughter, and son. The title poem, “Moon of New York,” in fact, contrasts the magnificence of the New York skyline from atop the Empire State Building and from across the Hudson River with the puny scene of his daughter “sleeping in an apartment/In midtown Manhattan alone.” Dr. Choi’s eyes and heart are brought low because his daughter is alone and “It is Thanksgiving Night.”
In this place and at this time, Dr. Choi’s poetry seems more relevant than ever. We are in Virginia, site of some of the most virulent anti-immigrant backlash in recent memory. The politicians and protesters in nearby Manassas have repeatedly made national headlines in the past two years. There are poems in MOON OF NEW YORK which attest to ways that America can be every bit as hostile as it is welcoming, particularly to Asian immigrants and even Asian-Americans who seem to always be seen as foreigners. Here are 3 lines from the poem “In Autumn”: “The Oriental is inscrutable/At our untouching selves./I am always a stranger to him.” Violence against Asian Americans takes many forms. Any act or attitude which makes it so that “Those who cannot enjoy freedom, equality and democracy/In the land of freedom, equality and democracy/Feel pain,” taken from a poem titled “Ulcer,” is violence.
We are one month away from the end of George Bush’s eight-year reign. Poems in MOON OF NEW YORK look critically and quizzically at the actions and long-term impact of this president. In “America,” Bush is a young Caesar, America an empire. One poem, “War Against Terror,” describes the war as an “Occupation,” and hinges on the statement: “I don’t see the difference between the terrorist and the imperialist.” Yet in another “America” poem, this “Rome of the twentieth century,/…shall not collapse/Like the other.” But not because of Bush! Because “The country’s nature is beautiful,”—albeit, as the poem explores, contradictory—according to the translation of the Chinese characters for USA, which mean “Beautiful Country.” There is “equality and democracy”—rich and poor “enjoy the same hamburger and coca-cola,” and workers believe in the American Dream, even if capitalism ensures their perpetual inequality and exploitation. Or, as in the poems “Blues” or “Hate Crime” or “Ulcer” or “Virginia Rhapsody,” violence results in the sometimes discriminant, sometimes random killing of innocent people, in these poems, youth and elders, Americans and immigrants, equally. With the economic crisis we are now facing, as we read daily about senseless acts of violence on the streets, in the schools, and in homes in every neighborhood in our area, and, with the country’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing unabated, even escalating, these poems couldn’t be more prescient.
Dr. Choi doesn’t shy away from explicitly political subjects. In the poem “Russia,” he privileges humanity and art over economic theory and political principles. In the poem “At Mt. Kumkang Village, North Korea,” he describes the melancholy he feels looking at a fellow Korean through barbed wire. One of my favorite poems is called “Will of a Comfort Woman,” wherein Dr. Choi adopts the persona of a survivor who struggles with living while longing for death and rebirth, who bears disgrace quietly and yet names for herself the real crime: “Disgrace was that I was a woman born to a helpless kingdom./Why should I feel shame?/The kingdom should be ashamed.”
He addresses the delicate matter of Black-Korean relations in this country in several poems. These poems sparked the strongest reaction from my students, for they are raw with rage and grief—and rightly so. In these poems, the color black signifies humanity and unity, for all the colors mixed make black, and it is associated with birth and death, the great equalizers, “the darkness/Of our mother’s womb, and/We all return to the darkness/Of our tombs.” (from “Hate Crime”) “Blues” and “Hate Crime” are heart-wrenching poems. In “Blues,” two dreams—the dream of an immigrant, “a middle-aged mother/From a distant land” who came with “a ‘Great Gatsby’ dream” and the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to eradicate racial prejudice through recognizing shared humanity and sharing opportunity—are shattered simultaneously by a robbery and shooting, wherein “Little Black kids” aim at a “Korean mother.” The legacy of racism and violence is passed down to these children, turned not on the oppressor—“Where did you get the guns?/From the whites who have killed your ancestors?/Then, you should have aimed at the white killers,” but deflected onto another of the oppressed. In the poem “Ulcer,” “One discriminated man killed another discriminated person!/If he was rather murdered by the KKK,/My stomach pain would be less sharp.”
Dr. Choi faced his severest racist attacks not on a street, but in academia. But his struggle to earn tenure at a university in Virginia in the 1960s, in other words, in a South in the throes of a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, granted him a nuanced understanding of American racism, as he reveals in the poem called “Accent.” When he challenged the university’s decision against him, his branding as an enemy was couched racially: “Somebody called me after midnight/In a low voice,/’You are not even a nigger. How can you complain/in this country?/It happened after I registered my complaint against/A white university in Virginia.” What I like most about this harsh poem is Dr. Choi’s use of irony: “I received the highest students’ evaluations, but/The university said, ‘You are no good, because you have/A Korean accent.’/I let the university know that Henry Kissinger has his accent./The university paid a merit-based salary increase/In the first five years,/Then they must have loved my accent.” His coming to this country during the 1960s and living and working on the West Coast, in the Midwest, and in the South gave him a panoramic, accurate, and generous view of America. Participating in the political movements of the time gave him a sense of solidarity with other people of color in this country, which is clearly why the conflicts between Blacks and Koreans pain him so. Knowing the story of the Korean diaspora, likewise, breaks down, for him, the barriers between Koreans and other people. The poem “Black Korean,” for instance, delineates the migration of a Korean man from Hawai’i to Mexico to Cuba to work on one plantation after another, begetting in his “odyssey” multiracial progeny whom Dr. Choi meets in Washington, DC, one day.
Let me conclude by attending to the most difficult and topical poem in MOON OF NEW YORK. It comes near the back of the book because it details a local tragedy that captured national attention only a year ago. The poem is “Virginia Rhapsody.” After Dr. Choi read it, my students were stunned by the immediacy of the incident and of the sentiment. He brought them in and took them out of what was a painful episode for him personally and for Korean immigrants across America: the Virginia Tech Massacre. That pain caused Dr. Choi severe depression, according to the opening and closing of this poem. But in this poem, he also shuttles between his pain and the unrelenting and inconsolable pain Sung-Hui Cho, who came from this very county in Virginia, clearly must have borne that neither music, family love, literature, or faith could relieve it. Full of allusions to classical music and classic American literature, it is an all-American scene with an Asian face, unfortunately: “Your death is not the final solution: spirit of the dead, sorrow of the family, guilt/of three million Korean immigrants to this country, and shame of the country/you left when you were only eight.” One of my students, who identified himself as Korean-American, asked Dr. Choi hesitantly why it mattered that the gunman was Korean-American. That question, I thought, sets in relief the generational differences and cultural shifts that the poems in this collection so thoughtfully define.
Asked by one of the students what he hoped to accomplish with his poetry, Dr. Choi replied: “I hope my poetry is a prayer for wisdom, courage, and justice…I hope my poetry is comforting men and women in sorrow and sadness…I hope my poetry is a comfort to many Korean immigrants to the United States and other minority people. I hope my poetry is a comfort to some white American people, too. Anyone in sorrow, I hope, can find time and strength to read my poems.” I hope that my introduction to MOON OF NEW YORK persuades you to read this collection—immediately. Thank you for your consideration.
Professor Ellen Olmstead
December 13, 2008
Want to review or comment on this
Click here to login!
Need a FREE Reader Membership?
Click here for your Membership!