Interrogation Room  by Jennifer Kwon Dobbs   White Pine Press , 138 pages March 6, 2018

Interrogation Room

by Jennifer Kwon Dobbs

White Pine Press, 138 pages March 6, 2018


reviewed by valerie duff-strautmann

With the advent of the Cold War, the Korean conflict pitted countrymen against each other and brought with it an influx of American, Russian, and Chinese troops.  Out of this history of division, censorship, patriarchy, and subjugation comes the personal story of a transracial adoptee in Jennifer Kwon Dobbs's second book Interrogation Room, the poems of which are a product of the land, the war, and her journey to locate her birth family. Her experience of Korea, despite its rejection and iron-handed censorship, lends itself to an austere singing, but singing nonetheless:


I confess I traveled ===. I confess I === northward in Korea searching ===. I confess I traveled northward in Korea searching my face, rewiring my mouth  to sing === My mouth searched my face, traveling northward for Korea. I confess I rewired in order to sing as one. We are === because we come from a mother. Please do not search my mother who doesn't know. I confess for we. Searching the wiring, the Korea inside my mouth, northward, face, please, my name is ===.


Dobbs has married the techniques of traditional verse to the prosaic signatures of political message and bureaucracy (blackout, strikethrough, memo format rather than stanza) to create a poetry which asks Korea to let her in, and also allows us to experience Korea as she does. In her opening untitled poem, presented as a typed memo, the blacked out words become the portals through which she, and we, enter a country war-torn, devastated, but also reimagined, transcendent—ultimately one person's face.

In Dobbs’ book, politics and history coalesce in what might best be called poetry of repressive regime.  But she, as a Korean-American adoptee telling her story, must balance her personal fears and unknowns (her search for her birth mother) against the counterweight of the very public pain and forced dislocation of the larger family of the Korean nation:


In your dream, the fathers come from four directions

gowned in dawn. They carry the broken

sons from the grassy banks and descend

to submerge waist high in the center where the law

cannot force them to forget or to remember

the joy of the cool water, how the riverbed                                            

pillows their scabbed feet, the pleasure of belonging

to no nation.  

("The Telling")


The greater context here is the war; in fact there is almost no depiction of Korea in Dobbs’ poems untouched by war. With armistice, and the formation of the DMZ, the foreign armies that occupied Korea pulled back—but not completely out of—the region, which has influenced all aspects of Korean life, as Dobbs makes clear, right up to her birth and to the day, when she travels as an adult, to search for family.  But Dobbs looks back even further, prior to the well-known conflict, striking through a title containing the idea of "One Korea" and juxtaposing that faux sentiment next to "Battleship Island," which describes Korean forced labor on Hashima (during earlier Japanese rule over Korea before World War II):


Uri Hana/We are Korea | Battleship Island 1930

Take young men as coal miners, young women as comfort because Confucian virgins. Take copper, bauxite, tungsten, gold out of the dead's rosaries. Take hair for rope to hoist up station shafts then cross off weekly checklists. Take underground schoolteachers who refuse to give names. Into conscription take their sons / daughters shall take a daily quota of soldiers to maintain the front's health.


Women are noted as an accessory, an aid to the machine Korea was and is, a means to the end. Similarly, in a later poem, "Note Left at a US Camptown Brothel for My Missing Imo," Dobbs fills in the story of an aunt. Her Imo, or Aunt, who services men at the brothel, is unmentioned, intentionally forgotten, except by Dobbs:


...No one told me your name / chalk to

sketch your body starred and open / so Grandmother could buy rice

while the neighbors ate barley / Nobody asked where her money came

from / They knew where youngest daughters disappeared to / why

their mixed babies disappeared too / what math purchased seaweed

for soup fed to the married eldest delivering a son...


This imagining of her family allows her to provide her own answers and fill in the gaps of her, and others’, history.  Dobbs searches for her mother from one end of the Korean peninsula to the other, with few clues and only imagination for a map.  And imagination, it seems, serves not only Dobbs, but anyone caught up in the complex unanswerable dilemma of a split Korea. She writes, in the poem "Northern Korean Postcard, Panmunjom, DMZ | for Caitlin Kee":


...You measure how far

from your mother's house in Daegu

to your father's house in Seoul

to your hotel in Pyeongyang

near the Ministry of Commerce to prove

the intimate distances that bind

your heart here to the young woman's

stoicism and the proud southern youth

who could be your cousin

trained as a sharpshooter

to avoid eye contact. You turn away

from the gawking SK tour guide's

binoculars, the bused Greeks

thrilled by their glimpse of two NK women

they assume are somber due to hunger...


Dobbs has come all this way to remove distance and writes as a surveyor, with extra white space as an instrument of measurement between each line, swinging slowly from one bounded area to the next. As she calls out distances between people as fiction as she stands at the DMZ, she develops this idea differently in the poem "Birth Mother," exploring the oneness she feels with her birth mother during the traumatic experience of aborting her own child.  This selection from “Birth Mother” is part of a long lyric narrative:


I was your body struggling with possibility. Thighs parted and feet in stirrups, I opened wide for instruments. "No, there's still more. See," said the nurse while AM radio played. She swiveled the monitor toward the doctor who squinted at the green pixels pulsing in the black screen. He untied his mask and took a break. The nurse put down the paddle and walked after him.


This type of identification under duress is not simply private; it’s explored by Dobbs in the context of a nation:


We're not supposed to recognize each other as family, yet this identification embedded in our language. When we call out to strangers--unni, nuna, ajossi, halmoni and haraboji, we're one family / one Korea despite distance, difference in blood ties, and destruction of geographies and names.


But such identification according to Dobbs is not enough, if healthy reunification is not possible. "Parasitic Twin" a poem based on a sculpture by Dana Weiser, becomes the symbol for the two Koreas and for the fragmentation that has come from their division, and Dobbs' birth and relinquishment for adoption:


The headless  blue / torsos compete for care

Conjoined / the northern one drains nourishment

from the southern one / lithe and ambitious

all grand gestures / Each imitates the other to exceed the other

in a race of arms / of legs extended /the south extended

curves the white riser in salute / Its thin left calf strains

to stake more space / The north's left foot placed

flat hard to see how / from an arial distance

What about the hands / for whom / do they reach?


While there is no stable position and no one to trust in the relationships she portrays in these “interrogations,” there are moments in which her hand reaches for and grasps hopefully, nonetheless.  In “Northern Korea Postcard, Myohyangsan National Forest," she leaves us a striking tableau, of what is now and what has always been, in a Korea not war-torn, not economically desperate. Between women, there is a fleeting moment of stability:


For beauty you must forget yourself

and give in when your guide Ms. Han

takes your hand so you both can walk

on slippery stones to a boulder under maples,

the mountain river rushing beyond time

where two girls cross. Their white hanbok hems

drink the cool water, and their bare feet test

footholds. Each sister trusts the way her sister

steadies her step before they move on.



Valerie Duff-Strautmann’s reviews have appeared recently in Salamander, The Critical Flame, and The Boston Globe. She recently held fellowships at the VCCA and Writers’ Room of Boston. Her book of poems is To the New World (Salmon Poetry), and she is Poetry Editor of Salamander Magazine.