Review of Bodega by Su Hwang

Cover of "Bodega" by Su Hwang: A maze of thin white lines on dark blue background, with yellow stars interspersed among them.
Bodega by Su Hwang
Milkweed Editions, 2019
96 pages, $16.00

Review by Alyse Bensel

Set in the backdrop of marginalized communities in 90s America, Bodega, Su Hwang’s debut poetry collection, is an extended ode to immigrant experience. Often cinematic in scope, these poems are rooted in the personal: the connections and disconnections between parent, child, strangers, and identity. Throughout these poems, readers are transported between Los Angeles and New York, where the speaker’s parents operate corner stores to barely make a living after immigrating from Korea to the United States. Being an immigrant, or being the child of immigrants, an “outsider,” remains at the collection’s fore, serving as a tribute to the people who inhabit these often overlooked spaces. 

Throughout Bodega, Hwang pays homage to family and the experiences of Korean immigrants specifically, but not exclusively. A series of poems with the same title interrogate the many definitions of “han,” the feeling of grief or resentment, love or hate, that is often believed to be inherent in all Korean people in the aftermath of the diaspora. Functioning as manifestos interspersed throughout the collection, “Han” gives the reader insight into the cultural and family psyche. “We’re told to fear large bodies // of water,” the speaker intones

                                  —how easily we are made

       To submit. Even in the womb, we seek

       Exit strategies, wrestling the murk, 

       No matter our pigmentation as creed.

Other poems reckon with the disillusionment immigrants face after believing the promise of a better life in America. In the interlocked lines of “When Streets Are Paved with Gold,” a third-person speaker lays out the bitter truth: “Dirt lodged under nails: / conspiracy of labor & migrant / colonies; camphor winds & lonesome concessions.”

In the couplets of “An Immigrant’s Elegy,” the speaker describes her aging grandmother “[…] desperate to recapture the feeling of flesh / on flesh when you were once essential.” Other poems such as “Fresh off the Boat: An Iconography” and “Fresh Off the Boat | Five Sonnets” use the phrase “fresh off the boat,” with the latter recounting the mother being held at gunpoint behind the bulletproof glass of the convenience store cashier cage. The speaker laments that the robbery is a fact of life, and the glass “bind[s] us // in a strange circus where atoms of haves and have-nots always forcefully collide.”

While New York and Los Angeles operate as a grounding setting in the collection, Hwang reveals context through nonlinear narrative and fragments, which allow the reader to piece together the significant historical events that often shape the speaker and her family member’s lives, as well as their own everyday existence. No matter the historical event or time, the family remains in the corner store. In “Instant Scratch Off,” justified into a single column, the third person narrator dips into the minds of the people who enter the store during a heat wave: “A Pakistani man in a maroon turban & brown / polyester pants sighs as he wipes his brow, / thankful for the arctic blast. Dark circles under / his armpits confirm the broken air conditioner / that’s cost him fares all day.” These portraits of the quotidian lives of people in these cities continue throughout the collection, like in “Corner Store Still | Life” where the speaker describes the woman behind the counter with ekphrastic care: “Behind rainbow Skittles, Marlboros / Whatchamacallits—a recessed figured // Pines: her profile scored by fluorescent / Like a knockoff Vermeer.” The speaker comments on the women’s silence, as she is “Holding her tongue // With a fury untouched—a solitude so great, She remains mighty in anonymity.” Hwang is invested in creating art to memorialize the anonymous, the names unrecorded or erased. 

The centerpiece portraiture, where all of Hwang’s strengths in storytelling, perspective, and image come to the forefront, is the title poem “Bodega,” which stitches together fragments from the perspective of the store owners Mr. and Mrs. Kim, the store worker Raul, a black man named Joseph who is held under suspicion by Mrs. Kim as he shops, and a young white woman named Sandy who is shoplifting unsuspected, even as Joseph notices evidence of her long-term drug abuse. Hwang reveals all of the characters’ inner thoughts and histories to the reader, but they are not given this knowledge, as they do not even speak to one another while lost among their private thoughts. For example, Raul views the Kims as “squawking gulls,” and, as he works, he thinks “Here // in the land of bounty, he should     never have to be / hungry again, // but his stomach feels empty.” As Mr. Kim loiters outside his own store, he travels back in time to when he was a journalist, but then pauses. “But what does that matter now when he can’t even string // a full sentence together. What is the point of language / when it was never yours,” the narrator asks Mr. Kim and the reader.

Despite this disconnect between people and family, the speaker always longs to know more, even in the wake of familial silence. In “Cancer,” as the speaker’s father drives her to and from her college. “My father taught me willful reticence, folding desire / into cellular spaces,” the speaker admits. “Perhaps one day I will enter this dusty // warehouse filled with neglected boxes, find the one labeled / For My Daughter and unpack its long-held secrets.” The speaker is continuously invested in wanting to know more, as evidenced by the poem’s ending, after an unexpected comment from the father about his daughter’s nature: “Tell me something. Tell me—everything.” And this act of telling is the larger project of Bodega, to preserve a family history, a personal history, and to confront how those experiences are so often erased. Hwang’s collection will serve as a testament against erasure, itself an act of resistance in the face of those who would rather have these words unsaid.

Alyse Bensel is the author of Rare Wondrous Things, a poetic biography of Maria Sibylla Merian (Green Writers Press, forthcoming 2020), and three chapbooks, including Lies to Tell the Body (Seven Kitchens Press, 2018). Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry International, and West Branch. She is an assistant professor of English at Brevard College, where she directs the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference.