by Tim Etzkorn
We’ve all been there: the way fading, afternoon sun alights subtle countryside on a cross-country drive; the sleepy moment on an airplane, head bumping against plastic siding, terra below skipping in and out between clouds; up late at night listening to trees sway in the wind, music playing somewhere inside, a beer, forgotten, warming on the stoop. Sometimes, the simplest moments seem disproportionately weighty, and I for one have always struggled to understand why. It is in this space that Sarah Green’s Earth Science resides. Like any good artist, Green has the ability to make the ordinary extraordinary. Notably though, she creates an entire text in which marvels are wrought out of the common. Green teases everyday ecstasies by lyrically exploring the emotional context that makes them so weighty, creating a text deeply personal and intimate as well as accessible and eye opening, helping readers to see why commonplace moments can be so arresting.
For the speaker in Earth Science, these moments can be housesitting and feeding Betta fish while eavesdropping on jilted lovers through an open window at 3am; noticing how light reflects off wine glasses after seeing an ex at a party; a deaf man saving a forgotten stocking cap from being left behind at the end of a snowy bus ride. Green artfully connects commonplace events with the internality that makes them so significant, and she does so in a language of the everyday.
Green opens the collection with “July Linden,” a poem drawing subtle beauty from the seemingly unremarkable. The speaker reflects on a collection of moments, housesitting:
At first I thought it was a grape arbor
or a guest’s jasmine shampoo.
I would walk around barefoot
after a glass of wine
on the sidewalk, holding up a leaf
and sniffing—not this, not that,
it was not my house, I was only feeding
a couple’s fish and sleeping lightly
on the woman’s side
She drinks wine on the sidewalk alone; her observations of the couple’s possessions are always couched in his and hers, never theirs. It appears that she is struggling with matters of relationship, and it is this context that makes the moments in “July Linden” impactful rather than the moments themselves. She goes on to describe how she
[…] never fully closed
the blinds at night, the better to see
old starry neighborhoods I missed.
the better to eavesdrop
on a swaying couple in the parking lot—
shadowy heart to heart,
I will never … sweatshirt to sweatshirt,
don’t say that … one friend leaning against a car
But her attention quickly shifts to the solitary betta fish she is caretaking, the creature that opportunes the whole poem:
[…] the fish that had been sick got better
and started eating more, even built the foam nest
male bettas make when they’re happy.
So I bragged about that, feeling responsible.
And the owner replied, from Brazil, Cute,
but it’s sad too, isn’t it. He thinks he lives in an ocean.
he thinks he’s changing his life.
Her and the fish’s owner address the fish diametrically. She sees the solo betta, building his nest, happy. The owner gets hung up on the loneliness – “it’s sad too, isn’t it.” The speaker points out that “He thinks he lives in an ocean,” he thinks he has endless possibilities; he doesn’t realize that he has boxed – or fish bowled – himself in as well, just in a different fashion, and if we take the speaker’s bifurcated observations of his and her belongings, the relationship may be a part of it.
“July Linden” appears to be about dissonant relationships and a movement towards contented solitude. The collection at large seems to be working its way through a breakup, but that doesn’t make Green’s poems only about heartbreak. Generally, whatever past relationship the speaker is considering is mentioned in passing, and the collection becomes about how our internal emotionality establishes a certain force for every occurrence.
As the collection progresses, readers witness more of the speaker’s relationship fallout, but so often, the fallout is presented in a fashion that provides meaning for an occasion rather than a reflection on the breakup. In “Constellations,” the speaker considers how a charged relationship with one person can change a whole space:
Across the room at the party
after we weren’t speaking any more:
a thread of small lights
between my shoulder and his shoulder.
both shoulders kind-of-turned.
Lights that were, to be honest,
just wine glasses refracting
intermittent blinking from a Christmas tree.
Glasses in hands of bystanders
who were not bystanders in their own account
[…] I tried to look somehow
without looking, my back to him.
My heart lurched as far as it could
to his side of my chest but it could not fly
physically through it. Once
at the grocery store, I sense him behind me,
two aisles away, and I knew we were missing
each other. Glad to reconvene at the counter.
His greeting arm. A little kiss while the receipt
printed. This was not that.
