[The language of poets] is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relation of things and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 1820
The premise of Dance Dance Revolution is marvelously imaginative. The book contains two voices, that of The Historian and that of the Desert Guide. The Guide is a former South Korean dissident who now works as a guide for the St. Petersburg Hotel, in a Las-Vegasy futuristic city called The Desert (the book is set in 2016). She is interviewed by the Historian, a scholar raised in Sierra Leone, and the daughter of a former lover of the Guide’s (who himself was a South Korean doctor and revolutionary). Most of the book is spoken by the Guide in the creole language of the Desert (a mixture of English, French, Spanish, German and Middle English), her stories interspersed with excerpts from the Historian’s memoir and occasionally annotated by the Historian’s commentary.
After I read this book I wanted to walk around shaking it under people’s noses, so they could know about just how nuts it is. I wanted to tell them about what it feels like to read a nonexistent language and understand it. The exercise of decoding the Guide’s creole felt like stretching an aching muscle until it loosened.
Take “Cholla Village of No,” a poem from the third section, “Education During the Year of Falling Hair”
…Progress maif sprinklim fortune
to all o Korea–pave street, condo y petrol
savin Daewoo autos but Progress skip ova mine
villa like a popula lass snubim
drossy fat girl …
… villa a sad sack groanim with bullocks
y huts, villa o exiled outcasts,
prison-loused insurrectas, pickpockets, lady fes
bum-lookas, gaseleo dous’n gun molls
I love how the Guide’s witty simile of the popular girl Progress skipping the “drossy fat girl” of her home village is funnier in Desert Creole than it would have been in Standard English, and how words like “drossy” emerge and make perfect sense.
The Guide has this talent to shape images with her words which she explains is a necessity in her vocation, as in the part from the St. Petersburg Dome series, “Atop the St. Petersburg Dome.” She describes the problems she had in early days, before she learned to use words to make the desolate landscape of the Desert appear beautiful:
When I’se comeupon fo tippame-turban job,
greyhound dogs, spectas en dawn forg,
traipse de trash-boil mountains fo scrap cook pork,
nut’ing left but scrap metal y bitterness…
I de frosh guide maki pennies ‘cos no one ooh-ahhing.
I guided misbegodder fool who vacation
en woebegone ruins. Tu, I mean, you trim.
To flower-arrange words so sand-piss
ash sounds like Melodious plot of
beechen green, try, nary!
This book is deeply concerned with the shiny enamel of language that overlays rotten reality. The challenge and pleasure of reading it is that is isn’t in English. While this may frustrate some readers, I think it adds a dimension of meaning and opens possibilities for expression. Let’s take a look at one my favorite poems from the book, “The Voice.” This poem comes from the section in the book called “Kwangju,” in which the Guide recounts details of her participation in the real 1980 Kwangju rebellion, which was brutally put down by a US-backed Korean government. The Guide had a pirate radio station and her broadcasts rallied revolutionaries against the repressive regime. However, because of her baldness (caused by a rare disease) she was shunned in person by her followers for her ugliness. Her lover was Sah, an old school mate and fellow revolutionary (and was also, remember, the Historian’s father).
… Dim call me voice o Kwangju
uprising’s danseur principal…but samsy, es funny,
I’s voice of Kwangju since dim multitudes who
cryim fo acceptance shun mine presence…
…I’s lose me wig en passion o rally,
mine ball head nekked, mine oysta eyes
filla-up wit wadder, stompin podium,
spout ricanery to rally crowd…
…but crowd dim boo me, t’row rocks a’me,
rocks intended fo plis patos, balfastads, trown a’me!
So I’s paddles tru clog, aways from Sah, run
y hide en me dead fadder’s house, hid like
I’s hidim now en Desert…
…Bine day tree o aataclap, heads lop off,
bung it up union leadas ‘rrested, bayoneted,
teacha celled for esypim, pulp students
slung into trucks lika spud sacks…no leaders
left…Sah ask please come back,
we’s need direction…
I slink back, no heraldic air…
…No trumpetim angel me am from ‘im visionaire…
Bitta I’s am, not wantim to fes n’won…
Sotto voice I’s ses to Sah, I’s don want to
…Sah ses kay, you’ll fes n’won b’gib dim
ye voice…pirated a notch en radio
for me…aways from batons, de scrougim
eyes…en me amprage
hole, I’s shotput mine
Mine voice chattel tru amps, transista radios,
clock radios, furred mined voice batta’d Kwangju
streets, while mine scolded ball head
cloaked deep en broom sweepa closet wit mike…
Hearim me voice en radio, ma che si,
pot-belly war veterans sling up
WWII carbine rifle gainst sifa tanks… Coal miners
donated dim detonates…Housewives fed scabbard insurrectas
wit hot bowls o ttok-guk….
