How to Say Water (물): Ghosts & Fallen Fruit in Su Cho’s The Symmetry of Fish
By Joan Kwon Glass
Cho, Su, The Symmetry of Fish, Penguin Random House, 2022. $18.00
As the mixed race daughter of a Korean immigrant mother and a working class, white, American father, I am always hungry for books that speak to the complexities and challenges of existing in betweenlands. Of particular interest are those that effectively incorporate historical and imagined folklore, the conflicts of intersecting linguistics, and speaking truths in spite of risks and taboos. In Symmetry of Fish, Cho shares a universe of midwestern churches, kitchens and station wagons, funeral altars and schoolyards, mothers and daughters navigating American life as they learn English and try to preserve and honor their Korean identities. Her poems share the truths of the speaker’s experience, while showing intentional restraint–a restraint that permits readers to ask our own questions of whichever ghosts haunt us. As I read Symmetry of Fish, I was struck by Cho’s artful investigation and exposure of liminal space, of the places between one home and another, of the desire and quest to create one’s own true home (and what that means) as a young person learning a new language in a new country. Cho’s poems reminded me of the lessons I learned as a first generation Korean American: that language can simultaneously serve as a puzzle, labyrinth, barrier and hallway. In the very first poem How to Say Water, Cho walks the reader through how to say “물,” the Korean word for “water:”
“Breathe through your nose as you practice
the silence of this exercise.
Don’t bite yourself”
Through concrete steps and subtle choices in phrases and images, the reader learns just how strange and difficult it can be to attempt pronunciation of words in an unfamiliar language. What she implies is that language can be both a barrier and a bridge; what does it feel like for someone who must use a barrier as their bridge to others? Cho continues:
“Please, start from the top and try to follow
along. I wish you could borrow
my body to say water.
This is the easiest way I can help you say 물
because I could never help my parents
say girl, ice cream, parfait.”
Imagine how much easier it might be for non-native speaker to understand the complexities of learning another language, if they could just do so for an hour by occupying the body of a native speaker? Cho’s choice of the phrase “easiest way” in How to Say Water feels intentional and layered; learning to speak a new language may very well feel like an out-of-body experience.
Teaching someone to pronounce words in an unfamiliar language is just one thing many first generation Korean Americans are expected to do for their parents. The pronunciation of hangul and English, the distance between post-Korean War, evangelical christianity and one’s own faith (or lack thereof), can become a wary battle between generations, one that we hope to develop an armistice for. When I was 26, and curating a list of possible American baby names for my first child, the contenders had to be names my Korean mother could pronounce. “Kiernan,” an early favorite, and a nod to my son’s father’s Irish heritage, was impossible as the letters “r” and “l” are represented by the same character in Korean. When my mother said it, it sounded more like “kill him.” Another contender, “Noah,” became problematic because of its Biblical associations, and my desire to claim my agnosticism and reject what I considered to be my mother’s white version of evangelical christianity.
Cho writes often of her relationship to the church, one much less combative than my own. I found myself longing for her sense of appreciation for the traditions that christianity offered her–community gatherings with other Korean American immigrants, food, New Year celebrations, and music. In my own struggle for identity, had I overcomplicated my own resistance? And how many other children of immigrants have experienced displacement from faith in addition to displacement from our ancestors’ homelands? And what happens to the faiths we may have practiced prior to Korean War missionaries converting South Korea from a primarily buddhist nation to a primarily christian one? In the poem New Year’s on Rockland Avenue, Cho writes:
“…We forget how to say
Happy New Year, so my sister exclaims
Happy Birthday instead. We don’t have
a family tradition, but we do this every year
even through my mother’s lamentations
that her children are straying further
from God. But when I’m home, my sister
still asks if I believe in everything
we grew up with, and I say yes, I do.”
What beliefs do we choose to hold onto, and which ones do we let go of in our quest to become ourselves? How do we choose? My entire Korean family converted to christianity in the 1960s, after meeting christian missionaries who arrived in droves following the Korean War. The relationship of Korea to white missionary groups is complicated, and has troubled me throughout my life. In her poem Winters in Queens, Cho writes:
We sleep on the heated floors of the church’s
nursery room every winter because
something is wrong with my mother’s
green card application.
The speaker shares many memories of church and of trips back and forth from New York to Indiana, (“vanilla creme cookies and Spice Girls gum,” how after buying snacks at the gas station on one of these trips, she and her sister “make crosses with Slim Jims”). The intersections of ghosts and the living, of Korean language and English, and of church scenes with road trips and pop culture can feel both disorienting and grounding in a way that dizzies the reader into the speaker’s lived experience.
In my own lived experience as the oldest daughter of a Korean American immigrant, my mother’s midwestern Baptist church was the scene of my first kiss, with the pastor’s son whose eyelashes and eyebrows were blonder than any blonde I had ever seen. It was where my mother held the only identity more all-encompassing than her identity as a Korean immigrant–one that was eternal, soul-saving. She could memorize a hymn in English more easily because the tune was the same in Korean. Church was an anchor in all of my childhood memories. It is where I first learned that adults had terrible secrets, committed sins that could vanish just by asking Jesus to forgive them. And ultimately, it became my point of departure from my mother’s unwavering faith. Cho writes:
“…In the ocean
of red carpet and crosses, a lone woman
prays so hard that I swear I can hear her through
this soundproof glass. She sways forward
and back like a thick spring uncoiled.”
