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Tending the Speculative: Poems from the Asian American Adoptee Diaspora

Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, inquiring into a poetics emerging from the adopted diasporic condition, guest-curates a portfolio of poems for The Line Break.

By The Line Break

Although readers may be tempted to file this collection under “adoptee writing,” they might instead take notice of how these aesthetically diverse poems enact an urgent poetics emerging from displacement by war, militarism, poverty, social stigma against single mothers, neoliberal outsourcing of social welfare, and cultural and linguistic loss. In the not-so-distant past, to write from these conditions of orphaning would have been tantamount to expressing ingratitude, but today, to do so is to lay claim to history and to summon artistic and communal relatives for a poet’s task.

The poets in this portfolio are epic in sweep yet lyrically intense in contingencies of feeling and knowing. Their work recalls Myung Mi Kim’s definition of poetics as “that activity tending the speculative.” Yet unlike the witness who remembers history or who can turn to birth family or ethnic community to ask, the poet writing from an adopted diasporic condition oftentimes cannot testify to the events that orphaned her or him. These conditions retain an uncanny presence in her/his dream life.

Out of necessity, this poet speculates and stages as a way to make sense of haunting absences, divided geographies, socially deadened filiations, lost or sealed documents, bodies used by and buried under post-Cold War economic boom/bust:

The children, recorded, a homestead of lung and eye
Museums of burials, the underground of giving birth to birth

—Sun Yung Shin, “[Orphanotrophia]”

The poet reconstructs a site of orphaning as a site of crucial encounter and naming:

To shield you from the bullets stilling hanging in the sky.
I’ve mastered the silence of your existence,
but now I shout your name in this dark cave.

—Kevin Minh Allen, “When Home Is Not Enough”

Wherefore all this memory work? In Bryan Thao Worra’s “Songkran Niyomsane’s Forensic Medicine Museum, 2003,” birth family are released from administrative processing and revivified in a way that’s only possible in a poem:

I wondered if my mother, making her way across
The Mekong for a new life, might have found herself here
Tucked in a drawer anonymously among these samples
Of flesh, these cold cases in a tropical nation.

While editing this portfolio, I looked for work aware of its adopted diasporic condition yet committed to the task of making a poem. Whether speculating, searching, dismantling, reunifying, or something else altogether, language that seemed transcribed “at the interstices of the abbreviated,” as Kim writes, “the oddly conjoined, the amalgamated—recognizing that language occurs under continual construction” attracted me the most. At the same time, I sought to diversify this issue, keeping in mind that a fully representative cross-section wasn’t possible given space limitations. Working within these constraints, I also solicited artwork to punctuate the issue and to invite dialogue among the poems.

This portfolio might be considered a meeting place to reconcile Cold War histories and legacies from which an adopted person is amputated and estranged. In this way, the poems are both intimate and political by virtue of their restless insistence on wholeness and peace. I’m reminded of Muriel Rukeyser’s Life of Poetry: “Until the peace makes its people, its forests, and its living cities; in that burning central life, and wherever we live, there is the place for poetry.”

And in this place, we shall make another peace:

She goes to the window, opening
it to a crack, to feel the salty wind
against her face, to feel
the beginnings of danger.

—Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut, “a modern ghost family”

—Jennifer Kwon Dobbs

1. When Home Is Not Enough – Kevin Minh Allen
2. [Orphanotrophia] and [Tumuli] – Sun Yung Shin
3. Untitled and 14.5833° N, 121.0000° E – Lisa Marie Rollins
4. How to Divide a Peninsula and No Gun Ri, or The Battle That Wasn’t – Katie Hae Leo
5. a modern ghost family – Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut
6. Songkran Niyomsane’s Forensic Medicine Museum, 2003 – Bryan Thao Worra
7. Fruit and Dear Satomi Shirai, – Molly Gaudry
8. Gardening Secrets of the Dead – Lee Herrick

Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is the author of Paper Pavilion, recipient of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize and the New England Poetry Club’s Sheila Motton Book Award, and Song of a Mirror, finalist for the Tupelo Snowbound Chapbook Award. Recently, her work has appeared in Asian American Literary Review, Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Cimarron Review, Mascara Review, Poetry NZ, SOLO NOVO, among others; has been anthologized in Echoes Upon Echoes (Asian American Writers’ Workshop 2003), Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (W. W. Norton 2008), and One for the Money: The Sentence as a Poetic Form (Blue Lynx Press 2012); featured on radio and in film; and translated into Greek, Korean, and Turkish. Currently, she is assistant professor of English affiliated with the race and ethnic studies program at St. Olaf College where she teaches creative writing and Asian American studies.