Burdened with the need to tell her story as first a daughter and then an emigrant in the United States of America, Su Cho weaves a stunning collection. Whether Su Cho is teaching us “How to say water” or telling us how her “Parents Don’t Speak English Well”, She maintains a poignant narrative along with a dense concerto of well-structured poetry—a symmetry, in fact.
In the collection The Symmetry of Fish, Su Cho begins with the poem “How to Say Water”. In the poem, the poet opens us to the first problem an emigrant might encounter, which is that of language barrier and from this, the poet makes effort to teach us how we could say the word “water”. Su Cho advises that you should “pucker your lips like a fish, your tongue/ a cautious eel, pushing its head / to the roof of your mouth”. One thing that should be stated in the opening poem is how the poet chooses the habitat of fishes as the word to first teach her audience. This deliberateness re-emphasises the recurring troupe of the aqua. Nonetheless, she concludes by lamenting on how she could not teach her parents to say words like “girl”, “ice cream”. “parfait” which insinuates the things she was not privileged to, due to their low financial status as emigrants in the USA.
In the second poem of the collection titled “Thorn, Splinter, Fish Bone” Su Cho recounts the story of how she choked on “Thorn, splinter or Fish Bone” because she did not know the “manoeuvring of spiky slivers” with her tongue. One thing that endears me to this poem is how the poet exploits the concept of bilingualism and ambiguity—where one Korean word translates in English as “thorn”, “splinter” “fish bone” thus when used interchangeably in the same context, they do not distort the overall meaning of the poem. However, subsequently in the poem, the poet touches on the maternal pressure often placed on the girl child to marry. In the poem, the poetic persona says “If you can’t peel the skin/ of a pear in a thin spiral with a fruit knife/you can’t get married. You can do nothing if you can’t offer a man fruit”. Though literally, the fruit implies the pear in which the poetic persona cannot peel, figuratively, it could also imply the ability to bear children. Nonetheless, the lines are suggestive of the feminist need to dispose of tradition and the patriarchal leanings that a woman’s life is meaningless without a man.
The theme of emigration as it intersects language continues to linger in the collection and is well portrayed in the poem “Hello, Parents Don’t Speak English Well, How Can I Help You”. In the poem, the poet recounts how she occasionally has to be the adult in the house when the “census man” comes because her mother cannot speak English and would have to “stumble over the practised phrase”
What I appreciate most is how Su Cho weaves the poems in the collection; the simplicity and depth with which they carry. How many nuances are embedded in them as well as their motifs. In the collection, one can witness both as a spectator and a participant the ordeal of being an emigrant as well as its intersection with loss, pain, dearth, scarcity, poverty, language, tradition and family. A vivid assemblage of all these subject matter is simply portrayed with so much mastery and grace in the poem “Ode To The New York Heat Wave” where the poet says “The five of us, on the bare floor /trying not to touch each other,/ breathe too loud, and /inching closer to the window./ My sister is the youngest and won’t stop crying./ She asks if we’re poor now, if she has to go /get a job. We laugh, congratulate her/for being able to see the bigger picture.” Though at some point in the poem, they laugh at the stark contrast between the innocence of their youngest sister and her ability to discern the truth of the ordeal in which they are passing through, one cannot fail to see the sadness blasting through those lines like a hurricane.
Going further to explicate the collection will be spilling too much, thus I will conclude by saying that Su Cho’s The Symmetry of Fish is a summon into experience, adventure, loss, sadness, pain and enlightenment. It is a book carefully crafted with depth to recount, teach as well as answer questions.