Evangelical, American churches have some similarities to Korean funerals–the swaying, wailing, eyes closed, arms up. Their existence has always posed an inherent conflict for me. Conflicts and battles, both internal and external, are evident throughout Symmetry of Fish, including one between ghosts and the living. Cho writes multiple poems about a Chyeonyo Gwishin, a type of ghost from Korean folklore, that is haunted by their own unfulfilled destiny. In the poem A Little Cheonyeo Gwishin Appears in my Kitchen, Cho tries to prepare food while the ghost nags her, the way a mother might. And throughout Symmetry of Fish, mother becomes daughter, daughter becomes mother, ghost becomes daughter, all of these roles increasingly blurred. She writes of a conversation between her and the Cheonyeo Gwishin :
“Aren’t you supposed
to be bothering men?
Why don’t you go
back to paradise?
She rises up. Her arms
hang like wet ropes,
head tilting until
her chin points
to the ceiling.
She cries, Why am I
here? None of my mothers
will tell me why I am here.”
This poem unnerved me in the best way, the way that only a brilliant poem can. Who among us, has never asked the same question of the world, wishing someone would tell us–how will we fulfill our own destinies, as we contend with the expectations of our families, histories and countries, not to mention our own desires? And why, even in death, do we remain bound?
Cho addresses this question in her poem After the Burial, The Dead Take Everything That Burns. Here, the speaker’s grandmother is mourning the death of her husband: “Facing the marble headstone / are pastel rice cakes / and apples stacked five high.” Then, the poem sets up the scene: she “toasts to the harvest, / tosses wedding portraits, / fine linens, cabbages, and his / work pants into the pyre,” how we honor family through both discarding and serving, burning and waiting. The speaker goes on to write that the grandmother “sits in front of the marble table / with a bowl of rice and drink, waiting / for him to pick up his chopsticks and eat.” Even in death, or maybe especially in death, we are waiting for symmetry.
Koreans and Korean Americans have long searched for symmetry in food rituals. Poems that draw connections between food and how Koreans grieve and honor our ancestors also appear throughout Symmetry of Fish. In According to My Father, Peaches Ward Off Spirits, Cho begins with the image of the “geometric offerings of apples, / plums, and pears. / My parents bow / toward the tumulus / of my grandfather / and bump into the plums, / not noticing them / falling off the table.” This intentional proximity of food to death, of equating food to value in life, is reflected in the movement of the fruit and the movement and nearness of the speaker to the food, to the ground, to the dead. The speaker goes on to write: “I gather them / in my shirt / but don’t want to get / too close. / The plums are days / old, mushy and warm. / A fly buzzes / in my ear, / makes me drop / them— one / by one they roll / toward the tumulus / and burrow into the ground.” The reader sees fallen fruit again in The Old Man in White Has Given My Mother a Ripe Persimmon Again: “I must cherish this landscape because all the persimmons tumbling down / the hills and gathering into the valley belong to me. The orange fruits / with verdant leaves are hard and glistening because they are not / meant to drop so soon, though others dangle heavy on their branches.”
As a young child, spending summers in South Korea with my mother and sister, the very first Korean word I remember learning from my grandmother was “딸기” (strawberries). This is how I first learned Korean–by picking up the words and phrases that were associated with what I most desired. The first English word I ever tried to teach my Korean grandmother was “fish.” An impossible task, considering there is no letter “f” in Korean. I tried to show her how to brace her upper, front teeth against her bottom lip and breathe out through her mouth, opening her lips as the air was blowing through, before finally uttering a sound. We would both laugh until we cried, sitting cross-legged in front of her little reading table, as she said “pish” over and over, our joy, our perfect arrangement of bones.
How does unexpected connective tissue grow, knotted with English phonemes and Hangul, around the bones of us? Sometimes, language itself requires an impossible arrangement of conflicting cells. And isn’t this also how it feels, as the daughter of immigrants, trying to speak and move in a way that pleases both one’s parents and the white Americans by whom you are surrounded? To satisfy both one’s own developing dreams, while dodging or considering the ghosts hiding in kitchen corners? This audacious, continuous wish for a way to home one’s bones, held steady in their delicate, impossible arrangements, makes up the dialect of Symmetry of Fish. Cho is an important, fresh voice in the literary landscape, and one that provides us with a way to move toward unexpected destinies, the versions of ourselves that neither our parents or we, could have imagined.
Su Cho is a poet and essayist born in South Korea and raised in Indiana. She is the author of the poetry collection The Symmetry of Fish (Penguin, 2022) which was a winner of the National Poetry Series. Her work has appeared in places like The Best American Poetry 2021, Best New Poets 2021, and They Rise Like a Wave: An Anthology of Asian American Women Poets. Her editorial work includes serving as guest editor for Poetry Magazine and serving as editor-in-chief of Cream City Review and Indiana Review. She is an assistant professor of English and teaches creative writing and poetry at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Joan Kwon Glass is the Korean American author of NIGHT SWIM (2022), winner of the Diode Editions Book Contest, & three chapbooks published in 2022. She teaches on the faculty of the Hudson Valley Writers Center, Brooklyn Poets & the Maine Writers Alliance, & serves as editor in chief for Harbor Review. Joan’s work has won or been finalist for several prizes including the Pushcart Prize, Sundress Anthology Best of the Net, the Subnivean Award & the Lumiere Review Award, and her poems have been published or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, Asian American Writer’s Workshop (The Margins), RHINO, Dialogist & elsewhere. Please see her website at www.joankwonglass.com for more information.