In the sixty-seven years since its designation as a buffer zone to the border demarcating North and South Korea, the 4-by-250-kilometer area that is the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has gone undeveloped by humans. Today, it exists as one of the most heavily militarized borders on the planet and the site of a de facto wildlife refuge, encapsulating an important geopolitical discourse dating back through the Cold War. A rich and paradoxical ecology in itself, Don Mee Choi’s third collection, DMZ Colony, following Hardly War (2016), imagines the DMZ as an abundant poetic and intertextual landscape, and an axis in relation to which she carries out her trademark translational, transnational, and transliteral experiments.
Blending journalism, memoir, and manifesto with photographs, maps, letters, and drawings, DMZ Colony comprises an imaginative and highly multimedia mode of accessing a space where human perspective is forbidden. In reality a restricted, literally marginal entity, the DMZ, in Choi’s hands, is like an accordion, expansive and multidimensional, even planetary in scale. To trace its boundaries is to migrate along the flight paths of endangered cranes known to winter in its mostly undisturbed marshes, as well as to parallel their migrations, as in “Sky Translation.” The speaker recounts spotting geese formations along the 38th parallel north, the latitude approximating the Korean DMZ, except that in the poem she looks up from Saint Louis, Missouri.
Another parallel (or translation, as with an image translated over an axis), finds her in Marfa, Texas, a bit off course, roughly eight degrees south of 38°N—“not my usual migratory route” Choi notes. That poem, “Planetary Translation,” features three feverishly elegant line drawings, scrap notes from a conversation she had with a human rights activist about civilian massacres enacted under the military regimes of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan. The “oblong” circles and arcs, without their intended referents, resemble tumultuous celestial bodies. This theme of “meaningful accident” or “accidental meaning”—good or bad—is deeply rooted in the DMZ’s legacy and form. The line splitting the Korean peninsula was hastily drawn onto a map by two American soldiers on the heels of WWII, a fateful scrawl that points, like the notes, to the meaningful arbitrariness of division itself.
These poems have parallels of their own. “Sky Translation” resembles conceptual artist Michael Joo’s “Perspectives” installation that was exhibited at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in 2016-2017. One artwork, Migrated, suspends brass rods from the ceiling, abstracting satellite imagery of migratory cranes’ flight paths across the DMZ, a play on “bird’s-eye view” similarly enacted in the letters Choi traces over photos of the sky in “Sky Translation,” which themselves look like birds in flight formations. “Planetary Translation” nods to Jeffrey Yang’s 2019 poetry collection Hey, Marfa, which engages the particularity of Marfa, Texas as an artist colony and site of complex U.S.-Mexico border relations. Later in the collection, Choi even hyperlinks to her own work, with the phrase “suicide parade,” a passing verse in her photo-essayistic finale “(Neo) (=) (Angels)” and the title of an early poem in Hardly War. Such interstellar leaps can be dizzying, but for Choi, it’s precisely through contiguous transit and intertextual relations that meaning finds its afterlives.
Perhaps the most poignant example of this mode in action is “The Orphans,” which features photographs of handwritten accounts of war atrocities from the perspectives of children orphaned by such events. Each letter is followed by its typed English translation. The translational disparities, to which only a bilingual reader is privy, make up an invisible poem between the English and Korean, a kind of inter/meta/textual zone. Only in her closing notes does Choi reveal that she penned the letters herself, retroactively imposing yet another dimension, the realm of fiction, onto the “critically-fabulated” archival documents (to borrow the theory of scholar Saidiya Hartman).
Choi’s DMZ Colony is as much an entity as it is a place, a meta-discursive domain wherein its throng of unlikely inhabitants—endangered birds, political prisoners, orphans, refugees, all colonized subjects and outcasts of empire—are alternately declared and concealed. Collectively, they indeed amount to a colony of sorts, one that thrives off its own premise. It is the necessarily speculative nature of the DMZ, which bars all forms of material access, that provides the opportunity and very basis for Choi’s translational mode. That mode, in turn, gives voice, and makes real imagined worlds.
By Don Mee Choi
Published April 7, 2020
Jed Munson is a Daily Editor at the Chicago Review of Books.