Chorus and Cacophony: On the Things We Inherit by Ginger Ko

Ginger Ko’s new collection, Inherit, is, as the name professes, a gathering and rendering of inheritances. The poems comprise an intergenerational compilation of voices speaking to a multitude of experiences, thoughts, curses and blessings handed down over years and through bloodlines. This multiplicity of voices urges the speakers of the book toward an understanding of self, of history, though try as they may, full assimilation never quite arrives. In its place, by the final pages, looms an inevitable acceptance of discomfort and perhaps even a reluctant appreciation for the gifts the past bestows.

The inheritances Ko speaks of are explicitly female, explicitly relational:
          each time you carried in you something larger than yourself
          stepped out a daughter
          mother, mother’s mother
          mothers never mute but rivalrous
          a creature with its own warmth
and, also, particularly and beautifully:
          but always remembered: woman and not white
which subtly informs the poems contained in Inherit—because there is gap in knowledge that exists between the generations brought to life here, a gap that needs constant traversing. The gap is a product of immigration, of expectation, of cultural clash.

Split, though unevenly, into two sequences—“Lacunae” and “Sequelae”—Inherit is at once plaintive and raucous. There is an uncomfortable intimacy in Ko’s lines, the clamor of bodies and claustrophobia:
          the luxury of questioning birth before I gave it
          before the children were already bawling before me
          prying with small selfish nails at my veined dugs
Almost effortlessly, Ko blends the mother’s complaint with her offspring’s defection: ripping a fashion magazine “out of her teenaged daughter’s hands. For aspiring, for putting on airs.”

Like all families, the women Ko weaves together here speak their own language: throughout the “Lacunae” sequence, each left-side poem coexists with a right-side “translation.” In effect, Ko creates a codependency for her readers, one that is mirrored throughout the first sequence—the translations function as requirement and exposure. As the poems unpack a complex past, one wonders: do these voices hear one another? Is it a chorus or a cacophony?

Perhaps, as so much in Inherit is, it is both. Either/or doesn’t apply to the poems here, for Ko and for the speakers of her poems, it is only and and and and and: “She was head of a household of mothers and daughters. She painted ceilings, patched the dents in the garage door, screwed in new locks. She did and did until…” Until, of course, the speakers are desperate to escape.

The abundance of voices—dissonant, familiar—evoke a bevy of uneasy emotions: shame, fear, anxiety, pride, frustration, and combined, in Ko’s agile hands, Inherit becomes a layered meditation on matrilinearity and the familial roles many women play over the course of their lives: daughter, mother, wife. For the voices in Inherit, these pieces never add up to a sum total. Instead, there is an endless accrual of expectations and possessions: “It was so easy to forget the daily breakage of the small daughter, to lose control. She was a grandmother before she forgave her own mother. // The stylization of safety—money, husbands, property.”

Over the course of Inherit, Ko exposes a femininity that is common, and yet, often invisible in American culture. If the picture too often represented of the immigrant, of the woman, is one of quiet subservience, Ko turns this stilted image on its head. Instead, she finds a loneliness coupled with a tyranny of the body—“catheter tied to my leg and the doctors and nurses tightly red and white terrors”—which opens into anger: “She thought she might try to stop pointing out what was unfair, cruel, implicating. But she couldn’t find much to say about sunshine and peace, so he left her for someone who could.” Femininity is revered and reviled in these pages, unabashed and intentional. It seeks to be seen, because, as “1930-1963-1984” says, it has been forever told to do the opposite:
          This blood
          lent branch
          by branch with
          the lesson
          that it was never meant to be unbound:
          I don’t care what
          freedom has led you
          to believe—this blood is for testament.

I confess I don’t read nearly as much poetry as I probably should, in part because of my enduring quest for narrative, which I generally find lacking in contemporary poems, and especially in collections. But Inherit crosses the bridge that I always want to see crossed. Ko’s masterful and measured language opens the door to a gathering of stories that feel equal parts lyric refrain and family saga.

Inherit is crowded with the past. As the “Sequalae” sequence makes clear with long poem titled “Alien,” the “I” (which, miraculously, feels at once singular and vast) is aware of all that she has been handed down, and aches to comprehend it, yet still struggles to know how. The lines “but still with secrets” and “I have always been real / though you forgot for years” and “I raised a pup from birth / and was shocked when he grew / to look like any wild wolf” speak to this unknowing, this wily dance of haunting.

The weight of this birthright,
          This inheritance of sensitivity.
          This inheritance of foreboding.
          This shape of inheritance, a body too similar.
is unforgiving but not without necessity. Ko’s speakers seek to move beyond the formality of piety, expanding into deliverance—whether or not they are successful remains to be seen. Like a family dinner where everyone talks over one another, Inherit will fill your heart with joy and set your teeth on edge and continue ringing in your ears for years and years.
Sara Rauch’s debut story collection, What Shines from It, is forthcoming by Alternating Current Press. Her prose has been published in Hobart, Split Lip, Gravel, So to Speak, Qu, Luna Luna, and more. She lives with her family in Easthampton, MA.