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reviewed on June 25, 2024

No poet writes with an eye toward the long-list, but it is nonetheless the case that literary prizes—what James English calls "the economy of prestige"—pull the field toward certain aesthetic strategies and toward a more or less defined set of subjects.


Mirror Nation moves, as if gravitationally, toward both.


Like Paisley Rekdal’s West: A Translation (Copper Canyon, 2023) or Mai Der Vang’s Yellow Rain (Graywolf, 2021), both recently long-listed, or like older prize-winners from Daniel Borzutzky and Peter Balakian, Mirror Nation develops a semi-documentary poetics as a means of coming to terms with sweeping historical material, subject matter to which the author herself, as in these other texts, remains intimately connected. 

These collections are hardly identical, but their shared characteristics mark one mode, among others, by which poets over the past two decades or so have courted the literary prize-light.


In Mirror Nation, follow-up to her own prize-winner, DMZ Colony (Wave, 2020), Don Mee Choi examines what she refers to as “neocolonialism” in the context of the Gwangju Uprising of 1980, a democratic response to a military coup in South Korea led by hardliner Chun Doo-hwan, himself supported by the U.S. government.  As she excavates this history, Choi incorporates photographs and film stills from her journalist father’s coverage of the event, material Mirror Nation reproduces—as Choi meticulously notes—“courtesy of” and “under license from” outlets like ABC and Berlin-based rbb media GmbH; one of the most insistent and ubiquitous forms of neocolonialism, Choi makes clear, is its mediation of our collective histories, expropriated as inevitably as water and mineral rights.


If one facet of Mirror Nation is its reflection on the Gwangju Uprising, the collection treats South Korea itself as a mirror of postwar Germany, in particular an historically divided Berlin, where Choi spent 2019 on a DAAD Artist-in-Berlin Fellowship and where she improbably encounters an image of her father years earlier on the Glienicker Brücke.  In its partitioning, in the haunting presence of her father, Choi explains, Berlin “mirrors” South Korea, just as city mirrors nation in its subjugation to globalized capital, identified in Mirror Nation with the spinning rooftop logo of Mercedes-Benz.  “Grief,” Choi writes of neocolonialism, “has a tendency to migrate from clock to clock, war to war, massacre to massacre, colony to neocolony.”


There are, I think, major problems with this line of thinking, and with Mirror Nation itself.


It may be the case that global capital effaces the particularity of place.  It may be the case that the 20th and 21st centuries have been characterized by the ruthless monologic of money, and that neocolonial imperialism—or neoliberalism, backed by state violence—renders all history the history of capital flow.  It may be the case, as Choi puts it, that “my father = napalm = Mekong Delta = Miami,” and that “in the Imperial Panorama” of Walter Benjamin, as she quotes, “it did not matter where you began the cycle.”


In suggesting not just a correspondence but an equivalence, though, between American involvement in the Gwangju Uprising and the 1980 police killing of Arthur McDuffie in Miami—or in suggesting that the acquittal of McDuffie’s murderers “= AFGHANISTAN”—Mirror Nation reproduces rather than resists the logic of late capital, effacing the distinct histories and experiences that have shaped each of these places and the people who inhabit them.  The United States involved itself in Afghanistan as a response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, and to secure Middle Eastern oil reserves, and to create in the region a platform for democracy—or neoliberalism.  American police officers are both trained and paid to protect the nation’s ruling economic order, and vast bureaucracies exist—from HR departments to city councils to tax policies—to ensure that Americans of color are “policed” far more ruthlessly than their fellow citizens.  One might condemn both of these systems, I imagine, and might even point out their resemblances, without posing them as somehow equivalent, as if every victim of American empire mattered only insofar as their victimization united them.


In straining, that is, for an associative logic that might not only reflect but repurpose the effects of neoliberal empire, Mirror Nation relies on shortcuts in thinking which treat superficial likenesses as markers of structural identity.  There were indeed riots on the same day in Miami and Gwangju.  Choi did indeed live in Korea and Berlin, as did her father.  Such “temporal magic,” as Choi terms it, may be interesting, but it betrays an incapacity for fine distinctions to which the American Left, including its poets, has been somewhat too inclined of late.


“In my dreams, disparate places are seamlessly linked,” Choi writes, a notion echoed by Anabelle Johnston in her recent review of Mirror Nation in Los Angeles Review of Books, where she finds—as if to anticipate the objection—that "the equivalencies do not flatten but rather illuminate the depth of destruction and similarities among the oppressors."


I have to protest that the equivalencies do, in fact, flatten.


Neither do Mirror Nation’s more theoretically inclined analyses rise above the gestural.  Here, for instance, is an excerpt from “Berlin 30.11.2019,” one which refers to W. E. B. Du Bois’s “veil” by which one is “shut out from their world”:


The vast veil, when stretched across the Pacific Ocean, has a different function.  Its militarization is ever heightened to contain the imagined enemy, to perpetuate imperial hegemonic control.  The so-called Manifest Destiny is woven into its every fiber.


A tissue of cliché, the passage seems lifted straight from the minutes of the Young Democrats, falling back, as does Mirror Nation writ large, on a recognizable absolutism with respect to both ethics and argument.


Eschewing gradation in thought and feeling, posing every time and place as "equal," Mirror Nation exacerbates an inflammatory rhetorical divide increasingly disarticulated—in this nation and its many mirrors—from historical and political reality.  The collection is paper-thin in structure and substance, its under-developed thought papered over, in turn, with an ostensibly experimental aesthetic. 


The book makes the moves of a prize-winner.  If it finds its way onto the year’s long-lists, however, it will have fooled those committees responsible.

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