For our Stanzas web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite poets by way of a handful of lines. This week, Emily Jungmin Yoon, whose poem “In All the Futures” appears in our Summer 2021 issue, takes a closer look at “ABC for Refugees” by Monica Sok.
Monica Sok’s “ABC for Refugees” is a poem lush with tender irony. It features a father “who doesn’t read English well” but sits down with his daughter, the speaker, to teach her how to read. But the book they are reading in the poem contains nonsense words such as “cherub-bee-dee” that the father doesn’t realize are invented. Knowing that “cherub-bee-dee” actually represents birds, the speaker listens as her father clumsily pronounces the unwieldy word, while imagining that the family lives in “a small bee-dee-nest too” and that thanks to the father’s reading, she comes to “have more feathers.” The poet, not just remembering but enacting this experience, also plays with sound to animate words or ideas––putting “father” and “feather” together in a line, turning “real” words into chirp-like rings akin to “cherub-bee-dee” by adding syllables. This humor and inventiveness with which the speaker enlivens her memory demonstrate that she remembers it with tenderness and that the father’s treatment of the not-real as real activates her creative thinking and language.
In the penultimate stanza, we confirm that the daughter is indeed more adept at English than her father:
He asks me to read the mail. Not birds, mail.
If you don’t read this, you will turn into birds.
And I read it to him the best I can.
The end. A feather. Two feathers. The. The end.
The force of this stanza does not arise solely from the transference of authority that comes from differing levels of linguistic prowess. I am most interested in the second line’s surprising imperative, that sudden insertion of the “you.” What does it mean, “If you don’t read this, you will turn into birds”? Certainly, one could interpret this line as the speaker saying it to herself, acknowledging the importance of reading mail for her father—not for the sake of sounding out the words but most likely to parse information, which is why she “read[s] it to him the best [she] can.”
However, the introduction of the second-person pronoun captures the reader’s attention, as if the poem addresses—and implicates—the reader. The line shocks us into realizing that we are all strangers to language; that it is a winged thing that can transform us. Also, if we construe the “this” in the line to mean this poem—telling “you” to pay attention to the happenings of the poem—we can also analyze the speaker’s attitude toward language and her ability to mold it into poetry as commanding and assured. We must recognize that this strength comes not in spite of but due to her and her family’s history with the English language––lest we turn into birds for whom the intricacies of this poem escape.
Throughout “ABC for Refugees,” the speaker expands the meanings of nonsense sounds to stimulate the way she observes her house, her family members, and their relationships. But she also finds music and, more importantly, power in the father’s slippage in English, in his seriousness and care in approaching even seemingly meaningless words. What happens in the poem, and in the experience itself, is poetry.