Sundress Reads: Review of Body Facts

Joey S. Kim’s Body Facts deliberately and bravely navigates the unique confusion of first-generation Korean Americans, moving with poise through both personal and political histories of trauma and loss. The collection’s range of experiences spans both space and time, from reflections on Japanese-occupied Korea and the Korean War to painful personal memories of a childhood spent being othered by white classmates in suburban Ohio, from the speaker’s life under Trump’s America to imagined recollections of her parents’ lives in their homeland. Grounding the collection’s vast sweep of history and memory is the physical fact of the body, and the ways it is wounded and transformed as it tries to fit into a country that rejects and shames it, while also trying to remain true to a heritage to which it feels unmoored. Kim’s poems borrow from a variety of texts: tweets, memoirs, Shakespearean sonnets, and more are all deftly woven in with poignant visions of rice paddies and monsoons. This braiding of sundry images creates a collection that thoughtfully expresses the variegated nature of a hyphenated identity, of an American-born child of Korean immigrants. Body Facts opens a door to that identity, illuminating the extraordinary complexity within the body that contains it.

The collection’s titular poem, “Body Facts,” uses text from the racist, stiffly clinical “Oriental Peregrinations,” written by plastic surgeon D.R. Millard, who brought double eyelid surgery, or sangapul, to Korea during the Korean War. Though the poem begins with Millard’s words, it ends with Kim’s inclusion of personal, painful details of stomach skin that “looks elephantine after the weight loss of high school,” or the arm, wounded after “the skateboarding accident.” Here, she reclaims the body that was historically horrifically distorted through the racist white lens, allowing it to be a troubled teenager, a fully realized personality, instead of the generalizations of the “Orient,” of “thousands of mongoloid folds.” This is only the first of many times throughout the collection that we see Kim carve space for the Korean American identity in old, white texts. The poem “Y” gets its name from the “y” in English poet William Blake’s famous poem, “Tyger” (“Tyger Tyger burning bright”) and, like “Body Facts,” it begins with the source text but immediately veers into vivid, personal images of “the hostel near the central Seoul train station where / halmoni supported herself by selling snacks from a pushcart” or the “fluorescent TruGreen patina” of her Ohio childhood lawn. In doing so, Kim takes hold of and reinvents the literary canon that has traditionally excluded any non-white, non-male voices. Why? Because, she states simply in “Y,” “I am fearful of disappearing.”

Yet, Kim does not only make space for Koreanness in the midst of white texts. Body Facts is filled with whole poems consisting solely of collective memory, the collection opening with images of a fisherman and his wife, “Stomachs churning, dreaming / of white rice at dinner.” As she steadily and calmly describes the scene, we are reminded that these memories, too, belong to her, as she belongs to them—though she may never have been the fisherman or his wife, their shared Korean heritage runs through her body, in her blood.

This collective memory becomes more specifically personal as she recounts, secondhand, memories of her parents’ lives in Korea, even addressing them directly in poems titled “Umma (Mom)” and “Appa (Dad).” Such poems evoke the way immigrant parents often become the point their children anchor to for understanding of the greater tradition they come from. Our parents are the people who look like us when no one else in our United States suburb does, the people that hold the key to the heritage our bodies evince—it is as Kim says to her mother in “Umma (Mom)”: “Your womb is my first / memory… / I grew up attached to your shin.” But Kim also captures the distinct sense of distance created between even the child and the immigrant parent, as the parent often feels unhappy in their strange land, lost in their longing for their home. Guilt and want take root in the child’s heart, as reflected in the way Kim wistfully begins and ends “Appa (Dad)” with “Most days, I can’t find you.”

What does this guilt do to a young body, as it also experiences the shame of twisting itself to fit the pressures of American stereotypes and expectations? In “’China Doll’Sacrifice,” we see the answer, as Kim shows us the young, Asian, female body “told to suck in, / act weak for the boys,” “[swallow] the venom of their words,” and “let the poison, the palliative, / come back up.” The physical consequences of emotional, societal pressures are made severely known, reminding us of the ways abstract concepts such as identity can have real and painful effects when constantly in a state of upheaval.

And yet, the distance between the speaker and her heritage is not unbridgeable. Kim makes this clear. The first-generation experience of feeling rejected and isolated from our parents’ culture is reimagined in poems like “A Sijo Prayer”: “The mid-day tide rolls in, and I dream of my Korean ancestors. / Although their words are foreign, the water tugs me to join my hands.” Here, Kim suggests that our yearning is reciprocated, mutual, that our distant heritage is as drawn to us as we are to it. They want us there. And this wanting shows us that we do, indeed, belong to someone, somewhere.

Body Facts is available at Diode Editions


Kaylee Jeong is a Korean American writer, currently studying English at Columbia University. She edits for Quarto, Columbia’s official undergraduate literary magazine, and serves as a poetry reader for the Columbia Journal’s Incarcerated Writers Initiative. A 2019 Sundress Best of the Net finalist in poetry, her work has been featured in diode, BOAAT, and Hyphen, among others.