“Constellations” appraises the way a whole party shifts shape based on the speaker’s emotional condition: wine glasses and Christmas lights become a constellation, illuminating the party. Yet, this light is completely distant and unattainable. Like many have felt when viewing the night sky, the speaker wants to touch the stars but knows she cannot, and feels a lurch as a result. Her heart moves to the other side of her chest, but cannot leave her body. She reflects on past lurches – missing her partner at the grocery story – but concludes, “this was not that.” The weight of her breakup changes the whole atmosphere of the party and turns it into a canvas for memory.
If Green’s poems explore the way that our internal state can change the space for us, they are equally invested in how our condition simultaneously changes others’ space. In “Findings,” the speaker reflects on how a random act of kindness from a stranger carries its own intense valence due to her internal condition, though in concluding, she implicitly questions whether the moment would have even happened had she not been giving off the distinct light that can accompany loneliness:
Today a deaf man shouted Hey—
Hey—as I moved to trade the warm bus
for snowfall. I stopped. He was holding
a pale green hat
which had slipped my gloved hands
in the rush from seat to door.
I turned, wondering, saw
the hat, his headphones, light eyes,
said Thanks, then Thanks, again, clutching
the wool. Other bus riders looking
back, looking around. Later,
stir-frying for one, turmeric yellowing
my fingers like pollen, I remember
some Hindus believe there’s this
great heat we start to give off
in our saddest times. A sort
of stubborn fever—rising, signaling, until
even the gods
feel their warm foreheads, put down their
magazines, call out our names.
The speaker, in her solitude, shares a moment with a deaf man on the bus, perhaps dealing with his own sense of isolation at the time. The poem invites us to wonder if this bond would not have occurred had it not been for the “warmth” the speaker gave off in her saddened state. If nothing else, it seems that the speaker may have brushed aside this pedestrian yet poignant moment had she not been in need of connection.
Earth Science appears to be defined by her search for warmth out of a place of separation. The speaker painfully but positively moves towards a happy nest that is neither alone nor in relationship. It is a nest, which the speaker builds, that allows her to healthily connect with others. And in this fashion, Earth Science is a collection deeply about movement, a movement grounded in the ability to see the significance, and brilliance, of the seemingly unremarkable moments every day.
Buy it from 421 Atlanta: $15.00.
Tim Etzkorn is a lecturer at the University of Wyoming where he teaches literature and composition.
By Tim Etzkorn
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs’ chapbook, “Notes from a Missing Person,” reflects on Dobbs’ search for her South Korean birth mother. The story resonated in a special way for me. Presently, I live in South Korea, and her images of hunching Halmeonies, or grandmothers, scowling ajummas, or middle-aged women, her notes written in 한굴, or Korean, her scenes of barbecue grills filled with burning meat and blackened garlic, and her implications of exclusion made for a text that modeled my reality. At the core though, this chapbook is about far more than Korea and far more than Dobbs’ experience searching for her birth mother. “Notes from a Missing Person” is a text of exploration and confrontation; it takes on the pain that accompanies a turbid past. Even for those of us who don’t have a background as fraught as Dobbs’, the chap still plunges into our hearts and provides a moving exposé of how we write fiction to understand that which we do not know, how our bodies contain our history, and how we seek knowledge as a form of healing.
“Notes from a Missing Person” recounts Dobbs’ search for her Korean birth mother across political, geographic, and cultural borders, but the text seeks therapy as much as it looks for answers. Dobbs initially at least pursues healing by way of imagination; she creates stories to explain her heritage. Naturally, these tales fall short and Dobbs must turn to her body as a familial palimpsest and her homeland as a cultural tome to unearth her past.
Outwardly, “Notes from a Missing Person” falls into two camps: one of storytelling and one of healing. Dobbs makes this apparent early. She announces her wish to “[T]alk back to that void,” as if she were setting out on an oral tale exploring unfathomable myth. Dobbs then bands this mystery together with a sense of the corporeal, saying “[T]hese notes seek to suture space and shift perspective.” Like a good poet, Dobbs chooses her words with great intention. She wishes to put incomplete information together with missing parts, but she also seeks to suture space, hemming air and emptiness back together; getting at the bodily, suture denotes the medical – stitching and sewing parts of the body to make them whole again. Dobbs isn’t simply working to understand her past; she yearns to complete her self, to rectify rifts left open by a lifetime of not knowing about her history.
