Ben Purkert on Emily Jungmin Yoon's "Related Matters"

An Ordinary Plots Guest Post

Throughout this year, I will be featuring essays by poets I love and admire in response to poems of their choosing. They will appear at random, whenever such poets are moved. I’m honored to include the fourth installment this week, by the poet Ben Purkert, writing about Emily Jungmin Yoon’s poem “Related Matters.” It’s a beautiful poem and a beautiful essay — curious and vulnerable and willing to open a door toward joy. This is no surprise. Ben’s work models those same qualities, as does “Back Draft” — his interview series for Guernica. Emily’s poem and Ben’s essay are below. I hope you enjoy them both.


Related Matters

I look at the ocean like it’s goodbye.

Somewhere, it is touching a land laying prey to fire.

My grieving mother brings the forest inside, a green excess.

When she repots the trees, it is not unlike changing diapers.

But she no longer tends to the small abject frames of the dying.

These days, everything feels like the end.

A few days ago, a typhoon shaved glass off buildings.

A woman in her sixties bled to death after it cut

the window into her arms. The name of the wind, Maysak,

means teak tree in Khmer, I learn. The timber

retains its aromatic fragrance to a great age, I learn. I am always

learning. What is it that I want

to know? There is nowhere in this world

that I want to live. I look at your face

like it’s goodbye. There is nowhere to go.

I shut my window because what else

can I do. Tomorrow’s typhoon is called Haishen,

meaning sea god in Mandarin. I confess

I want to live. Nowhere, but still, with great desperation, I want.

What is it that you want?

Tell me, is your face the same as mine?

Tell me, do we see the same things?

Tell me we are the same eyes

burning through the night.

from The New Yorker (February, 2021)


It’s typical when discussing a poem to start at the beginning. But I’d like to stick with this ending for a moment while its echo is still with us, still warm.

I’m struck by the repetition of Tell me. Emily Jungmin Yoon’s speaker is pleading for answers. And what does she want answered? Well, it depends on how we understand the ‘you.’ It may be that the poem’s questions are singularly addressed to the ‘grieving mother,’ though I hear them calling out to a broader audience:

Tell me, is your face the same as mine?

Tell me, do we see the same things?

That second question hits hard for me, particularly in the context of our climate-chaos world. Here’s how I’ve spent much of the past few months: nervously clicking on news stories about one environmental disaster after another, from the latest wildfire blazing through Oregon to the newest hurricane battering Louisiana to countless calamities happening abroad. And I know I’m not alone. I imagine that you are likely consuming these same stories—or, far worse, living them.

Sometimes, in the midst of this consumption, I grow frustrated with myself. I should be reading less and doing more. I should step away from the screen and push myself toward meaningful action. Then, in the next moment, I’ll find that my frustration flails outward. How is it possible that many people seem unconcerned on these issues? Are they the crazy ones, or am I? Tell me, do we see the same things? 

The answer, I fear, is no. I’m cognizant, for example, that every time I click on one of these climate change articles, some algorithm ensures that I will see more of them in the future. I will see the crisis worsening, day by day, simply by seeing it. Meanwhile, in millions of news feeds, there is no crisis. It never appears.

It’s enough to drive someone to despair. After all, how are we supposed to bring about change if we don’t at least share a common vision of the problem? Indeed, Yoon doesn’t sound too hopeful (‘These days, everything feels like the end’). But her poem doesn’t leave us sulking; rather, it throws down the gauntlet:

Tell me we are the same eyes

burning through the night.

These last two lines! They’re incredible. Part of their power has to do with how they subvert the cadence of repetition. Yes, Tell me keeps the pattern going, but the closing punctuation is now a period, not a question mark. The poem isn’t asking anymore; it’s commanding. And the visual is a haunting one. It’s not just that we have the same eyes, but we are the same eyes. The poem dares us to bear witness with our whole lives, our whole selves. 

