7 hints for embarking on the risky adventure of getting into Bodega by Su Hwang
This readers’ guide will help you Join the Bodega and “get into” poetry. Poetry requires a reader’s participation. Reading poetry can be a risky—but rewarding—adventure.
As Alice B. Fogel writes in Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader, “Poetry is art … it’s here to join us on the journey we call life.”
Sitting on your couch and watching a documentary about rock climbing won’t take you anywhere. Putting on the harness and climbing the crag will reveal your strengths and limitations, providing opportunities for growth. Reading poetry isn’t passive. It’s an encounter with your whole self in the world.
Lyricality aims to introduce Minnesota poets to new audiences, and to encourage book groups to consider poetry collections as a way to facilitate lively, meaningful discussions. People who read Bodega might gain insight to foster compassion around some of today’s most politically divisive topics.
While its themes may be political, this book is not. There are no proposals of superficial resolutions to American culture’s fragmentation and polarization, no calls to take a side or a stance. There is, however, the invitation and opportunity to observe “where it hurts.”
This is a book for people compassionate enough to say to others, who may come from entirely unfamiliar places, “Tell me where it hurts.” It’s for those humble enough to question their own assumptions, and brave enough to recognize that the world contains pain and trauma they will be incapable of healing. It’s also for those who would like to become more self-aware, as well as more accepting of others.
If you’re willing to join central Minnesota readers on this journey, choose one of the following ways to get into a poem, and start reading.
1) Notice the shape of a poem on the page
Poems look different because they are asking you to read them differently, to get into and inside them. Alice B. Fogel says that reading prose is like looking at your lawn from your kitchen window—you notice it as one thing, an expanse of green. But if you were a bug in that lawn, you’d see a lot of air. In her book Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader, Alice invites you to read a poem as if you were “that bug on a blade of grass. Crawl up one side and down the other of every line.”
Bodega opens with the poem “Something of a Proverb on Luck,” with these lines:
In starfished palms.
Survey its yarns—
The many threads. We are
All blood, guts
& wants: alien …
Crawl each line. Feel yourself hanging out there, as if at the tip of a blade of grass. Wing your way back to the left margin and crawl again. Notice how, from this new perspective, what you just read seems different.
2) Notice what the words of a poem are doing
Poets play with words. Su Hwang noticeably plays with the Korean word Han, giving us 3 different poems with that same title, one in each of the book’s three sections. In section i. she explores Han as a verb. In section ii. Han becomes a noun, and in iii. it’s an adjective.
To enjoy Bodega’s poems, it is not necessary to know that Han is a particularly Korean feeling, which can be described as a permanent emotional imprint rooted in an experience of injustice or unfairness, a sense that one’s tiny but important life is doomed to be consumed by invisible, unconquerable systemic powers. Some readers of poetry, however, will enjoy tackling a new poem as if it’s an expedition or archeological quest. When they make a discovery—of a new word, for example—they’ll bring in a team of experts to shed light on what it could mean. If you’re that kind of explorer, these articles will help you mine deeply, to discover more of Bodega’s buried treasures.
A Complex Feeling Tugs at Koreans, Los Angeles Times
Psychology of Korean Han, The Korea Times
And if you’ve never lived in New York City, you might ask your favorite search engine, “What is a Bodega?”
3) Notice how the words of a poem sound
In the essay “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird,” Donald Hall explains how poetry touches us on archetypal, as well as deeply personal levels, through the pre-verbal experience of pleasure. You don’t have to understand this to experience it. Forget your need to make meaning for a moment, and simply enjoy the word-music. Mouth the words. Wrap your lips, tongue, and even your throat around this poem’s juiciness.
Corner Store Still | Life
Behind rainbow Skittles, Marlboros,
Whatchamacallits—a recessed figure
Pines: her profile scored by fluorescence
Like a knockoff Vermeer. Just as
Antique coins are painstakingly preserved,
She’s rendered motionless: boxed in.
4) Visualize the poem
One of the tools of poetry is image. Poets paint pictures with words.
Solmaz Sharif calls these poems “observant and cinematic.” Read these poems while letting your mind’s eye see a film unfolding. Try that trick with these lines from “Assimilation Bouquet”
like a nesting
5) Feel the poem
Poetry is an exchange. Poets give readers the gift of their words. Readers give a poem their open hearts. A poem is like soup. It’s not quite finished until a reader seasons it with the sweet-hot-salty-sour-bitter flavors of their own emotions.
In Bodega’s Han poems, the poet is signaling that we will encounter the intense, personal and collective emotions brought to the making of these poems. To get into “Han—3.”, is to open your heart to a complex tangle of fear, rage, confusion, stress, curiosity, and bemusement, which crescendo into a commingling of love with misery.
6) Think the poem
Poetry is also an examination, a testing of our ideas, opinions, and biases. When Su Hwang tells us,“Bodega explores issues of identity, race, im/ migration, and marginalization within marginalized communities,” we can expect to encounter poems that will prod us into thinking about these issues. For readers of poetry, thinking becomes a wonderfully stimulating activity—an intriguing, tickling urge. If curiosity is an itch, thinking is the satisfying scratch.
The long poem “Bodega” is a drama with five characters: the Bodega owners, Mr. and Mrs Kim; a (possibly undocumented) immigrant worker who sweeps floors and stocks shelves; and two customers—a large black man; and a blond white woman wearing a “nice dress.” One of the customers is a thief. “Bodega” shows what’s under the skin of these characters, revealing who is, and who is not, a threat. This poem makes explicit how easily racism can sucker us into misjudging the safety or danger of our encounters with other humans.
The poems of Bodega might confirm or challenge your world view. They might encourage you to think in new ways, even inspire you to change how you live. If you “get into” thinking about these poems, you will be led to consider uncomfortable issues. But you won’t find solutions. Bodega is not a how-to manual for navigating race and marginalization. It is artful, thought-provoking poetry.
“…Bodega is a quarry—mining directly into the immigrant heart, the daughter’s heart, the American heart. Real excavation always rends and breaks and words to bring something new into the light…”—Kaveh Akbar
7) Get into the poem
Trust the poem. Relax into its current. Allow the poem to carry you downstream, taking you where ever it will take you. Experienced readers of poetry accept they might be mystified by a poem, and they make mystification a non problem. Alice B. Fogel calls this way of experiencing a poem, “unknowing.”
She writes, “Tyrannical logic reigns in our daily lives. Also sneaking in frequent appearances is a particular lack of logic we might call stupidity. Poetry’s brand of reason is neither of these. Its carriage of meaning rolls along on wheels of intuition, is-ism, truth and mystery, and what it conveys, even if we can’t name it, is something we cannot sensibly live without…Poetry draws us out of our automatic-pilot, running-around-unsmellingly-through-the-roses and into the physical, messy, exquisite reality of who we are—not what we know or do or what we’re supposed to do next, but what it feels like to a be.”
Try reading Su Hwang’s Pushcart-Prize nominated poem,“The Price of Rice,” (page 58) to feel what it’s like to be a daughter “always negotiating that emotional space between gratitude and guilt,” as a child of immigrants.
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