Angela Hume: “An Ecopoetics of the Limit: Myung Mi Kim’s ‘fell’”

I have been thinking about the temporality of apocalypse as it relates to a series from the poet Myung Mi Kim’s volume Penury (which means: poverty, or dearth). Kim’s vision of living on after the onset of apocalypse challenges us to rethink the ways that we conceptualize contemporary crisis and our relation to it, the prospect of our own annihilation, and that ambiguous remainder with which we are left that we so often call, for lack of a better name, “the future.” In Kim’s long poem “fell (for six multilingual voices),” which appears at the center of Penury, the consequences of human development, militarization, and war are registered in ecological terms, and imagining the ramifications of these human activities for humans, animals, plants, and environments entails inhabiting a complex temporality in which deracination (to borrow a term Kim herself employs) and apocalypse have, to a certain degree, already occurred. In Kim, it is only at this site—in the aftermath of the onset of “the end,” that precarious limit between presence and absence—that the unfolding of new languages and forms of embodied, ecological relation can be thought.

Before going to Kim’s poem, I want to think a bit about the modern apocalyptic imagination. A decade ago, in his book From Apocalypse to Way of Life, Frederick Buell provided a historical account of the environmental movement from the 1960s onward, arguing that Americans had come a long way from the apocalyptic rhetoric of the 1960s and 70s. According to Buell, as society became accustomed to living with a sense of increasing risk and uncertainty, its conception of environmental crisis shifted from fear and anxiety about the prospect of sudden catastrophe to acceptance of gradually deteriorating environmental and social conditions. Environmental crisis was a place where people dwelled, constitutive of everyday life.[1] It was, in Buell’s words, “increasingly a feature of present normality, not an imminent, radical rupture of it.”[2] But Buell wrote his book before the publication of numerous reports that have affirmed definitively the realities of our changing climate and the rapid decline or disappearance of myriad wildlife species.[3] It was just this past year, for example, that the World Bank released a report stating that without significant emissions reductions, the world’s average temperature could climb by four degrees Celsius by as early as 2060.[4] Moreover, it was just this past spring that scientific instruments registered carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million—the highest concentration of the gas in the atmosphere in several million years.[5] Today, as we face the onset of actual global ecological collapse, Buell’s thesis would seem to demand revision.

Also worth noting is the fact that Buell’s narrative chronicles attitudes toward crisis in the United States, belonging to people who, for the most part, have not (yet) lived through environmental catastrophe. But in the years to come, as climate change continues to displace populations in Africa and parts of Asia (and not to mention America’s own Alaska, where some villages may see flooding in the next decade[6]), North American and Northern European countries less affected by climate change will see increasing numbers of what some sociologists are calling “climate refugees.”[7] And as populations in the West become more eclectic—made up not only of those who have been insulated from the realities of environmental collapse elsewhere but also of those who have been forced to flee their home countries due to climate-related drought, famine, flooding, war, or widespread disease (in other words, those populations that will see apocalypse and live to tell of it)—theorists, historians, and sociologists will be compelled to reevaluate their narratives of crisis conceptualization, accounting for changing attitudes and affective states and how, for many people, crisis is not a “present normality” but rather that which culminated in catastrophe and ultimately spared them. For these populations, apocalypse has already arrived; all life is life after the onset of “the end.”

And so: from a collective sense of risk and uncertainty (per Buell) to a collective consciousness increasingly traumatized by environmental apocalypse that is already well under way. How to grasp the temporality of society’s evolved relationship to crisis, a temporal structure that entails an unfolding of the present but, at the very same time, that which is always already after the present—that is to say, a present shot through with its own posteriority? How does this orientation toward crisis demand new conceptions of apocalypse, the very possibility of a future? What might it have to do with thinking the end more absolutely, the fact of extinction? (Here I gesture toward the work of Ray Brassier, to which I will return later.) And how might the social register that is poetry help us to think this new experience of ecological crisis today?

