Bodega Book Review

Bodega Book Review
Jeffrey Forston Photography

Introduction and “Bodega” Poem

Bodega by award winning poet Su Hwang is a must read for any poetry lover. This collection is a masterclass in poetry. Su Hwang’s debut poetry collection entitled Bodega captures the collective struggles facing immigrants in America through a Korean girl’s eyes. Yet as often as Hwang’s poems focus on fragmented individuals they’re also enthusiastic about existence.

The self-titled poem “Bodega” provides glimpses into the lives of immigrants. Anything from the work they do, to the aspirations they abandoned. 

This piece is reminiscent of Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica”. Hwang and Cofer use their ‘setting’ as a gathering place for American immigrants. Moreover, their poems express a longing to reconnect with what was lost.

Their pieces and experiences are generally similar since they’re American immigrants. However, Hwang’s poem delves into the tension between black people and Koreans. 

In the poem, Joseph, a black man, is watched like a hawk by Mrs. Kim, the bodega owner, because she thinks he is going to steal whereas, a well-dressed white girl named Sandy is the one who actually does steal.

Hwang expounds upon this tension in another poem “Sestina of Koreatown Burning” which takes place during the LA Riots. She wrote, “Fearing for our lives,/ my parents closed up shop, grounding, themselves to threats that could shatter一/ unaware our Black neighbors stood against/ our store entrance to prevent glass// from breaking./ A chain of fists to shatter:/ not all Black and Korean lives were against/ each other一grounded amid webbed glass.” (Hwang, 52). She shows the tension between minority groups but also simultaneously, very delicately, describes how they will come together to protect their community. 

Hwang’s ability to weave previous pieces to pack a powerful punchline is one of her greatest strengths. A skill not easily mastered, but Hwang has it bent around her pen.

Turning Inward

Even though Hwang’s poems explore the external, they also offer insight into the internal. 

This collection comments on Hwang’s emotionally distant relationship with her mother and her identity as a Korean girl in America. Furthermore, angered by United States’ expectation of assimilation despite itself being a cultural stew. 

Poems like “Latchkey” talk about how Hwang rarely saw her parents since they worked most of the day. And when they did return home her dad played golf in the backyard and her mom made dinner. In this collection food and cooking is a metaphor for love. It is a way for her mother to express affection, without outright saying “I love you.” 

This sentiment is echoed in another poem, “cushioning me from every// possible blow一taking it一so I’d never/ have to be intimately acquainted with the same/ country of hunger,” (Hwang, 59). Hwang’s mother doesn’t want her to starve nor experience the same suffering she had to endure back in Korea, so she cooks in hopes that a hot meal will satisfy her daughter’s craving for warmth. However, Hwang is left with a sense of loneliness she symbolizes through water.

One example is from her poem “Jesus”. “Watching him sweep, I peer over at/ my mother, whose shoulders are hunched,/ stocking shelf-after shelf一wasting/ away within a five-foot radius, but/ our distance seems to span an ocean,” (Hwang 41). There is an ocean between them emotionally and culturally. Hwang grew up in America still experiencing Korean culture, but did not live there like her mother. And there is another separation with language: Hwang speaking English and her mother speaking Korean and broken English. Another quote of Hwang’s loneliness is from “Graveyard Shift”.  She says, “To know the depths of loneliness, rub two sticks together at the bottom of a murky basin for a spark that may never happen,” (Hwang, 6). 

The symbolism of water is mesmerizing, which comes as no surprise since it’s from the mind of Su Hwang. 

A Complete Stew

This collection is a transformation from the lost to the found to the understood. Interestingly, Hwang’s ancestors were poets. She discusses this in the poem “Fatherland Triptych part II”, “My uncle,// too, a famous poet and recipient of prestigious/ prizes,” (Hwang 79). Art is a generational beacon in her family. She ruminates on this further in the same poem. She could hear her dad typing from behind his door, but she never read a single word of his. There’s a physical separation, but they’re connected by their love of language. 

In her final poem, “Sunchoke” Hwang is a shared sculpture of her father and mother. She is cooking in the kitchen, symbolizing her mom. It’s kind of a fourth-wall-breaking, but she is a poet writing this poem, symbolizing her dad. Hwang crafted a stunning collection of poems that makes shadows feel seen even in darkness. In addition, it celebrates life as melancholic as it is.  

This is my favorite poetry collection from the ones I read this year. And it’s become one of my favorites of all time. Hwang has showed that she’s here to stay and continues to wow the world with her words

Other Information

If you want to buy Bodega you can click this link: https://milkweed.org/book/bodega

Work Cited

Hwang, Su. Bodega: Poems. Milkweed Editions, 2019.

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