Sundress Reads: Review of Bath

The Sundress Reads logo is black and white and features a fluffy sheep drinking a mug of tea, reading a book, and sitting cross-legged on a stool.
The cover of Bath by Jen Silverman centers a photograph of a shadowy white woman with closed eyes and wet skin and hair. The image is in dark and blue tones and the title and author's name is in a silver, linear font that fades at the edges.

In an interview with Jerrod Schwarz included at the end of the collection, Jen Silverman explains that she “wanted to contend with a multitude of possibilities” surrounding baths. “You can be immersed or submerged. You can be bathed in sensation, you can be deluged in light.” Water surrounds us in bathtubs and fills us as we drink; the language of Jen Silverman’s Bath (Driftwood Press, 2022) similarly surrounds and fills.

The purpose of water and other liquids shifts throughout Bath. Water may “quiver like a fugitive” as it flashes a reflection. Speakers are “treading water” or use “each hand cupped / on a different set of promises.” Water creates “ocean-memory / sharp as brine” and sparks “the fountain of youth.”

Nevertheless, “the fountain of youth” has “a limit” and is described as “a steam-choked pool.” In Bath, water is not only a regenerator or refresher; baths are threatening and ominous, even deadly. This subversion is seen most clearly in Silverman’s twisting of baptism, a holy and divine type of bath. In “Bath 6,” “they dropped you in the river. They said / Praise Jesus, Praise Him. You bobbed up / half-drowned… Somewhere in / the river mud, you lost your God.” Or, similarly, in “Bath 3,” “you baptize yourself in sorrow, again and again. / You baptize yourself with bourbon and brandy.” Here, baths are not spiritual experiences, but a destructive power that traps and chokes.

Most poems take place in a specified location, like “Boston,” “Louisville,” or “Cairo.” These locations help differentiate poems that investigate similar themes and often include nameless characters. Silverman explains that “there’s a lot of truth to be found in the details—what a place looks and smells like, the quality of its light—but also the specificity of… language.” The setting, like water itself, is fluid and changing. The reader can’t know where the speaker most belongs, where they are most at home, or where they were raised. 

In “The Devil Dogs My Steps, but if it Weren’t Him, it Would Just be Someone Else,” the speaker of the poem is “living in Cincinnati.” She isn’t sure that Cincinnati is home—she even asks “if you can call this living.” But, in Cincinnati, the Devil “calls” and “lingers.” The Devil and the speaker walk and talk together, even as he oversteps and complicates. “He isn’t invited per se, / but also, / he isn’t not.” “The Devil says: / I like to come home because it reminds me / what a disaster we make / of what’s ours.” But where is home for the speaker of this poem, or the speakers of Bath? Does the speaker avoid home to avoid her created disasters, as the Devil suggests, or is home found in relationships, in all their chaos and their miracles? As “a beefy woman at the bar says: / I like to travel because it reminds me / how great it is to be home.”

From this perspective, the role of water seems to foster connection. For example, “when I shower, you sit on the floor, / only steam between us.” Water fills the space between people, and a father’s love for his newborn daughter in “Bath 8” “becomes a weather-system / of love.” A few weeks later “he has panic attacks / all the time.” Relationships, and the delight and terror they cause, are as necessary as drinking water. The speaker explains that they “can’t stop thinking / that I’m going to die.” “Groceries, laundry, / bills of course, / but even the good stuff / …that stuff too: / gonna die.” Death anxiety follows the delight of interpersonal connection; this becomes a metaphor for humanity’s relationship with water, where the very thing we need to survive can kill so easily.

In “Bath 11,” the final poem of the collection, the speaker wonders “how strange it is: all the ways we are given to make / family.” For all the heartache of community, the speaker does not isolate herself. She spends New Year’s Eve with a kind of family, and her “ex’s wife tells us about giving birth / to their daughter.” On one hand, the scene seems full of fractured connection: the ex that married someone else, the foreshadowing of “B and I… breaking up,” and “my partner… that has yet to arrive.” And yet, when asked “to explain all this, / …what could I say but: Love.” In all of this, Silverman keeps bathing, even in the face of every potential loss.

Bath is available at Driftwood Press


A white woman with red hair, round, tortoise shell glasses, and a blue coat sits on a stone bench against a stone wall and looks directly at the camera.

Hailey Small is based in Wilmore, Kentucky, where she writes lyric prose and watches gingko leaves turn soft each November. Hailey is a junior at Asbury University, working towards a BA in English and History. She enjoys working in Asbury’s writing center, where she partners with remedial English students to make academia and creative writing more accessible. Most recently, Hailey was published in The Asbury Review, where she also serves as the creative non-fiction editor, and anthrowcircus.com