A Cruelty Special to our Species


A Cruelty Special to our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon
HarperCollins, Sep 18, 2018. 80 pp.
Reviewed by Maya Marshall

Emily Jungmin Yoon’s debut collection of poetry begins with humanity. The worst of it, yes, but there’s a comforting sobriety in the inclusion of “our” in her book’s title. No other species has been known to prostitute their own for comfort. And there’s no other species for which “this grape-bell has to do with speech. Which separates us from animals.” 


“Our” reminds me there are ordinary stories that, in comparison to our worst tales of deprivation, are redemptive. Yoon foregrounds these stories in her mostly narrative poems. In this world, a woman comforts herself, a young woman comforts her mother, girls are raped for the comfort of men. Her book is full of knives and other sharp edges, each honed by global historical narratives of war from the 1930s to the present day. They’re rendered in descriptions of the swallowing earth, of graveyards, of countryside, and oceans.


The ordinary stories in this collection come from the mouths of women—from the primary speaker and from other personas intended to “amplify and speak these women’s stories, not speak for” former “comfort women.” The persona poems are drawn from documentary materials in a variety of nonfiction texts. Yoon’s poems pay homage to those who have been abused by the basest version of humanity, as well as to the sanctity of self and home. There’s a lot of research threaded into these pages, so the burden doesn’t rest on the reader. We’re free to wade into images of bees, honey, and dead dandelions.


There are two primary series in the collection: a suite of personas entitled “The Testimonies” and a series she calls “An Ordinary Misfortune.” Each, from different decades, turns on a notion of impotence or weaponized fecundity. In the following passage, the female speaker reaches out as victim and advocate—the girl in the ground and the girl reaching toward her:


    “In Harbin, I saw at a hand

of a sick girl

who had been buried alive.

            In my dreams, she is still reaching

            toward wider waters

    my hands        with their crooked fingers

cannot help her”


—from Kim Yoon-shim


If Yoon were to openly offer some definition of what it is to be woman, femme-presenting, it might be: “woman, which means some kind of sorrow.” And while the book holds fast to its tone of measured rage and sardonicism, and maintains a steady eye that demands accountability, it does not rest in negativity. Yoon’s storytelling and investigation of her historical present for the sake of human improvement uplifts as it bears witness, as her lilting final poem “Time, in Whales” illustrates. I mean, what a way to end a book!


    “And yes, so perhaps the world will end in water, taking

       with it

            all loving things. And yes, in grace. Only song, only buoyancy.

                 You rise now

    whispering murollida, murollida. Meaning, literally, to raise water,

but really meaning to bring water to a boil.

Maya Marshall is a writer, editor, and poet. She is co-founder of underbellymag.com. She holds fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Her poems have appeared in RHINO, The Potomac Review, Blackbird, and elsewhere. Marshall earned her MFA from the University of South Carolina, and she currently serves as a senior editor for [PANK].