This debut collection is a fascinating study in form and a powerful meditation on family. Rosanna Young Oh grew up just miles from where I have lived most of my life, but a world away. I probably purchased food in her parents’ market but likely did not see them. Their invisibility is part of the fabric of life here in the bustling suburbs of New York City. The endemic racism toward those who keep us fed is usually not malice, but indifference. Oh opens her memories to this world, hidden in plain sight, and dedicates The Corrected Version to her parents. Mikal Gilmore shares this on writing about family: “Families are secret systems, and baring their secrets can come at great psychic and social risk.”
The book begins in that market full of fruit, flowers, and longing. Her father’s search for meaning is a silent one, one that would go unnoticed were it not for these attentions. In “Erasures,” Oh takes on the questions of greed, duty, and abandoned dreams in unrhymed tercets, enjambments leaving no room for a pause. As the protagonist’s father erases the notes he has taken from a Buddhist monk’s lecture, she observes his hands:
A pencil rests on the thorax
of my father’s thumb, callused
from lifting boxes of produce
and sharpening knives. The monk draws
a circle on the chalkboard and asks in Korean
‘Must greed exist in the service of others?’
The answer is as surprising to the reader as it is to her father. Oh leads us backward and forward in time, to the last line. The child picks up her pencil where her father’s dreams left off: “I start to write.”
The many small epiphanies in this varied collection are cumulative and pointed, continually weighing the value of things using the rich imagery of a childhood in that market. In “Scene with Watermelon from Hokusai,” Oh writes:
that the missing
Blueberries, mango, peach, and artichoke each get their turn in this wider figuring. Each poem finds its own shape on the page, each grounded with narrative that holds those unanswerable questions. Oh is a raconteur at heart, but her exactitude can only be expressed in poetry. It is nearly impossible to excerpt a stanza as an example, not just because of line breaks, but because each poem was built to be unbreakable.
“Hard Labor,” dated April 2020, is a COVID poem, broken into numbered sections, capturing the way time collapsed that month into memories that can only be added up in retelling. Recovered, her father asks:
What happened to me?
I can hear his breath on the phone,
like a book fanning apart
on its spine for the first time.
Through the book’s second half, Oh’s protagonist ventures away from home and out into the world, but “landscapes . . . are gray,” “bereft of a storm,” and “the dogwood and fountain water/ look almost plastic.” The shadow of “the grocer’s daughter” cannot be shed. The imagery is too compelling to abandon. In “New Years Eve,” she describes a day in the life of an owner of a market open 365 days a year: “… my father is wrestling with The Freezer,” and he rings in the Gregorian new year laying on the floor with a hair dryer pointed at the iced over compressor fan. “Creation Myth” is a litany of more delicious produce, but the weight of them all, like boxes being unloaded from a truck, is heavy. She turns to woodcuts, to Shakespeare, to an “Evening Improvisation”: “Sadness, pay attention, the concerto has almost ended.”
Her parents are slipping away into dementia, old age, and death, but still she feels the pull of their expectations in “Your Lonely Dream,” a prose poem in second person, where “you have a studio in the woods, miles and miles from the city.” She has achieved the dream, the space to create, but still hears her father’s words: “Elitist. Misanthrope.”
What is the price of achieving a dream? Of breaking from duty and expectation and making a life in the arts? Oh’s recent essay “On Writing About Family” expresses the difficulty of walking this tightrope, of honoring the ways of her immigrant family and finding her poetic voice:
I made sure that the speaker was not only miserable, but also self-loathing and guilt-ridden because I believed that this winning trifecta of qualities would endear her to the audience. But even I grew sick of her. Is that all what families did—suffer? Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if everyone stopped suffering? So the question I had to answer as a poet became: how do I remain true to suffering but rise above it?
These tensions—the author vs. the speaker, the individual vs. the family—are a shadow story of this collection. While never explicitly stated, the reader knows that the author-self has triumphed, but her protagonist cannot take that victory lap in a public way. Susan Shapiro writes, “Remember, the first piece you write that your family hates means you have found your voice. (If you don’t want to offend anyone, try writing a cookbook.)” (The Byline Bible)
While not exactly a cookbook, the presence of food as primal nurturing touched me and reminded me of the Buddhist meditation on gratitude for the many hands that bring food to our mouths. Oh manages to reveal the secrets of family and find her voice without (it seems) offending them. She admittedly does so at the expense of her protagonist’s expression of joy. It is an unsentimental rendering that humanizes people whose lives are taken for granted. Here is a writer whose next book I look forward to. I can tell there is so much more to celebrate.
About the Reviewer
Karin Falcone Krieger’s recent writing and visual art have recently been published in The Decadent Review, Tofu Ink, Hunger Mountain, Grande Dame, Viewless Wings, Tupelo Quarterly, The Literary Review, and in the anthology, A physical book which compiles conceptual books (Partial Press, 2022). She taught writing as an adjunct instructor for 20 years, and was an adjunct union representative. She earned an MFA is from The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, and published the zine artICHOKE from 1989-2008. She occasionally types poems in public space on a 100 year old typewriter. Links to these and other projects can be seen at www.karinfalconekrieger.com