a cruelty special to our species

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

7 of 100: A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon (2018, HarperCollins)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • Before hearing Yoon on the VS. podcast, I hadn’t heard of “comfort women,” those forced by the Imperial Japanese Army to be sex slaves. I appreciate the collection for bringing attention to the stories of those women/girls. And even though we have plenty of examples of the horrors that those in power inflict, I still managed to be stunned by the events depicted in the poems.
  • The poems force us to confront the fact that some humans decide other humans are expendible and proceed to treat them as less than human. It’s a dynamic that has played out for all of human history and still plays out today. This book contains a lot of history, but it’s entirely modern.
  • One section of the book — The Testimonies — contains persona poems that give us a sense of first person accounts from the “comfort women.” In addition to being devastating based on their content, these poems are visually different than the other poems in the collection. The testimony poems are messy on the page, which captures well what I imagine to be a kind of trance or stream of consciousness that could resemble the way these women may have to revisit their experiences. The poems in other sections of the book are visually tidy (lines in patterns or in tight blocks). The contrast is effective.
  • In many of the poems, Yoon is really playful with words. This seems to be partly a nod to a narrator experiencing the world in more than one language, but that’s not all. Yoon’s delight in manipulating words based on their sounds contrasts with the heavy subject matter, and the search for the right word creates an experience for the reader: do we even have words for these horrors?

Lines I want to revisit:

  • “She is girl. She is gravel. She is grabbed. She is grabbed like handfuls of gravel.”
  • “An officer told me that there were five orders to obey / If I missed any I would be less than dead / I hoped one of the orders was for me to work at a factory. / I looked at his jacket hung inside out to hide his name / I looked at my virgin’s braid at his knife He told me / I was not going to any factory / told me to take off my clothes I told him / I did not understand his order / and his kind of factory and he laughed.”
  • “You did, you did, you did, and you, and you, and you, / you did this to me in my home, you did this while crying. / I cannot make a sound as though my mouth is full / of honey. Of a colony of bees. Honey, honey.”
  • “If a word for religion they don’t believe in is magic, / so be it, let us have magic. Let us have / our own mothers and scarves, our spirits, / our shamans and our sacred books. Let us keep / our stars to ourselves and we shall pray / to no one.”
  • “I was once naive enough to be a woman. I once had a car / silver and new, and drove it over paved roads trilling with rain.”

What Emily Jungmin Yoon herself says (in the Author’s Note at the opening of the collection)

  • “My poetry does not exist to answer, but rather to continue asking, questions about my immigrant, ESL, Korean, and womanly experiences, and the violent history of 20th century Korea.”

What others have said:

  • New York Times: “Retelling the testimonies of the ‘comfort women’ forced into prostitution for the Japanese Imperial Army, Yoon takes up the charge of amplifying the voices of an often-overlooked history. Her central subject, interspersed with poems on domestic and zoological themes, is the plight of 200,000 women, most of them Korean, who were forced to work as sex slaves in occupied territories during World War II.” / “Inherited trauma thus becomes a sieve in consciousness that catches and holds scraps of speech, story and image.”
  • RHINO: “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.”
  • American MicroReviews: “In the time of The Handmaid’s Tale, Muslim travel bans, and immigrant children being separated from their parents, Yoon’s work feels urgent, familiar in its need, and eerily relevant.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!


  1. When I was an editor at Kyodo News in Japan (essentially the Associated Press of Japan), the comfort women scandal was breaking. All the editors from the US and England and Australia wanted to feature in prominently in our coverage, as did some of our Japanese coworkers. But we received a lot of resistance from Kyodo executives. It was one of my early experiences with the way the news is edited to fit the viewpoints of those controlling it.

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