Bodega, by Su Hwang, Reviewed by Robyn Earhart
Reviewed by ROBYN EARHART
(Much gratitude to Milkweed Editions for sending me an early copy of Su’s work to review.)
Su Hwang is a bit of a legend in the Twin Cities literary community. Poetry Asylum cofounder, recipient of the inaugural Jerome Hill Fellowship in Literature, winner of the Academy of America Poets James Wright Prize, and teacher with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. It doesn’t hurt that she comes from literary royalty too. Additionally, Hwang is a Pushcart Prize-nominee for her poem “The Price of Rice” from Vol. 21 of Water~Stone Review and now she can add debut author with her collection Bodega, forthcoming in October from Milkweed Editions.
Hwang’s debut is an exploration of the personal and public, a compressed rendering of the large-scale and not wholly singular im/migrant experience. It explores themes of identity, assimilation, marginalization, ancestral detachment, and race. Amid the backdrop of the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, and sequenced in a mini collection of three sections, it begins with a stanza from “The Widow” by W.S. Merwin:
This is the waking landscape
Dream after dream after dream walking away through
Invisible invisible invisible.
What follows are Hwang’s first series of poems with dichotomous effect: We’re introduced to this idea of luck and hope, or the perception of the ‘American Dream’ in poems like “Instant Scratch Off” and “Fresh Off the Boat | An Iconography”. With time, the facade that hard work and perseverance will pay off is cracked until the slightest agitation for projected assimilation spills out. When the young narrator and her brother witness racial profiling in “1.5 Proof”, Hwang considers how a language barrier can attribute to the policing of bodily agency:
Multiply (y) into the denominator of exponential
decay. Divide extraction to posit true values of coveting
zero = the summation of erasures.
In “Corner Store Still | Life”, Hwang considers how with each passing micro-aggressive encounter, one can begin to lose facets of identity and be gobbled up by the larger system, like animals coming to slaughter:
truly inhabit another – how meat
of the body must be seized then cleaved:
laid bare to be wolfed down whole
as it’s done in the wild.
Once the layers of initial assimilation and identity erasure are peeled back, Hwang introduces us to the next section of her collection with a stanza from “Flores Woman” by Tracy K. Smith. Hwang grapples with the concept of marginalization on a more macro-level assault, watching as the social ecosystem codifies immigrants to the brink of marginalization until a once fully-fleshed person with hopes and dreams becomes a dehumanized version of their past. In “Fault Lines” she implores:
Reconstruct the architecture of youth before
Muscles petrify to granite cartilage
Whittled clean before clavicles divulge
Signs of collapse.
In a series of poems titled “Han” Hwang questions commodification and the pressures from society to categorize or package identity. While assimilation is somewhat natural in a new setting, it can both whitewash an individual and negate the collective identity of a community, and Hwang pushes back on the notion that assimilation can simply mean “forgotten”:
Do not mistake hyphen for lack
of discipline or vestigial claim as surrender.
To cap off the three-part sections, Hwang includes a stanza from poem #12 within “The River Within the River” by Gregory Orr, a poet who found solace in poetry after experiencing loss and deep grief. One thematic thread woven throughout is the specificity of language and speaker comprehension. In her narrative poems, Hwang often reflects back on childhood experiences of racism her family endured, and her own embarrassment at hearing her parents’ stilted attempts at speaking the English language.
Hwang is so at ease creating ripe settings with vivid details—coins as cowrie shells, baseball announcers on the radio, the sweat of laboring in the sweltering New York heat—that each housing project, each city street, each bodega breathes its own energy until they’re indistinguishable from the other, a conglomeration of commodities, crushed hopes, a grim reality. This collection is startlingly frank and imagistic, tonally compressed, and an absolute must-read.
Assistant Managing Editor
Robyn Earhart is a second year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction. She is currently the assistant managing editor at WSR and an associate editor with Runestone Review, Hamline’s national online undergrad journal. Robyn enjoys learning through close study and observations of human behavior, and elements in the natural world.