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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, August 27, 2006

Using words in law, in politics, in daily life, we keep some associations and discard others, depending on the context. On a form to fill out, "occupation" means something like "profession." On junk mail or in a lease, "occupant" means the person in a dwelling. On the bathroom door, "occupied" means that someone is in there. In conflicts between nations, "occupied" means that alien forces are present and in control. These English forms of the Latin occupare all have the same general significance. But within that general significance, to make sense of the world, we disregard some shades of meaning and apply others.

Or sometimes there is reason to do the opposite, letting two different kinds of nuance, basically irrelevant to each other, fuse or collide. That can be a way of discovering meaning or expressing feeling. Suji Kwock Kim does this in a poem that comes out of the long, cruel Japanese occupation of Korea:

Occupation

The soldiers

are hard at work

building a house.

They hammer

bodies into the earth

like nails,

they paint the walls

with blood.

Inside the doors

stay shut, locked

as eyes of stone.

Inside the stairs

feel slippery,

all flights go down.

There is no floor:

only a roof,

where ash is falling --

dark snow,

human snow,

thickly, mutely

falling.

Come, they say.

This house will

last forever.

You must occupy it.

And you, and you --

And you, and you --

Come, they say.

There is room

for everyone.

The two senses of the word "occupy" dramatize a psychological conflict between the need to resist authority and the conflicting demand to give in, an inner struggle forced by the outer, violent conflict.

In this language -- like the language of dreams -- the house and the foreign occupation are one. The violence of the invaders and their invitation to move into a durable new dwelling blend into one feeling. In this vision of reality, flights go down, and blood is paint -- irrational images that speak their truth about the brutal "hard work" of the soldiers. The invitation to enter an enduring house suggests the political rhetoric of the invaders. Or, do phrases such as "This house will last forever" reflect the inner, defeated rationalization of the oppressed? Either way, the poem exposes the fearsome sort of language that works to justify brutality. Imagination, too, works. Notably in poetry, but in all expressive language, it works to include all kinds and levels of truth.

(Suji Kwock Kim's poem "Occupation" is from her book "Notes from the Divided Country." Louisiana State Univ. Copyright 2003 by Suji Kwock Kim.)

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