Notes from the North, Suji Kwock KimThe jacket is dark blue. All text is white and right justified in the top third. The title is largest and spread over two lines with Notes and North capitalised. The font large lower case. The author's name is below this in very small lower case.

Smith/Doorstop, 2022     £6.50

What’s the story?

Suji Kwock Kim is American, but her heritage is Korean. Korea’s troubled history is undoubtedly relevant to these poems. But it’s a mistake to assume (as I did at first) that the opening piece starts a connected story.

Yet I can see why the set does open with this poem: it was an enormous turning point. The first-person narrator is the poet’s father, who left his own father in 1951, when millions fled south from North Korea, never to return. (Kim’s family was separated long before she was born.)

Many of the fourteen poems, however, are located in North Korea, where Kim’s closest relatives did not stay (the dedication includes the grandfather, uncle, aunt and cousins who did). ‘Notes from Utopia, Inc’, for example, places the ‘you’ of the poem beside ‘the Taedong River’ in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

The ‘Imperial Palace’ (in ‘Remains of the Day’) is less precise. It could theoretically be any palace, though readers are likely to agree on which one it probably is. No surprise then, that Suji Kwock Kim’s poems are usually described as ‘political’. They present appalling human situations, not all of which are in the past.

Or at least some of them do. Not all. The closing poem,‘Sono’, addresses a baby in the womb. The ultrasound scan could be happening in any hospital, to any mother — or it could be personal. The preceding piece (‘At the Migrant Hospital’) is a prayer for a son, whom the speaker ‘cannot save’. Is it the same son? Maybe.These two concluding poems have three almost identical lines: each mentions the ‘clotted hair on his blue-black scalp’.

And yet the final poem seems to end by celebrating the wonder of childbirth (as Carol Rumens concluded in The Guardian two years ago), whereas the preceding baby in ‘At the Migrant Hospital’ (if he is a baby) appears to have had a bleaker fate.

Each poem here opens a vivid window, like a trailer for a film. It stops at the point where your attention is transfixed, and you want to know more. I longed to have the poet in the room to answer all my questions.

Helena Nelson