Steetwalkas hear me y march to hospital
to donate blood…haggard doctas say no!
to torn-stock streetwalkas who kem to donate
she blood but dey yell, “Our blood is clean too!”
while beatim dim chest…
Paratroopas clip off amp wires
but Mr. Cha come y rewire
amp back…mine decibel swatted away dragonflies
swarmim round shredded bodies…cut tru smoke
y copsal stink, clear eyesights
sored from peppa gas…lorn in lore o love…
b’all ended…paratroopas find where we be,
surrounded de school basement…try to smoke
us out into rancid air… I’s first to
sneak our back way…paratroopas
rushed into school…
while I’s rush away, t’inkim Sah behind me…
I’splunged inta frail ragged mob, who
gib me a kerosene bomb to hit de school…
…Shroud o gnats in late aftanoon sun,
shroud o mob
A frail body o toweled mob
bull-dozed one afta mob
into mob into frail body o
toweled mob dove sta memora
…a kerosene bomb, it twine en air
a kerosene bomb roll, it twine en air,
did not soar as I’s plan but float, but before plummet before
spume gown o powda
I replay dat arc intra air, tortuously
twist as I’s look befo fleeing,
will it hit its target is Sah out
is Sah out is he
Our first task is to acclimate ourselves to the grammar and vocabulary of the Guide’s creole: dim for them, I’s for I am and I did
and we grow accustomed to abbreviations like “’rrested” for “arrested.”
A familiarity with the Romance languages helps (also, Middle English and German) – we must recognize that “y” means “and” and that a word like “espyim” means “to spy” (which you might not catch if you weren’t used to the tendency of English words that begin with “s” to begin with “e” in languages like French and Spanish).
We also have to start relying on our mental ear more; you have to actually hear the words “you’ll fes n’won b’gib dim / ye voice” before it resembles “you’ll face no one but give them / your voice” (more on hearing in a second).
That’s the basic work it takes to decipher the poetry in this book; but once it’s done, a closer reading reveals how Desert Creole reflects the culture and society in which it has evolved.
Take the two-word line “nihilent gallicry” where we have an adjective and noun composed from the following words and their connotations (maybe this is going out a limb… tell me what you think though):
nihilist – meaninglessness and futility
violent – destruction and bloodshed
gallic – k, I think, French, and therefore a reminder of the connection between linguistic and social upheaval plus also the French Revolution
cry – which, following the title, expresses the gist of this poem; the power of vocalization; not just of verbalization, not just the presence of meaning by way of words but the act of enunciating it. Language in this book is not just words but speech, and that’s what I meant when I mentioned the importance of hearing, which is that, for a book of poetry (as in a bunch pages that you read silently) this book makes drastically clear the importance of spoken language as a thing that exists independently of writing. It’s written in a creole that has no standard form and changes from moment to moment as people speak it, as the guide.
The poem “The Voice” moves me because of its dramatic pacing and the variation between the Guide’s dramatic, comic voice, and the her desperate and suspenseful tone toward the very end. I chose to use this poem as an example because I think it demonstrates one my favorite attributes of Dance Dance Revolution, which is that it is crammed with raw emotion and political outrage without “limiting itself to statement” (Henriksen).
Back to the poem and specifics, though. The contrast between the piling up of revolutionaries – the coal miner, the housewife, the streetwalker – the building of tension and violence – with the moment of personal loss and doubt when the Guide realizes she might have thrown the kerosene bomb into the building her lover still occupied. The Guide’s emotion, at the end, does not have to do with the failure of revolutions or the oppression of regimes, but the fear of doing the worst thing imaginable, which is hurting someone you love. And it works well because that’s what’s hard about having ideals; we are driven ultimately by personal motives, mostly, right? (Honest question, though… I’m not sure where I’m going with that).
I wanted the preceding discussion to explain why I think Hong’s invented creole is brilliant. Given what we know about how linguistic control can be a means of social control and oppression, her method makes perfect sense. If you’re going to write a book about revolutions, the language better be revolutionary. But in particular, if you’re going to write a book of poetry about revolutions, the language better be revolutionary, down at the level of grammar and vocabulary and not just in content, because poetry is the language of language, if you see what I mean, it’s the place we examine how we use language and how it might be used and what it should look like and sound like (I’m thinking about Wordsworth here).
