For the final week of National Poetry Month, we are pleased to present our LVA Virginia Literary Award winning poet, Annie Kim, as our guest blogger.
Annie Kim is a poet, educator, and former attorney. Eros, Unbroken (2020), her second collection, is the winner of the 2019 Washington Prize and the 2021 Library of Virginia Literary Award in Poetry, and was a finalist for the 2020 Foreword INDIES Poetry Book of the Year. Into the Cyclorama, her debut collection, won the Michael Waters Poetry Prize (Southern Indiana Review Press, 2016). Kim’s poems have appeared in journals such as Beloit Poetry Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Four Way Review, The Kenyon Review, Narrative, Plume and Pleiades.
A graduate of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers and the recipient of fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Hambidge Center, Kim works at the University of Virginia School of Law as the Assistant Dean for Public Service. She teaches law students about public interest lawyering and writes essays for DMQ Review.
I don’t often write about work. But this past year—perhaps because the pandemic has rocked so many cherished notions about work—I’ve been thinking and writing about it a lot.
This poem from Eros, Unbroken came into being as I thought about that period in my life when, practically overnight, I went from being a student to being a worker. For young lawyers, the first year of practice can be grueling. One’s construction of self (I was an English major, I believe in beauty) collides with the reality of the billable hour, the instrumentalized word. That year when I began practicing as a lawyer—1999—also happened to be the last year of the big American twentieth century, “the empire of concrete.” No one knew that, just a few years later, the Twin Towers would fall and our economy, as we knew it, would crumble from within. For me—and maybe many others—it was the last year of a certain idealism.
“Bildungsroman, 1999” takes its title from the German term bildungsroman—a novel that explores the growth or education of a young person. Think Pip in Dickens’s Great Expectations. Although my poem is nothing like a nineteenth-century novel, it does rely on narrative elements: a specific speaker recounting a specific past.
The opening narrative about the speaker enduring the daily rhythms of a demanding job gives way, by the end, to the narrated memory of being measured by a tailor. When I first wrote this, the tailor scene felt like a strange way to end this poem. But 1999 was also the year when I—immigrant daughter of immigrant parents—took my first steps into a professional world that seemed overwhelmingly white and privileged. The Korean tailor is important for this reason. Focusing his gaze on the speaker, marking her pant hems with chalk, he’s also marking her.
In the closing lines, the speaker muses about what she’d say now to her younger self: “Everything is worth your look. . . everything is still beautiful,/even if you have no words to say it.” Writing this, I remember feeling a rush of empathy for my scared younger self who worried that the world no longer held any beauty in it. A few lines from an early poem by Larry Levis that I love, “Rhododendrons,” feel like a companion passage:
I want to turn back and go up
to myself at age 20,
and press five dollars into his hand
so he can go to sleep.
What the Levis poem does so well, and what my poetry aspires to do, is create complex, miniature collages of thought, emotion, and sensation. Each moment of our lives we perceive—and even perceive our perceiving selves—but we rarely take the time to notice. Poetry crystallizes these moments. Poetry also reminds us that these moments are neither simple nor static. The image of the self in the tailor’s mirror isn’t the same as the self standing before the mirror or the self writing the memory years later—yet all three are linked by the poem. As readers and writers of poetry, we engage in this very human and complicated enterprise of looking, remembering, and constructing. Where else but in poetry can we do this work?