“The Corrected Version” by Rosanna Young Oh

Rosanna Young Oh Rosanna Young Oh

A family grocery store is the primary backdrop for Korean American writer Rosanna Young Oh’s debut poetry collection The Corrected Version: a backdrop refracted by memory and myth. Taken at face value, the grocery store—owned and run by Oh’s immigrant parents—represents the regular mundanity, tediousness and humiliation that accompanies the experience of starting over in America. At the grocery store, life appears prosaic, as described by the speaker’s younger self in the sonnet “Homework”:


I wrote in Mrs. Katz’s fifth-grade class
in Jericho, Long Island, this short answer
for homework: “It’s been busy for the past
few weeks at home because of Yom Kippur.
I stay behind the register to bag
the groceries. My dad wakes up at one
to buy fish in the Bronx. Sometimes I gag
if he smells bad. When Mom’s store chores are done,
her hands feel rough from rose thorns and steel wool.”


I got a check-plus-plus for my concreteness.
The teacher wrote in red, “Your friends at school
can learn from you. Present this after recess.”
So I obeyed. A boy’s laugh cut me through.
Should I pretend my stories are untrue?


But despite these seemingly quotidian scenes, Oh finds herself returning to the grocery store again and again, revisiting fraught memories with an eye for their larger resonances. Through the poems in The Corrected Version, the store becomes the very site through which Oh begins to process her family history and personal story, expanding out to reflect on questions of race, family, work, myth and art, and the act of storytelling itself.


The Corrected Version, Rosanna Young Oh (Diode, March 2023)
The Corrected Version, Rosanna Young Oh (Diode, March 2023)

Much of The Corrected Version chronicles snapshots of Oh’s home and family life, and the subsequent disillusionment of a life spent pursuing the false ideal of the American Dream. At the center of this disenchantment is Oh’s father, a man who, before coming to the United States, once had literary inclinations: “My father’s too embarrassed to share / his dreams with me, though my mother / once revealed he was a writer / in his youth until I was born.” In order to make a living for his family, Oh’s father traded those dreams for the crushing reality of labor, only able to pass on his aspirations to his daughter. In “Picking Blueberries”, the speaker helps her father distinguish rotten berries from ripe ones in order to repackage and sell them for a profit:


“Daughter, look,” he says. He squeezes a blueberry
between his thumb and finger until the skin tears.
I see now: rotten ones bruise to the touch.


We pick in silence. By the second hour,
our fingers stiffen, their nail beds
purple from juice.


Suddenly, my father’s voice emerges as though from a distance:
“You were not meant to live this kind of life.”


But nor was he—a man with a mind made wide by books,
who as a child rose with the sun to read by its light.


We’re left with fewer boxes than we had thought.
How, how to price them? $3.99 per pint.


Food—that source of monetary and physical sustenance—takes on larger symbolic importance throughout Oh’s poems. In a business dependent on its strategic purchase and sale, food itself can become a proxy for expression or externalization of repressed emotion. “The Gift” narrates a scene of customer dissatisfaction about a fruit that “looked half-rotten”:


Before leaving our store, the customer said to my father,
“Give this garbage to your children,”
then placed on the counter a Haitian mango:
all muscle brindled with black and bruises
so that the flesh looked more
like igneous rock than fruit.


Oh’s father cannot return the anger in the moment—“The customer / is always right”—but Oh remembers the aftermath of the event: “My parents fought later. / My father punched a hole into a cantaloupe / instead of my mother.” Still later, Oh watches her father, almost with a vengeance, “eat the mango / as he stood over the garbage can / by the wall lined with meat cleavers. / Juice dribbled along his Adam’s apple.”


In spite of the unromantic life of Oh’s immigrant family in America, Oh draws out a deeper sense of gravity by bringing in literary and mythological references to some of her poems. In “Medusa”, Oh’s curly hair is an emblem of her lineage, the hairdressers at her salon recognizing in the curls that she “is my father’s daughter.” “Creation Narrative” and “Oracle” cast the routines of the grocery store in light of a mythic tradition, and “New Year’s Eve” depicts Oh’s father in the midst of a Herculean struggle: “Today’s final labor: my father is wrestling with The Freezer.”

Specific art pieces themselves sometimes provide inspiration for Oh as well, as in “Evening Improvisation,” an ekphrastic poem describing Jacqueline du Pré’s performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, or “Chrysanthemums,” which references a poem by Sŏ Chŏngju about the flower. These works open up new ways to approach real-life experiences; a fight in the movie Cyrano de Bergerac prompts reflections about a similar scene Oh overhears from her window in the poem “Argument over Dinner”:


Outside, a woman is arguing on the staircase,
going on about how the baby depresses her,
the bills that her boyfriend hasn’t paid.


She sounds like she is losing. She is on the defensive,
telling him that feels alone and yet she cannot leave him,
as though she would prefer the longing.


As alluded to in its title, the poems in The Corrected Version suggest that stories, memories, and histories change, through their retellings and reimaginings, to fit the individual life of the storyteller. Narrative gives structure to hardship and grief, as when Oh’s father copes with her mother’s death in “The Woman with Leaves for Hands”:


Nowadays, my father’s mind comes and goes as the wind.


During last night’s rain, he watched the maple leaves turning
from beneath the eaves and thought my mother was passing through.


All night, the leaves turned, weaving themselves into arms,
weaving until the woman he once loved and the tree, shaking
before him, were one. He named her name, then waited.


He still believes in the silk of her voice.
“It comes and goes as the wind,” he said, that characterful wind.


For Oh’s father, too, storytelling is not only a way to give new meaning to old or present trauma, but also becomes necessary for sustaining hope for the future: “It was the mind repeating itself out of hope— / a mind that inhabits the same metaphor over and over, / populating the earth with talking winds and talking trees.”

Lily Nilipour is Digital Marketing Assistant at Harvard University Press and an Associate Poetry Editor for Narrative.