Joan Kwon Glass’ Night Swim is a full-length collection of poetry that is characterized by a delicate lamentation that guides the reader through the doldrums of mourning and grief. The trials and tribulations associated with Glass’ experience of mourning adds a sense of universality to the portrayal of grief within this collection. However, Glass challenges the narrative that grief and mourning are isolated and post mortem. Instead, a consistently brave reflection of the weeks leading up to these two heart wrenching deaths gives this collection a sense of unique depth that goes beyond singular isolation of death and its impact whilst simultaneously engaging the reader personally. This collection features a cover that vividly reflects the powerful sentiment within this collection whilst engaging the metaphor behind the title and indeed, the swimming through the darkness that characterizes a grief personal, but collective all the same. The structure of this collection reminds me of Dante’s ascent within the Divine Comedy as if grief can be explored, wandered. Oh ‘how robust and rough its growth’ and the growth of the grieving must be!
Glass’ Korean-American Heritage is dotted throughout this collection and adds a further layer of depth that transcends simply western conceptions of suffering and grief. The collection’s namesake Night Swim delves into the suffering and anguish experienced by refugees crossing the North-South Korean border whilst contrasting the universality of grief.
How many of us have swum through
current of grief or shock
only to find ourselves disoriented, standing
on the shore of a strange country?
In this five-part collection, Glass takes a deep dive into the stages of grief through a narrative that emphasizes suicide survivorship and living with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome amongst other seldom considered elements. ‘Denial’, the first part, reflects the ugly and distressing
Questions that will never be answered reflect prominently within this question and present a striking dichotomy between the life that continues and the life that stopped abruptly;
While the pancakes rise,
read his suicide note again.
Try to make sense of it
and get nowhere.
Such questioning is dotted throughout this collection both directly and indirectly such as in ‘Questions for my Sister’. I found myself returning to the aforementioned quote within ‘How to make pancakes for a dead boy’ endlessly as it exemplified a notion that is characteristically human; our lack of understanding of the unknown. In this case, that unknown is death and the reasons behind suicide. More broadly, our very existence at its core is based on a permanent acceptance of our own lack of understanding and this facilitates even greater questioning.
‘Denial’ emphasizes the disturbia and disruption that is left behind whilst highlighting the mundane progression that consumes death. The notion that life continues beyond death is rather pertinent here and throughout this collection.
The house sells quickly,
above asking price.
I wonder how the realtor
explained the strange hole
in the wall to potential buyers:
Notice this unique feature!
Imagine stained glass here,
maybe a picture window?
You could fill it in, paint over it.
Tear the whole wall down.
You’d never even know
it had been here.
‘Anger’, the second section, approaches the mind-boggling retrospection that grief transitions into. Glass’ makes a targeted effort to heighten the necessity of ‘Asking for Help’ that forces the reader to address the importance of action and communication as a life-line to those whose suffering, whilst hidden, rages all the same. This section alludes not only to frustration but to hope in the moments surrounding death and destruction. That all too human trait to hope for safety, for a reprieve that leaves one breathless and blinded. But, ‘Rage Blooms’ and rises within grief as a consequence of dashed hopes and lost lives surrendered to police reports and silent cries deep in the gloaming of grief. I found myself distraught and burdened by the failures Glass describes, most notably in ‘Red Flags’. The deep sadness overwhelms the reader and reflects how even the seemingly simplest of discussions can have grave consequences and rapid ramifications that lead to the unexpected, a despair unknown.
He asked his grandmother about heaven twice
in one week, specifically whether pain
disappears or we carry it with us.
Two weeks before he died he ran away,
rode his bike to the diner, sat alone in a booth.
He waited for someone to notice he was gone.
‘Bargaining’, the third section, wrestles a challenging area of grief that corresponds to the battle between acceptance/forgiveness and anger and hurt. Glass eloquently elaborates on the experience of the suffering whilst centering the deceased. ‘Haunted’ illustrates, with gusto I might add, how grief morphs and plagues the mind, resting or awake.
Four years have passed since her death
and I’ve made my case against forgiveness,
imprinted my anger onto the walls until
I no longer recognized my home or myself.
The truth is it’s been a whole year since
she has visited my dreams, even longer
since I woke to hear her desperate ghost fist
‘Chuseok 추석’ adds to the concept of ‘Bargaining’ by tying together the influence of generations mourned despite difference and geographic location. This poem stood out to me as the way in which Glass weaves both her Korean heritage and the cultural elements of grief and mourning is rather remarkable. Resplendent imagery leaves the reader yearning to read on whilst simultaneously, ensuring that the reader absorbs the duality that makes the poet and naturally, this collection.
‘Depression’, the penultimate section, reflects on the tiresome triggers that weigh heavily on Glass. This melancholia is juxtaposed with a sense of continuity that reflects the power of grief and its lasting impact in every facet of a survivor’s existence. Glass’ questioning of religious influence is stark and necessary. Glass reflects on the unwanted pressure and force exerted upon her through religion. Biblical references disrupt the grief presented and engender a sense of loss that harks back to Christ’s howl ‘Lord why have you forsaken me’.
Down past the highway and into neighborhoods,
so many children it is easy to lose count.
The line is a Bible verse from Revelations
I am forced to recite in front of the entire church.
Glass challenges tragedy and as this collection progresses, contends with the transient nature of life. Poems such as ‘Grief in Four Seasons’ are a testament to memories that remain within us long after death has consumed the fire of the living, long after we have swum that great Night Swim searching for relief.
This September you would have been 15. I finally
put your harmonica in a drawer. My children never seem to grow
tired of making s’mores. Their faces are smeared with chocolate,
giddy and marshmallow-feral. In the morning I empty
the firepit. The ashes cling to everything.
‘Acceptance’, the final section of this evocative collection, paints an endearing image of literal and metaphoric acceptance of the passing of Glass’ nephew and sister. Glass places added emphasis on the fading light of concrete existence that we all must follow. Glass subtly draws on our collective mortality and ultimately, the fading digital and physical footprints that fade unlike memories that remain beyond the fragility of mortal existence.
Every year, the hard evidence fades and the memories
grow a technicolor skin, too bright and no longer as real.
This final section is a testament to fortitude and strength and perhaps an intricate reconciliation beyond the anger, denial and sadness. Glass once again returns to what is ‘holy’ and the potential for something bigger. What is overwhelmingly clear, is that the connection between Glass her departed family members is a relationship that is sacred and transcends this mortal plain.
In your absence, I still wake,
write what I learned too late:
that there is no church but that
square of light
where I knelt beside you.
This collection is a testament to love beyond mortal remains, beyond the bleak stillness of nights and days consumed by stages of grief that permeate both the narrative and ultimately, the reader. To say that Glass is talented would be an understatement. Whilst reading Night Swim I cried, smiled and reminisced in what little way I could as a reader and only hope that this magnum opus reaches as many hands as possible. A.R.-
Anthony is a mixed-race poet & writer who has spent most of his life in Kuwait jostling between the UK & America. Anthony’s work has been published 200 times internationally. Anthony has 2 published chapbooks titled ‘The Great Northern Journey’ 2020 (Lazy Adventurer Publishing) & ‘Vultures’ 2021 (Roaring Junior Press). Anthony’s Chapbook ‘Half Bred’ is the Winner of the 2021 ‘The Poetry Question’ Chapbook contest. Anthony’s debut YA Novel ‘The Sands of Change’ was released in October 2021 with Alien Buddha Press. Anthony is the Co-Editor in Chief of Fahmidan Journal.