Emily Jungmin Yoon's A Cruelty Special to Our Species (Ecco, 2018)

“You won’t even know / the toxin on your tongue”:
A Cruelty Special to Our Species
by Emily Jungmin Yoon

review and cento by Allison Pitinii Davis


“Testimonies,” the second section of Emily Jungmin Yoon’s A Cruelty Special to Our Species, draws from documentary material from Korean women who were sexually exploited in Japanese-occupied territories during the second World War. While the book is rooted in this historic atrocity, in the Author’s Note to the book, Yoon writes that her poetry “does not exist to answer, but rather to continue questioning” (xi). And the poems in the remaining sections— “The Charge,” “The Confessions,” and “The After”—continue questioning contemporary colonialism, racism, and sexual violence. Many of these poems ask how historic violence complicates modern attitudes towards sexuality by examining trauma across generations, nations, and languages. In a book often examining sex via warfare, the performance of seduction in the contemporary poems takes on a weapon-like quality. The speakers of the contemporary, diasporic poems marry sexuality with revenge—siren-like, they lure the male gaze back into the trauma it created.

The below poem is made up of lines from A Cruelty Special to Our Species in which speakers discuss sexual microaggressions, violence, fetishizations, and trauma in order to destigmatize, defend, or reclaim. These lines represent voices responding to racism, colonialism, intergenerational trauma, erasure, and diaspora. In working with Yoon’s language to better understand the through line of this voice, it also brought me closer to the form Yoon uses during “Testimonies,” where she’d “like her poetry to serve to amplify and speak these women’s stories, not speak for them. I’d like my poetry to remind readers that even if a part of history may not seem relevant to their lives, it is—it is their reality too. An experience that is not mine is still part of the society and world that I occupy. It is crucial to know, listen, tell, and retell various stories, so we may better theorize and understand our existence” (xi). Working with these powerful lines both as an American complicit in their horrors and as a member of a diaspora whose ancestors went through trauma, I came to better “know” these lines, their power, and their histories. I hope this “retelling” highlights the agency that language affords these speakers and how it emerges as an ongoing theme throughout the collection.  In a book committed to putting words to trauma—to amplifying the agency and language of victims—these lines reveal a legacy of pain: a generation that refuses to be silenced.

Lines excerpted from A Cruelty Special to Our Species:

“You’d think a former comfort woman
would hate the Japanese. I don’t.
I hate men and I hate sex” (31). “Not me, / not me, 

I wouldn’t hurt a bee, / but
honey” (43) “Which one of you said
Let’s have raunchy Korean sex  

to me. Which one of you
didn’t. Do you represent America” (6).
“You, and you, and you, / 

you did this to me in my home” (43).
“Do you know that whales, too,
detect where one another comes from 

/ through song?” (66) “a pop song /
laugh as American / soldiers would laugh /
at Korean children” (9) “In this country,  

which calls itself Christian […]
Have mercy / on us” (60) “Meaning, literally,
to raise water, / but really meaning  

to bring water to a boil” (67). “To become
a Westerner” (38) “‘put out’ by the third date.” (48).
You could at least blow me, he offered” (48). 

“Tell it to him straight [...] If I were
an exotic garden of needles, I’d let you
touch me” (35) “Judith looking out 

 at her. Holding the head
by the hair. As if to offer.
To allure” (48). “She wails for hours,

then asks, /So who died? I think about
this woman // and her performance
of grief” (32). “I’m being as honest 

as a woman can” (35). “Touch me
underneath / my regalia. […] Taste me […]
the toxin on your tongue” (33).   

Allison Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017), a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award and the Jewish Book Council’s Berru Award in Poetry, and Poppy Seeds (Kent State University Press, 2013), winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2016, Crab Orchard Review, diode, and The Missouri Review. She is a PhD student at The University of Tennessee.