While not often read as explicitly “ecopoetic,” Myung Mi Kim’s work has long been concerned with the relationship between language, subjecthood, space, politics, and ecology. For Kim, militarization, the biopolitical administration of bodies, and capitalist expansion are always bound up with ecological health. Importantly, Kim’s work explores the effects of ecological collapse on already disenfranchised populations—the subject under the repressive regime, the refugee, the immigrant. Giving voice to those situated most precariously, Kim’s lyric speakers are of the limit, manifesting more often than not as disembodied fragment, spare, scattered—ghostly utterance tailed by erasure (“the place I’m from is no longer on any map,” writes Kim at one point in Penury[8]). Human perception is decentered, requiring of the reader a posthuman orientation toward crisis. (I will elaborate this point later in this piece.) In Kim’s Penury, to imagine the future is not to anticipate apocalypse down the road; rather, it is to think the unfolding of the present, haunted by the ghosts we’re always already at the threshold of becoming.

Kim’s poem “fell,” a register of the contemporary apocalyptic imagination, evokes the psychic trauma that is bound up with the very real ecological crisis conditions of the present moment—trauma to populations subject to militarization, famine, and drought, and later, discrimination and marginalization as they attempt to begin their lives again elsewhere. “It’s the pitch of the cry that carries,” writes Kim.[9] And then: “Hunger noise thirst noise fear noise.”[10] And later: “When you come, you start from the scratch”; “Do you have guns drugs or needles in the car?”[11] On my reading, Kim’s poem explores the ecological consequences of social breakdown and catastrophe, from rapid urbanization and the exhaustion of resources, to the political repression and starvation of entire populations, to the mass migrations of people whose own homes have been rendered uninhabitable by war. While it is true that the poem contains only a handful of direct references to environmental crisis (“decades of continuous drought”[12]; “Sea surface temperature    urban heat island,”[13] e.g.), the work as a whole—its aggregate of oblique references—points overwhelmingly toward the phenomenon of ecological degradation as increasingly a consequence of human struggles for power. In this sense, Kim’s poem is especially important for radical ecotheory. The poem’s insinuation that the logics of capital and empire precipitate ecological collapse engages with and models the kind of hard-line materialism that has been a hallmark of far-left environmental politics for some time.[14] Moreover, Kim’s poem formalizes the temporal problem that I have described—the problem that arises when one attempts to conceive of the way in which life in the wake of apocalypse, unfolding in the present but saturated with a sense of its own afterness, tarries at that limit zone between presence and absence, existence and non-existence. Life, however present, is constituted by the trauma of its own inevitable annihilation—no longer prospect but fact, and in this way, after the fact.

I will ground my claims in a reading of Kim’s “fell” in just a moment. But first, I want to articulate a contradiction that inheres not only in Kim’s work but in contemporary environmental thought more broadly: the way in which apocalypse, that which would seem to signify the absolute end, becomes the very trope through which one might glimpse something like a future. To back up a bit: the Greek word apokalypsis translates literally as “an un-covering”—a revelation or disclosure.[15] In the New Testament, apocalypse signifies both a “revelation” and “the end”—it is really only since the beginning of the 20th century that this double meaning has been elided. As Evan Calder Williams has pointed out, the relation of “revelation” and “the end” constitutive of apocalypse’s meaning makes the term distinct among others used to describe disaster.[16] Unlike a crisis, which refers to a decisive turning point in the progress of anything, leading to an improved or deteriorated state of affairs,[17] an apocalypse will not simply come to pass, or be passed through.[18] Moreover, and as Williams notes, unlike catastrophe, an end with no revelation, apocalypse is never simply a sudden, absolute void. On the contrary, we might say, apocalypse is a form of emergent knowledge, one that comes at the cost of life as we know it. It is this sense of the term that leads Williams to argue that what we need is an apocalypse—a claim he makes from the perspective of communist theory and that attempts to recast the term as having less to do with total destruction than with the destruction of totalizing structures, radically expanding the realm of the possible.[19] While I do not read Kim’s poetry as rallying for the bringing on of apocalypse, I do read her work as interested in the revolutionary possibilities inherent to any crisis moment. For Kim, crisis situations, always critical turning points, might serve as sites for the remaking of languages, forms of communication, and commons spaces.

“fell (for six multilingual voices),” spanning nine pages, is the only titled series in Kim’s book Penury. The verb form of the poem’s title evokes destruction. Fell: to cut or strike down.[20] Or, even: to bring down with a missile.[21] In its adjective form, fell refers to fierce, savage, cruel, or dreadful actions.[22] A now archaic noun form of the word refers more generally to gall, bitterness; animosity, rancor.[23] Kim’s poem, from the very outset and through its title, implicates and condemns the destructive actions of human actors, bringing to mind everything from controversial processes of resource extraction like clearcutting, to the scorched earth tactics of such 20th-century regimes as Stalin’s and the Imperial Japanese Army’s, to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. The term itself comes to posit and figure the condition and fate of humanity more broadly: that which is savage, cruel; that which takes down or has been taken down.

