“Remember This When You’re Hungry”: Morgan English Reviews Su Cho’s The Symmetry of Fish

Remember this: “Even a ghost that eats and dies again will have better color.” Su Cho’s The Symmetry of Fish presents myth, story, and language as inseparable from the rituals of eating and preparing food. The speaker lives inside a legend: “I must / cherish this landscape because all the persimmons tumbling down / the hills and gathering into the valley belong to me.”

In the first poem, “How to Say Water,” the speaker gives instructions to “Pucker your lips like a fish, your tongue / a cautious eel,” and later on: “Please, start from the top and try to follow / along. I wish you could borrow / my body to say water.” A fitting place to begin, “How to Say Water” announces the embodiment at work in this collection, and how much Cho, as poet and storyteller, is willing to offer up to us. In the title poem, matriarchal wisdom is delivered via a fish:

The head of the fish thuds
into the kitchen sink

with a splash of lettuced water.
She says, Not this. Don’t

marry the head or anyone
too cunning. She saws the knife

through the tail. The muscle
springs. Not a man

who doesn’t have a brain.
There’s no meat there.

The central metaphor of proper preparation of food often involves a knowledge of how to judge, or separate, the parts of the whole: the bone from the fish, the skin from the pear, the fat from the soup’s surface, the head from the tail. The strong connection between food and language remains a repeated note throughout, linking story and language to nourishment and survival. The poem “Remember This When You’re Hungry” is prefaced with the dedication for my grandma, whose Korean name I still can’t remember, and ends with the line, “Give thanks for anything you can put in your mouth.” Language and food carry culture and carry it long and far: “my grandmother’s voice / is in every kitchen, asking me to pluck a husband from the ground …”

A sense of the speaker’s joyful and irreverent rebellion is established early on (with a secret splinter) and can be seen simultaneously as assimilation and an assertion of selfhood, but a certain legacy is passed on in how Cho pares, prepares, and presents each poem. She may be “bad at peeling bone from fish / skin from pears,” but she can skin a story to present the “white meat clean” as a poem. In “가시: (n) thorn, splinter, fish bone”:

I tell my love these stories, laughing—

here we are! Me spooning the yellow center

into my mouth, cupping the furry layer

in my palm; him standing over the sink

sinking his teeth into the skin. What would

my mother say? Once, a splinter burrowed into the meat

of my thumb, and I kept it there for weeks

Cho’s attention to language and line breaks is the equivalent of culinary precision. In “Hello, My Parents Don’t Speak English Well, How Can I Help You?” the uppercase letters accentuate the enjambment: “Are you the head of the household? / Because I am / Calling about the census—” The pauses mandated by the combination of line break and capitalized first letter contribute palpable drama to the phone call narrative: “For every call like this, my mother / Gestures wildly as if we / Haven’t done this a million times.”

Within the mythology of The Symmetry of Fish, each metaphor is somehow grounded in reality and every instance of yearning embodied. Take for instance, the black dot on the speaker’s heel in “Tonight I Discover Archipelagoes,” which, in a memory from childhood, the mother kisses assuring the speaker “she would find me by lifting / the foot of every child— / pretending to have never seen my face.” The speaker, now an adult, observes “a stretch of colorless islands wrecked / from my lower back to my shoulders as if / I went to erase my black dot but forgot where it was.” Su Cho’s flavors can be sweet, sour, and even burn the tongue:

Once I called her stupid for
Packing my field trip lunch with
Quick sesame rice balls even though that’s what I
Requested. That isn’t true. I called her
Stupid after she hit me for low grades in English class.

Richly personal, Su Cho’s story also connects to a vast map of experiences of diaspora, immigration, and colonial histories, where the fruit tastes “like all the / sugar and sweat carried across oceans until everyone was satisfied.” In “Abecedarian for ESL in West Lafayette, Indiana,” Su Cho writes, “At two p.m. we left math to go where / Children are taught / Differences between / English and English at home.” With the same mouth, Su Cho honors, questions, defines, and redefines herself, family, cultural heritage, and this country. In “밤: (v) to give death; (n) chestnut, night,” her speaker asks:

[and tobacco.] Is there no magic from my mouth
when I say that my grandfather is dead—

that I still don’t really care? My mouth
dressed in fried bread crumbs, like the fish
on the table—a low ah escaping my lips
curling over my teeth to say 밤.

The Symmetry of Fish, by Su Cho. New York, New York: Penguin Random House, October 2022. 80 pages. $18.00, paper.

Morgan English is a poet and editor. The winner of The Florida Review’s 2021 Editors’ Award in Poetry, her writing has most recently appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine. She holds a BA in creative writing from Florida State University, and is an MFA candidate at Bennington College. She lives in southern Vermont.

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