What does it mean that the eyes are burning? On the one hand, it implies a kind of physical harm. ‘There is nowhere in this world / that I want to live’ because nowhere is safe, nowhere is sufficiently far from the fires and the toxic smoke that spools out across the stretch of an entire country. But I also want—or maybe I need—to see this burn as metaphorical. Perhaps the eyes are ‘burning through the night’ with sleepless fury. Perhaps they (we?) are finally waking to the nightmare at hand.

When I first read Yoon’s poem earlier this year, I was eager to share it with my students. Then I paused to consider where it fits best on the syllabus. It’s a political poem. It’s also a nature poem. It’s also a narrative poem, one that tells a story of an aging mom. It’s also an etymological poem, one that calls upon Khmer and Mandarin to illuminate how the world is labeled and parsed. It belongs, in other words, in multiple categories. And maybe, “Related Matters” suggests, those categories aren’t so separate anyway.

I’m reminded here of the opening lines of “Islands” by Muriel Rukeyser:

O for God’s sake

they are connected

underneath

This stanza comes from the last poetry collection Rukeyser published before her death, and you can hear a lifetime’s worth of exasperation in her voice. In both her poetry and her activism, she made a name for herself by pointing out connections that others missed; she cared about environmental justice and social justice, and saw how one impacted the other. Two landscapes may seem unrelated, though they’re often linked in ways that aren’t immediately apparent.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about interconnectedness after reading Timothy Morton’s 2018 book, Being Ecological. He offers a cool analogy for how to conceive of the tightly woven web that is the natural world: 

Something fascinating occurs if you start to think how the biosphere, as a total system of interactions between lifeforms and their habitats (which are mostly just other lifeforms), is also like the inside of a dreaming head. Everything in that biosphere is a symptom of the biosphere. There is no ‘away’ that isn’t merely relative to a certain position within it.

I love that the head is dreaming. Because it’s weirdly true, isn’t it? A dream has no door leading outside of it. In a dream, there is only the world of the dream. It is a closed system. There is ‘nowhere to go.’

In Morton’s view, creative analogies like this one are vitally important. Science alone won’t move people to bold action; art, he insists, is essential too. Though he warns that not all artistic projects are effective. As an example, he notes that

several artists have compiled massive lists of lifeforms that are going extinct. But the risk here is of becoming just like… factoids; just a huge data dump. […] Art fails… when it tries to mimic the transmission of sheer quantities of data; it’s not artful enough. 

I’m not totally sure what Morton means when he argues that art should be, well, artful. But maybe “Related Matters” shows us one approach that proves successful. Rather than flooding readers with information overload, the poem takes an infinitely vast problem and translates it on an intimate scale. Like all brilliant nature poems, Yoon’s bridges outer and inner worlds; it ‘brings the forest inside.’

It’s tempting sometimes to turn away from the world altogether. It’s tempting to block things out, just as Yoon’s speaker does: ‘I shut my window because what else / can I do.’ But, as “Related Matters” powerfully demonstrates, this sort of gesture never insulates anyone for very long. Ultimately, the poem insists on opening windows, not closing them. Tell me, it beckons, with its last breath.

A final quote, this one from Christian Wiman:

Let us remember...that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.

The word that strikes me here is inhabit. It’s easy to forget that everything we care about—our friends and family, beliefs and disbeliefs, cherished memories and uncertain futures—all of it resides within the same precarious ecosystem. But when poems compel us to ‘more fully inhabit’ our own existence and place therein, they challenge us to resist such forgetting. It may be painful work. But joy resides here too.  

Wait, the teak tree! I haven’t mentioned it yet. What a gift Emily Jungmin Yoon gives us with this little detail: “The timber / retains its aromatic fragrance to a great age.” I’m calling it little, though it’s no small thing. There’s something inspiring about how this tree holds on to its powers. It’s a story of endurance. It’s a story we need.


Ben Purkert is the author of For the Love of Endings. His poems, essays, and book reviews appear in The New Yorker, The Nation, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter: @BenPurkert