Now wake up it's time to eat! Show me
your tongue, my sweet…
boil her down to bone.
These first lines, drawn from a 1983 version of Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck and his sister Adelheid Wette, are the first of several section epigraphs that drive Arlene Kim's first collection, What Have You Done to Our Ears to Make Us Hear Echoes. The title of the book is a line from “the path come apart,” a poem near the end of the book that was generated by feeding text from this collection into a software program.
Somewhere between the start of the path and the end of the path, we inhabit a mythological landscape “in the woods, always the woods” (“The Seer”) along with mothers, sisters, and all manner of animals ready to tear disobedient children to pieces:
The way thick with toads,
The narrator is warned to stay on the path by a mother whose advice seems so implanted in her daughter's brain that only a whisper of a parenthetical in poems like “Rot” or “The Path Come Apart” lets us know the admonishments' origin: “(mother tells me).” Despite her mother's fears, both narrator and sister wander off:
there is more world
and it is too sweet
to deny. Though I tried
to listen, I could not
follow your song (“Season of Frogs”)
Like her narrator, Kim moves adeptly between worlds, marrying Korean mythology to Grimm's fairy tales and other western tropes in poems that describe a mother sewing her family together, Daphne's flight from Apollo and the Romanovs’s grave with appalling intimacy. In particular, the poem “Rot” marries decay with sweetness and sweetness in such a way that one wants to roll around in the poem, tasting the language again and again, even as its sweetness makes you vomit. As I read I wondered, could I handle any more alliteration? Yes, Kim says. “The secret is this: the peaches are wild with worms. The secret is this: suck rot for beauty.”
In What Have You Done…, Kim not only uses a wide range of mythological, literary and technological sources, she accesses a full arsenal of poet's tools: from long, prose-shaped lines in “Rot” to the stumbling short lines of “Spool, Book, Coin”—which she uses to mimic a child's first steps—to the heavy use of white space in “Needle,” which one might imagine is written over a sewing pattern. These are poems to whisper alone in a tent by flashlight, delighting in the whistles and pops of words that tear at your heart.