In “fell,” six of the series’ nine pages are comprised of six lines (fragments), each preceded by the following symbol:

: |

This mark could be read in any number of ways. Perhaps most obviously, it resembles the right repeat symbol in musical notation, as CJ Martin has noted.[24] One might hear each line repeated, culminating in cacophony. Alternatively, one might hear only silence. After all, the right repeat symbol occurs not at the end of the line, as it would in sheet music, sending the musician back to the beginning of the section, but at the beginning, before any music has been played. In light of this fact, one could argue that the sign functions as a marker for a silence to be endured, a precondition for any speech. One could also read the mark as a pair of mathematical symbols, suggestive of a logical relationship. In mathematics, the colon can serve as an indicator that something has been omitted and that only what is important remains. The vertical bar translates to the divisor (what is on the left divides what is on the right). And so: in each line, an omission divides what follows; in other words, text or voice stand in relation to something that has been erased. One might even read the symbol as an emoticon, or mask—the colon as two eyes and the vertical bar as an expressionless mouth—concealing the identity of each speaker. All of this said, it might be most generative to read the symbol as non-representative. Kim has said herself that the symbol does not resemble any particular Korean character.[25] Arguably, the mark simply sanctions a material space or serves as a container for language. On this reading, the reader experiences a heightened sense of how each voice is administered, surveilled, kept rigorously “in line.”

penury 51

On the first page of the series, voices speak of militarized streets: “Measure streets by the number of uniforms.”[26] Of famine, poverty, and drought, voices declare: “Hunger noise thirst noise fear noise,” “Inside acts conducted outside,” and “Decades of continuous drought.”[27] And of violence and subjugation, they proclaim: “It’s the pitch of the cry that carries,” “Weapon and deed.”[28] These lines penetrate; at the very same time, in their fragmentedness and lack of punctuation, they blend and dissipate in a ghostly way. While representing different voices, the lines are spoken anonymously; the words belong to no one in particular. Moreover, they speak from no specific time or place. We might well read Kim—who is Korean-American herself—as depicting the experience of North Koreans living under a repressive military regime and the nearly decade-long famine of the 1990s, which killed three to five percent of the country’s entire population.[29] Certain fragments would seem to support this reading. At a later point in the poem, for example, Kim refers to “Tree    frog    toads,”[30] calling to mind a phenomenon specific to the North Korean famine in which the country’s frog populations disappeared when starving villagers hunted them to near-extinction.[31] But for the most part, Kim offers no specific historical markers, instilling the poem with a kind of timelessness. As I have suggested, though, however anonymous the voices of the poem may be, however ambiguous their historical situations, they represent several relatively specific subject positions: the abject citizen, the refugee, and the immigrant. The form of the poem itself is steeped in the trauma of their experiences: as the reader’s eye moves down the first page, for example, the lines become shorter and shorter, receding back toward the left margin, the voices rendered less and less audible. The stark, declarative clauses—“Stripped bark from pines and boiled it—and swallowed it,” recalls one first-hand witness[32]—are the utterances of survivors, individuals who have seen the breakdown of ecology, the onset of apocalypse, and lived to tell of it, but who can do so only now, after the fact.

At times in the poem, Kim gestures toward the way that militarization leads directly to famine, drought, and other forms of ecological degradation: “Calculated withholding of food,” she writes[33]; and later, “The extent of the land that must be cleared for tank traffic,” “Scorched earth tactics.”[34] Fragments like these suggest causal relationships between the militant state or the state at war and the immiseration of both people and land. At other times, relations are more oblique; ecological collapse is a consequence of industrialization, militarization, and war, though not ostensibly or in immediately recognizable ways. Recall Kim: “Tree    frog    toads.” At another point, she writes: “Sea surface temperature    urban heat island,”[35] gesturing toward the effects of carbon emissions from human activities—increasing temperatures in densely populated areas due to urban development, and rising ocean temperatures due to climate change. In all of these cases, it is human manufacture, consumption, and disposal—of everything from military equipment, weapons, and fossil fuels to consumer products and food—that are implicated in processes of ecological breakdown. Notably, in no case does Kim spell out cause-and-effect relationships between human activities and ecological disturbance. Her fragments hang suspended, a sinister list that reverberates and haunts but does not reveal its logic, suggesting instead an elusive network of possible relations, dreadful in its variables and unknowns.

