Book Review

In Su Cho’s moving debut, The Symmetry of Fish, language, culture, and family form a potent core for a speaker navigating the Korean-American experience. It dissects the world and the self’s unnamable parts, and reshapes them into tangible pieces the speaker gently offers to the reader. Memory and the tricks time plays on it are integral to the speaker’s story, and longing and yearning become unshakable emotions by which the speaker confronts their personal history.

“Hello, My Parents Don’t Speak English Well, How Can I Help You?” is the collection’s initial poetic tour de force. Rife with pertinent social commentary, the poem opens boldly: “Are you the head of household? / Because I am / Calling about the census—.” Cultural and generational differences culminate in the poem as a census phone call erupts into a mother-daughter linguistic dance: “For every call like this, my mother / Gestures wildly as if we haven’t done this a million times.” The poem’s emotional tension lies not between the census caller and the mother, but between the speaker and the mother. The speaker’s blunt confessions about calling the mother “stupid” for packing a field-trip lunch with rice balls feed the tension. Food, rather than language, becomes the poem’s centerpiece, described as “X-rays of what I eat at home,” that are “scattered for the school to see.” The speaker displays intense embarrassment, but the poem’s final turn draws readers into the speaker’s emotional growth and maturity: “Yet twenty years later, I am on the phone in a different time / Zone, speaking for my mother, how we just want some accountability.” Pushing the poem’s imagery and linguistics is the abecedarian form, a sly technique Cho uses that also serves as a quiet contribution to the poem’s social commentary about America’s treatment of non-English speaking minorities and the younger generations who balance two cultures.

Centering the collection is “My Bed Shakes and I Assume the Ghosts Are Finally Getting Me.” Written using enjambed couplets, this poem bears a humor not evident in many of the other poems. The speaker reflects on the life-changing experience of meeting someone “in high school summer gym class.” Filled with playful memories “where / we turned jeans into flotation devices and tallied / bowling scores by hand,” the poem depicts the speaker’s devotion to that rare friend so many long to find: the friend who knows one better than anyone else and with whom there is immeasurable chemistry. Most noticeable about the poem is its intimate account of the role of spirituality. About their friend, the speaker observes “You believe in prayer because you believe / in ghosts, in vengeful spirits because you’ve seen them.” The speaker admits that the friend keeps “a bible” on theghtstand even though / we both don’t read it anymore.” The speaker and the friend’s approach to faith and objects of faith are symbolic, representing the bits and pieces of traditions and cultures individuals choose to keep as an homage to one’s background or even as a place of solace they return to at difficult times.

Nonetheless, The Symmetry of Fish is not only a poetic depiction of a speaker’s careful balancing of cultures and languages, it is also a nod to the tension existing between the rural and the urban. Indiana is a focal point for many of the poems, and “Ode to Wanting to Run over Other People’s Children in the Church Parking Lot” carries the rural-urban tension delicately. The speaker tolerates a sister who “Wants a cell phone, / a Chanel bag, an iPad, tickets to the Governors Ball.” The sister’s focus on materialism is representative of the high-end materialism often associated with American culture. The materialism is also representative of the urban lifestyle in which the speaker’s family has suddenly found themselves: “We walk to the van, all smiles and bows // to the church people saying that us country / folk from Indiana will get used to the city.” The speaker’s solution is to run over the sibling’s friends with the van. Written as an ode, the poem captures a dark-humored moment, one of an older sibling’s impatience with a younger sibling consumed by not only materialism at such a young age, but also childhood’s social moorings in a new environment.

Reminiscent of nonfiction books like E.J. Koh’s The Magical Language of Others and poetry collections such as Jenny L. Davis’s Trickster Academy, The Symmetry of Fish is a bold, elegant record, a poetic artifact. As the violence against Asian-Americans rises in the United States, it is a collection whose voice rings loudly and defiantly against discrimination—a true celebration of the self, of a culture, and of the life-shaping moments individuals so often fail to recognize.

About the Reviewer

Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist. Her poems and essays have appeared in the Atlanta Review, the Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. Nicole teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and works as a career counselor for Blue Ridge Community College. She is a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and The Southern Review of Books.