“There is a Korean belief that you are born/the parent of the one you hurt most,” writes EJ Koh in her debut poetry collection A Lesser Love. It’s such a perfect idea that it hurts your heart just to think about it.
There’s justice in the thought of being entirely responsible for the person you will wrong most in this world. They wake you every night, squalling and wordless and purely filled with rage. You feed and clothe them, and try to explain the world to them. Eventually, after many years of thankless work, they turn on you and set out to drink, fuck, and do a lot of drugs while you sit at home and fret and imagine them lying dead by the side of the road. But finally, when you grow weak and dumb, they care for you and clean your ass and teach you about the boundless forgiveness of humanity. There is no greater punishment, or salvation, than the curse of being born human.
Koh’s poetry is intensely interested in exploring the complexities of those human interactions: father to daughter, daughter to mother, lover to lover, occupier to occupied and back again. History is a theme in her work. She is interested in nations battling nations (one of her best poems, “Korean War,” is an attempt to capture all the complexities of a geopolitical conflict onto a single sheet of paper) and in the history shared between people.
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Paul Constant is co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read books coverage at seattlereviewofbooks.com.