Something we can learn from Hong is how to make effective use of dialogic structures (a term I am appropriating from some lit theory I picked up in class and hopefully am using acceptably, because it seems to fit well here). What I mean is, Dance Dance Revolution is a polyphonic book; it is a conversation. Most of the book is made of the Guide’s speaking shaped into poem form. These poems are annotated in Standard English and interspersed with prose excerpts from the Historian’s memoir. An intermission in the middle of the book gives us a portrait of the Desert in the voice of a third and first person narrator, sometimes fragmented:
Blood tone flood tone
woods over-swarmed with description
starless riotous woods
This part of the book contains a Desert almanac and a haunting portrait of New Town, the slum to which the revolutionaries of the failed Dance Dance Revolution were banished. The sudden shift from the voices of the book’s two principal characters to the unknown voice of a poet emphasizes the question: what form of language do we award the title poetry, that is to say, which ought we to privilege as the Art? The one closest to everyday speech? The most erudite? The most adventurous?
The voices in the book critique one another. The Guide’s eclectic and leaky pidgin-poems contrasts with the Historian’s precise prose, and this comparison forms an analog to the contrast between their histories. In one memoir clip, the Historian describes her childhood:
Despite the rumblings of civil war in Freetown, Sierra Leone, I spent most of my childhood in quiet solitude. I owned dozens of cookie tins filled with crayons and while my days drawing pictures in a sitting room with egg-white walls and a slowly rotating ceiling fan. I was a peaceful, oblivious child with only one true anxiety: the burden of consciousness. I had difficulty understanding why I—my mind, my consciousness—was in one body and not another. Did others posses the same kind of command and awareness over themselves? Were they just chattering machines without the gift of inner thought? I concluded that consciousness was a cursed, supernatural power that only I possessed and I had to keep it a secret. I attended an international primary school and I remember watching a short film about an animated mole with my class. The film reel stuttered and my classmate, Michel, whispered to me: “I will tell you a secret if you tell me a secret.” He quickly whicpsered his and then asked for mine. In my most solemn tone, I replied, “I can’t. It’s too big a secret. I can’t even begin to tell you.”
The Historian, then, is a complement to the Guide. Where as the Guide grew up amidst violence and later learned to create images with words, the Guide was raised in an imaginary world, a world where her consciousness and her thoughts were the only real things – so real that they could not be articulated. Am I going in circles here? It’s just that the premise here depicts exactly the problem I spend my days running around, which is how to not destroy reality by describing it.
Dance Dance Revolution examines the effects of globalization on authentic culture and language and thus brings in to question what authenticity even means. In the St. Petersburg Hotel series at the beginning of the book, the Guide gives the Historian a tour of the hotel (all the hotels in The Desert are modeled after real cities). In the part entitled “Preparation for winter in the St. Petersburg Arboretum”, the Guide instructs the Historian to:
Now samsy, grab un gun. BB down de riving ravens,
de vermin fatted jays, y jade headed mallards who wit
insolence nest en botany or out #3 prize-winnim plants,
who dare nest en heart o Russkies sculpt en shrubbery.
Thus we have orders for violence in order to maintain the controlled simulation of a simulation; the mimcry of a Russian arboretum which is itself a mask of nature. The question that begins to arise is, what does simulation of reality do to reality itself (Baudrillard)?
A city like The Desert arises from a completely globalized world, one in which the difference between original and reproduction has ceased to exist or become irrelevant.
So the troubling question posed by book is, if we cannot trust in our allegiance to the truth (authenticity, identity, the aura of the original, roots, axioms of conscience), where does that leave us? The Historian says in her Foreward that in the Desert, “new faces pour in and civilian accents morph so quickly that their accents betray who they talked to that day rather than their cultural roots.” In word of such ephemeral identity, where every moment is relative to the next and nothing sustains, how is it possible to have a soul? And indeed, the Guide is troubled by questions of her own duplicity; descendant from a line of informants and traitors, she has gone from being a leader of a revolution to a yes-woman herself, selling tips about dissidents to Desert officials to shore-up her retirement fund.
I think if there’s hope in this book it’s the mission that forms its premise: the Historian’s voyage to meet the Guide. We never learn exactly what motivates her interview with the Guide but presumably it has to do with both her position as a researcher and her personal connection to the Guide through her father. The book itself is an act of truth-seeking, of root-finding. It illuminates both the history of a whole society and the story of one individual: the Historian finds out what actually happened. In that sense, it’s about how revolutions die but also about how they persist.
Cathy Park Hong is the author of two other books, Translating Mo’um and Engine Empire, the latter of which I will definitely write about some time because it’s also excellent (I haven’t read the former, though I’d like to of course). Read this interview with her on Poets & Writers, where she talks about the relationship politics and poetry, read it now.
Also, I am categorizing this post under both poetry and science fiction, because it is sort of science-fictional. think the preferred term would be “speculative poetry,” but I want to associate Hong’s work with science fiction in order to pursue my aim of redefining what we think science fiction is and what it should do.