Pulling No Punches: A Review of Some Are Always Hungry, Jiyhun Yun

“For my mother & her mother & hers.” The dedication leads the reader to expect poems about women, feminism, and family, but this collection incorporates these themes into a larger canvas that addresses human struggle in the face of oppression, the need to emigrate, the challenge of adapting to a country with everything different—language, culture, perspective—and building some sense of belonging, however imperfect.

The book title, Some Are Always Hungry, suggests lack, but the opening poem, “All Female,” sets Yun’s women and feminist themes. It takes place in a night market lush with food—snails, eels, clams, cockles, crabs—described in rich language.  She describes the dismantling of a crab “still writhing”, the breast “pulsating.”  Turn the page and the poem turns.  “It’s always the girls...When was the last time you’ve heard / of rooster soup?”  

In the second poem, “My Grandmother Thinks of Love While Steeping Tea”, the tea is equally lush, with dried persimmons, pulp, sugar, yuja rind, spices, honey, but it opens with the line “Though you won’t be sated.”  The hint of insufficiency.  The poems ends:

pull the thumb of ginger into your mouth

and suck.  I mean for you to taste

your inheritance. The gunpowder,

our soil.

Substances like ginger return in other poems and we are given the gunpowder, the inheritance that comes with the soil of their North Korean land.  With that, we are thrust into Yun’s other themes of displacement, oppression, emigration/immigration.  

We turn the page and we are into the stark reality of “Passage, 1951.”

Once, I saw shrapnel cut

a woman’s head clean

off like a halved pill bug.  

In this poem and “Bone Soup, 1951,” the “I” and her siblings face the reality of facing lack, the willingness to loot, to fight for every scrap of food, to have sex for food, the world of survival.  These poems are more stark because they follow the opening two poems that are lush and full.

The order of the poems in this collection is artful, as the first four poems illustrate.  This careful order continues as the collection unfolds, as we are given perspectives from three generations, the generation of the “I”, the parents, and the grandparents.  These poems are intermingled carefully to show the different generational responses to emigration/immigration, as well as the responses and reactions of the individual people.

Having set her themes, we move into poems that provide a form of “back story” for what we have read so far.  “Field Notes from My Grandparents” and “Immigration,” for example, provide the more concrete view of what happened in the war and in moving half way around the world to a country with a different language, a strange culture, and a new set of struggles.  

The imagery throughout the collection often focuses on food and what can be eaten, but the images themselves are unexpected in their originality.  Some are short; others are longer and act as both actions and metaphors.

My family was textile / and white rice rich.  

I had you suck the milk

of dandelions to take the yellow

from your skin

I pluck spent ham hocks

from trash cans and go outside.

I’ve seen Halmeoni erect enough garlic

stems and carrot roots to know

how this works.  I cover the bones

and wait for pigs to grow.

There are also recipes in this book and each is a cross between an actual recipe and much more.  “War Soup,” “Fish Head Soup,” “Recipe.”  There is a list of ingredients, even steps in the preparation, but each poems explodes into much more.  From “Recipe”:

Peel the ninjin, Grandma says in Japanese, though she means danggeun,

or “carrot” in Korean. She mistakes the two often, so I know what she

means. The skin curls beneath the paring knife’s persuasion, as I think

of colonization via inheritance, via memory. These words I’ve no reason

to know but do.

Also included are references to the body, and there are separate interspersed poems that layer in the feminist themes that are raw and direct.  There are many references to menstruation, culminating in a separate poem called “Menstruation Triptych,” which opens with “Happy to be bleeding.”  The “I” is glad of the sign that she is not pregnant. In the second part, there is a sub-story about a girl who committed suicide in ignorance, thinking her blood was a sign of fatal illness.  In the third part, the bleeding is “my lover tearing through / before I am ready,” and the lover saying “I tore you badly” with pride.  

The body is damaged in other ways as well.  In “Mother Undresses,” the mother lifts her shirt and the “I” sees “her bare back bent like a fishhook / riddled with scars.”  The poem describes the evidence of burns, bug bites, fever.  The true cause of these distortions is purposely muddled at the end:

              That bastard, that bastard

she says as I draw her oatmeal bath

and remember she means the fever.

Near the end of the collection is the longest poem, “The Leaving Season,” which draws together many of these themes.  It opens:

All winter we slept with backs pressed against

one another.  I let him fuck me, regret,

then let it happen again.

They go to the beach where oysters are harvested for food, they unearth a jawbone of a beast “picked clean of meat,” and the “I” remembers a dream where “a woman with a pig’s head” walked into the water.  There is a long section in italics where the “I” remembers her “failure / to conceive” which “earned me a bolt / between the eyes” and subsequent death.  Yet, as the poem unfolds, the “I” says “I know I am lucky / to be living” and:

At the end of the story,

I walk into the sea

and it chooses

not to drown me.

This poem interlinks the poet’s themes, as do the remaining two poems in the collection.  The final poem, “Grandmother, Praying,” offers a final blessing interspersed with a plea for forgiveness.  “Bless this December day...”  “Bless this home and its four corners...” “Bless the hen we braised...” “Forgive the body...” “Bless the ones still tethered to earth...”

The poem acts as a benediction for this complex collection.

Yun shares her unique ability to provide a universal approach to the challenges inherent in her themes.  She offers a “no holds barred” approach through lush language and her own view of the world through which her family has struggled.  She never hesitates to offer a direct line from her perspectives to the reader, heightening her message with images both lush and spare. This collection won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry.  It’s easy to see why.

Aline Soules’writing has appeared in such publications as The Kenyon Review, Houston Literary ReviewPoetry Midwest, and The Galway Review.  She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in Danville, California. Learn more about Aline at http://alinesoules.com