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Despite its many unknowns, “fell” is also a poem of deep knowing. Its voices speak of that which has happened: “Two six seven years and my sons grown.”[36] In the wake of apocalypse, both a revealing and an end, a temporal experience of living through that is linked, in Kim’s words, to “ecological deracination”—“the forced uprooting or alienation of life from its native culture, language, or ecology” (this is Kim)[37]—populations must live on in the new present, haunted by an end that has already arrived. “When you come, you start from the scratch,” writes Kim.[38] To start from the scratch: to begin, or begin again, by trace making, or leaving one’s mark. Only in the aftermath of the onset of apocalypse can one begin to mark it up, to inscribe such an event with social meaning.

The temporality of apocalypse that I have been trying to articulate is a difficult one to grasp. Kim’s poem evokes this temporality by layering voices upon voices. For readers, who arguably are directed by the repeat symbol to hear each line over and over again, the voices culminate in cacophony, nearly indiscernible amidst the din. In this way, the poem’s present is constituted by, echoes with, that which has already come to pass. Voices speak of migration and border crossing: “Do you have guns drugs or needles in the car?”[39] Voices also address one another across borders. The line “I send them candy wrapped in socks” is juxtaposed with the line “Boulders hang from my shoulders,” contrasting two very different subject positions—that of the immigrant, perhaps, and that of the abject citizen.[40] In calling out to one another, voices traverse that vast space that in the poem is a figure for both survival and death; in the new apocalyptic present, each becomes meaningful, is inscribed, only in and through its seeming opposite.

The experience of the deracinated, he or she whose daily activity of living on is haunted by the experience of ecological collapse and threat of death, even extinction (“Famine carried out of meteorological bounds,” writes Kim[41])—how might we understand this kind of encounter with apocalypse as productive of new forms of thinking? A thinking “forced outside flesh,” perhaps, as Kim puts it on the very last page of her poem?[42] To draw out possible meanings of such a line—“That which is forced outside flesh”—we might go to Ray Brassier’s work on extinction in his book Nihil Unbound. “How does thought think the death of thinking?” Brassier asks.[43] On Brassier’s reading, such a question lies at the heart of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s, “Can Thought go on without a Body,” the title of a chapter from Lyotard’s book The Inhuman.[44] Brassier tarries with Lyotard’s claim that, in a sense, everything is dead already due to the very fact of extinction—the fact that 4.5 billion years from now, the sun, and therefore all terrestrial life, will die.[45] For Lyotard, because science tells us—because we know—that the conditions of possibility for our lives on earth will be annihilated, extinction—whether due to solar catastrophe or some other catastrophe (probably the more likely possibility today)—can only be thought as that which has already happened, if the life of the mind, or philosophical questioning, dies out with the sun.[46] Brassier’s interest in Lyotard’s discussion of extinction regards what Brassier calls extinction’s “objectifying power.” On Brassier’s reading, everything is dead already because the fact of extinction is a leveling power in itself, negating the difference between mind and world and, in Brassier’s words, “turning thinking inside out, objectifying it as a perishable thing in the world like any other.”[47] Therefore, extinction unfolds in what Brassier calls “anterior posteriority”—a kind of before-afterness—which usurps the “future anteriority” of human existence.[48] He writes,

Extinction seizes the present…between the double pincers of a future that has always already been…Extinction…tokens an annihilation which is neither a possibility towards which actual existence could orient itself, nor a given datum from which future existence could proceed. It retroactively disables projection…[49]

For Brassier, anterior posteriority (or before-afterness), what he calls “the time of extinction,” seizes human thought and corrodes its ability to project a future. This before-afterness is bound up with what I have been calling the temporality of apocalypse in Kim—the unfolding present, shot through with its own posteriority. The fact of extinction, the temporality of apocalypse, and the consequent impossibility of “the future” all radically decenter the human, forcing it all but “outside flesh” and demanding new posthuman accounts of the present.

