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A Cruelty Special to Our Species

She is girl. She is gravel. She is grabbed. She is grabbed like handfuls of gravel.

Emily Jungmin Yoon collects testimony and confronts history in her debut collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, which publishes today from Ecco Press. The poems in this book are records of earthly and human violence—the sexual slavery of Korean comfort women, lives lost during natural disasters, and the everyday, accumulating ways that women hurt and are made to silently accept that pain. These are poems deeply invested in the minutiae of language, how one word leads to the next, connecting sound, rhythm, and meaning between languages, poets, and women.

As the Poetry editor for The Margins Emily has cultivated a special home for Asian American poetry in all its richness, and we’re thrilled to celebrate her collection here on Poetry Tuesday, and at our NYC reading room on Tuesday, September 25 with Sueyuen Juliette Lee, Wo Chan, and Kristin Chang.


An Ordinary Misfortune

The  trouble  with  trees is  that  their  bodies  and  limbs  are  too  capable, capable  of burning, of living, capable of leaves,  of leaving,  charcoal,  ash, and  we  think    we  have   power.   Capable,  1561,   from   Late   Latin   capabilis  “receptive,”  Unit    731 of  the Japanese Empire  inject  us  with monkey blood, our  limbs are not  receptive,  Capable,  used  by  theologians,  from  Latin  capax  “able  to  hold  much,”  our living bodies  and  extracted  children,  not  holding,  not  Capable,  capere “to  take, grasp, layhold,  catch,  undertake, be  large  enough  for,   comprehend,”  how  to  take,  how  to  grasp,  comprehend,   our  limbs  catch  fire,  taken,  our  bodies  not large enough,  Capable, Sanskrit kapati “two handfuls,” two handfuls of intestines,   are  they   Capable,  Greek   kaptein   “to   swallow,   gulp   down,” pills,  gas, what more,  Capable, Lettish  kampiu “seize,” our  limber  bodies, carve our bodies, our eyes unseized  by  their  sockets,  Capable,  limbs,  capable  of  burning,  of ash,  charcoal,  Capable,  Old  Irish  cacht  “servant-girl,” her fallopian tube, cut, living, not Capable, of living, leaving, Welsh caeth “captive, slave,” Capable, our names, maruta, from Japanese, “logs.”


An Ordinary Misfortune


She is girl. She is gravel. She is grabbed. She is grabbed like handfuls of gravel. Gravel  grated  by water. Her village  is  full  of  gravel fields.  It is 1950.  She  is  girl.  She is  grabbed. She is not  my  grandmother  though  my  grandmother  is  girl.  My  grandmother’s  father  closes  the  gates. Against  American  soldiers, though  they jump over stone walls. To a girl who  is  not  my grandmother.  The girl is  gravel  grabbed.  Her  language  is  gravel  because  it  means  nothing.  Hands  full  of girl. Fields  full  of  gravel.  Korea is gravel and graves. Girl is girl  and she will  never be a grandmother. She will be girl, girl, girl is gravel and history will skip her  like stone over water. Oh girl, oh glory.


“An Ordinary Misfortune” [The Trouble with trees…] and “An Ordinary Misfortune” [She is girl…] reprinted from A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon. Copyright © 2018 Emily Jungmin Yoon. Used with permission of the publisher, Ecco Press. All rights reserved.