The preface to Jennifer Kwon Dobbs’s Notes from a Missing Person makes clear her book’s guiding aim: “As a language of search, these notes seek to suture space and to shift perspective.” What follows is a sequence of seven lyric essay-poems that attempt to give voice to a larger archive of erasure. As Kwon Dobbs narrates a search for her birth mother, her notes catalog moments of story as well as her mind’s reckoning with the lasting trauma of transnational adoption.
One inspired element of the project is the way it imagines the maternal body through the abstract body of language. “Mother is missing, so all I have are these words,” she states, drawing attention to the way that writing, though a means of self-definition, leads her back to an absent subject. And later, “If I slice my thumb, I bleed. If I smear our blood on the page, am I writing our presence together?” In this way, the speaker’s physical self becomes a grounding element, as do concrete images of Korean food, mini-scenes in an adoption agency, and imagined vignettes of her mother’s life. Circling around these narrative details are more oblique, often theoretical, questions: “What am I saying? I can only describe a researched context, a slanted shadow. I can only speculate and dramatize because I can’t find you. Is this a fetish or a document of desire? This is not your body. This is not mine.”
As the book progresses, collage and juxtaposition create a sense of disorientation, while Korean characters and transcriptions emerge as another textural element. Little resolves or settles by the end, despite the reunion of Omoni (mother) and daughter. Instead, the speaker grapples with her own infertility, her questions about privilege and legacy made painfully clear:
Who gets to dream? Whose dream shrivels because life has been diverted away? Whose dream ripens? Who is told to dream in the direction of someone else’s desire? Whose desire? Your mother gave birth to you through her heart? Her womb is in the shape of a heart? You’re her daughter, but you can’t have a child.
At such moments, deft image, compacted language, and evidence of an intelligent mind moving through tremendous psychic reckoning come together to take full advantage of the book’s hybrid form.