Rapidly, we become aware that paper can only take Dobbs so far. Artists and therapists may know that expressive therapy has marked and cathartic results, but Dobbs intensely wants physical contact with her real life mother. Only this can fill in the gaps that her imagination has failed to patch. She realizes, “I can’t write my way to Mother. She is not this page.” Dobbs strives to suture with her pen, but a stitch made of fiction will not hold up. She needs something tangible, something fleshly to penetrate. Dobb’s discovers that her notes promulgate the problem:
Each word I write distances Omma further just as I try to bring her closer
[…] My mother is missing. I am missing […] In her image, I want to touch
myself as no one can touch me to find her, as no one can touch me—gently
and with the hunger of a child search and writing her mother’s body from
what she knows of her own.
Dobbs’ words make her aware of the emptiness that stems from knowing nothing about her mother. Fictionalizing what may be true about her past only reveals the huge gap between what she does not know and what may be real.
As long as her mother is missing, Dobbs feels that her past is missing. If her past is missing, she cannot fully understand her present and thus she is not fully there: “What is this reality that is always a phantom […] It’s a fiction that haunts where the body should’ve been, a story that strikes out for a body with memory’s force.” As Dobbs owns her lack of knowledge about herself she becomes increasingly obsessed with the physical. She knows flesh will provide a degree of knowing that stories and notes cannot.
Turning to her body, and eventually the country of her birth, helps Dobbs with her search, though she continues to confront issues of identity. She faces a double-bind of outsider status. In the U.S., Dobbs is a minority and feels the tension of being a racial outsider. In Korea, Dobbs is a cultural outsider. She is what is called a giyopo, a non-Korean Korean. She is neither fluent in the language nor the customs. Visiting the adoption agency that sent her to the U.S., western adoptee parents-to-be see her and assume she is Korean: “In the agency’s kitchen, I wash breakfast plates in the sink. A middle-aged couple enters and says to each other, ‘she must be one of the birth mothers. Look at how young she is,’” Their assumption of her goes no further than her skin. Later, joining with adoptee friends and a beef barbecue restaurant, she fails the restaurant staff at being the Korean that she racially is:
Yet I’m remembering the sweet smoke of a Hongdae restaurant, adoptee
friends shouting “Geonbae!” and shooting soju, bulgogi spread like a
blackening skirt because no one’s paying attention, the scowling ajumma
running over with scissors and tongs. Hungry, I watch her balance, cut and
arrange the strips, as if her hands know the weight of the meat, the intensity
of the fire; or she’s annoyed that we’re drunk and burning our food because
we don’t know what to do. We’re trying.
“Because we don’t know what to do.” Dobbs’ line ripples like a boulder dropped in a duck pond. She and her friends can’t know what to do because they are Korean by birth only. Much like the adoptee parents-to-be, the ajumma’s judgment goes as far as her skin. She looks Korean, so she should act Korean. The balancing, cutting, and placing of the meat should be as natural to her as it is to the scowling middle-aged woman, and when it’s not, she is deemed an outsider.
Nonetheless, Dobbs discovers that in searching her body and her homeland, she finds healing that paper will not reveal. That’s not to say her imaginative exploration has been for naught; her writing moved her journey forward, maybe even made it possible, and she has sutured some of her space. She can offer up her notes as a result:
You can weigh [the work’s] awkward heft in your hands, cut it with
scissors, drop the painted strips into a steel bucket and strike a match. Lean
toward the flames—paper hissing as it curls, blackens and ashes—to see the
words return to their source.
Much like the ajumma cutting and weighing beef, Dobbs cuts and weighs her work. The meat fed her body; her writing fed her search, but now, its purpose has been served; she can sacrifice it. She concludes by turning the text onto the readers. She invites us to lean in, to cut up our own fictions and burn them so as to seek answers in our body as well as in our pens.
Tim Etzkorn completed his Master’s in English Literature from the University of Wyoming. He has taught composition, literature, and ESL/EFL. At present he teaches EFL in South Korea.