What Kim’s poem “fell” figures most poignantly is precisely this posthuman present, always a kind of apocalyptic fallout. It is formalized by the poem as fragmented, collective speech; voices in concert, forced to the limits of individuated bodies, re-marking or re-tracing a commons, of and at the limit. In this new present, environmental consciousness is pervaded not so much by a collective sense of risk and uncertainty as it is by a constitutive understanding of deracination and apocalypse as already well under way. In “fell,” glimpsing this end transforms thought, turning it against itself and driving it to traverse its own boundaries. For Kim, it is the commonplace of this limit—a precarious zone where life is increasingly decentered, displaced, and subject, and where testimony to that which has happened along with practices of coexistence must be collectively reimagined—that serves not only as a register of environmental crisis’ new pressures on thought but as the site for the reconfiguration of power relations and the realm of the possible—albeit, at the threshold of their annihilation. That is to say, in Kim’s materialist apocalypticism, revolutionary possibilities come into view only at that moment in which human beings must face the end of the human itself, not to mention all the world.

Angela Hume’s research and writing explore intersections between lyric poetry, dialectical thought, and ecology. She has published critical work in such journals as ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Evental Aesthetics, and Jacket2. She is also the author of two chapbooks, The Middle (Omnidawn, 2013) and Second Story of Your Body (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2011). Last year, she organized the 2013 Conference on Ecopoetics, which was held in February in Berkeley.

1. Frederick Buell, From Apocalypse to Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the American Century (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), 105, 177. back
2. Ibid., 177. back
3. Not to mention the fact that Buell wrote his book before such disasters as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, which displaced thousands and exemplify the devastating consequences that increasing climate volatility has had and will continue to have when coupled with fragile state infrastructures. back
4. “Climate Change Report Warns of Dramatically Warmer World This Century,” World Bank, Nov. 18, 2012, back
5. See “Global carbon dioxide in atmosphere passes milestone level,” The Guardian, May 10, 2013,; and also Scripps CO2 Program, back
6. Suzanne Goldenberg, “America’s First Climate Refugees,” The Guardian, May 14, 2013, back
7. For more on this phenomenon, see Harald Welzer, Climate Wars: What People Will Be Killed for in the 21st Century, trans. Patrick Camiller (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012). back
8. Myung Mi Kim, Penury (Richmond: Omnidawn Publishing, 2006), 7. back
9. Ibid., 51. back
10. Ibid. back
11. Ibid., 55. back
12. Ibid., 51. back
13. Ibid., 54. back
14. For more on various lines of inquiry in 20th and 21st century environmental politics and thought, see Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism: The New Critical Idiom (New York: Routledge, 2011). back
15. “apocalypse, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed Aug. 28, 2013, back
16. Evan Calder Williams, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Luciferian Marxism (Zero Books, 2010), 4. back
17. “apocalypse, n.,” OED Online. back
18. Williams, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, 4. back
19. Ibid., 5-6. back
20. “fell, v.,” Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed Aug. 28, 2013, back
21. Ibid. back
22. “fell, adj. and adv.,” Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed Aug. 28, 2013, back
23. “fell, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed Aug. 28, 2013, back
24. C.J. Martin, “On Penury,” Jacket2, April 2013, back
25. Myung Mi Kim, personal correspondence, May 2013. back
26. Kim, Penury, 51. back
27. Ibid. back
28. Ibid. back
29. Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009). back
30. Kim, Penury, 58. back
31. Steve Coll, “North Korea’s Hunger,” The New Yorker, Dec. 22, 2011, back
32. Kim, Penury, 54. back
33. Ibid., 52. back
34. Ibid., 58. back
35. Ibid., 54. back
36. Ibid., 55. back
37. Myung Mi Kim, “Deracination, Proliferation, Affiliation: On Ecopoetics, Innovative Practice, and Linguistic Human Rights” (presentation, Conference on Ecopoetics, Berkeley, CA, Feb. 22-24, 2013). back
38. Kim, Penury, 55. back
39. Ibid., 55. back
40. Ibid., 58. back
41. Ibid., 57. back
42. Ibid., 59. back
43. Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 223. back
44. Ibid. back
45. Ibid. back
46. Ibid. Also, see Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 9. back
47. Ibid., 229. back
48. Ibid., 230. back
49. Ibid. back