Jiwon Choi

Jonathan Harrington

I Used to Be Korean, Jiwon Choi: reviewed by Jonathan Harrington

This collection of poems by the author of One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons consists of forty, mostly brief, free-verse poems. The book is divided into three numbered sections. Jiwon Choi, who lives in Brooklyn, offers reflections on a wide range of subjects that have shaped the consciousness of the speaker who “used to be Korean” and now has also become an interesting and accomplished poet.

The book begins with early childhood memories and graduates to sexual awakening, the beginning of menstruation and progresses to questions of identity, race, gender…

…we are…slaves to our body clocks… .

…the death of a parent, gun violence…

“…tourists get shot up around here
like it’s duck season.”


“What can Time take
that you have not already
let go? Sight, sound, taste…”

These poems are delivered in a mostly plain-spoken style that is nevertheless rich in humor:

“When the landlord gets on the elevator
smelling like a wet dog
my nose goes into red alert…

When he sneezes
I think he must be allergic
to himself.”

and striking imagery…

“…he’s really an Octopus
all tentacles and wile
a horny toad in plain sight
cloaked in satin and

Jiwon Choi juxtaposes pop-culture references with weighty subjects such as in the moving elegy for her father entitled “Ready.” The poet is watching The Sound of Music when her mother calls to tell her that her father has died:

“He was ready.”

Her mother says:

“I know this mantra is the best she can muster
and we non-believers have nothing
better to offer, no operatives in the wide blue

Without faith to fall back on, the poet offers this:

“wherever he is
I hope my father
is climbing
every mountain.”

In the hands of a lesser poet this final stanza of the poem would certainly be considered hackneyed but considering what comes before this stanza it is actually quite touching even if meant to be ironic.

In “Deuteronomy’s Lamb, 1968” she again mines the vein of pop-culture:

“Here is the pomp of
Mickey Mouse
incarnate as giant balloon
the decline
of civilization
for how will we
explain neon
polyurethane fabric
filled with helium
taking over the sky…”

At times the unadorned style gives way to a kind of soft-core surrealism as in “Gladiators”:

“This is not love, two turtles
living in your coat pocket
battling for space among
gum wrappers and quarters
every time you look for keys
you poke an eye.”

What makes this image so delightful is that it is just so, well…eccentric. And it is not an isolated image but one that buttresses the metaphor:

“…all they can do is struggle
against each other, gladiators
in an arena of lint no bigger
than your fisted hand.”

An arena of lint. Wonderful! Jiwon Choi is good at this—inserting unexpected images and phrases in what on the surface appear to be fairly straight-forward poems. These surprising twists are like a series of lights blinking on and off throughout this refreshing collection. I only wish the poet would unpack more of this kind of spirited language from her suitcase of poetic vestments. That is not to say that she is too sparing with her language but since she is so good at this kind of quirky vernacular I just want more.

I Used to be Korean by Jiwon Choi is a wide-ranging collection of poems that, like a puzzle with many pieces, when combined reveals a kaleidoscopic portrait of urban life as seen through the eyes of a good-humored but unequivocally honest observer. The book motivates me to seek out Choi’s earlier collection, One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons and to look forward to many more.


I Used to be Korean,  Jiwon Choi, published by Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, 2021.

Jonathan Harrington has published twenty books including poetry, novels, essays and translations.  A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop he has lived in Mexico for over twenty years.


Jiwon Choi is a poet, early childhood educator, and urban gardener. She works with children and teachers on developing emergent curriculum at the Educational Alliance, a multi-generational non-profit and is a long time gardener and coordinator at the Pacific Street Brooklyn Bear’s Garden near Downtown Brooklyn. She is the author of two poetry collections, One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons and I Used To Be Korean. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Jonathan Harrington has published twenty books including poetry, novels, essays and translations.  A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop he has lived in Mexico for over twenty years. His latest book of poems is The Frozen Sea Within Us: New & Selected Poems (www.beltwayeditions.com). The book covers forty years of a life in poetry.