Always Finish What You Start

Jason Koo

August 3, 2016, I am 40 years old,
born in this city at Beth Israel Hospital

in 1976 to Me-Young and Bon Chul Koo,
who moved here from Minnesota

the year before, after moving from Korea
the year before that, two quiet makers

of American life, who forged a family apart
from everything they had ever known,

out of nothing they had ever known, without
any of the advantages that they gave me.

How did they do it? How did they make it
through the city during that terrifying time,

the Son of Sam on the prowl, shooting
his first two victims in the Bronx not far

from where Me-Young and Bon lived
just five days before I was born, shooting

another eleven victims over the next year
while my mom nursed me, incorporating

me into a vast language she was still learning
at night school, determined to make me

authentically American, the city going
bankrupt, festering and festering until it

burst on the night of July 13, 1977,
when, during a heat wave, all five boroughs

lost power for the next twenty-five hours
and mass looting broke out in all five,

leading to 3776 arrests, the largest mass arrest
to this day in the city’s history. I found

this out on Wikipedia, I remember nothing
of it actually happening, and of course

it didn’t actually happen to my parents
in just that way, they would’ve experienced

the power outage and the heat wave and
some of the fear of Son of Sam and the mass

looting, sure, but it wouldn’t have been
that dramatic, they would’ve processed things

and made sense of them in the vague, self-
centered ways we normally do, and besides,

they had tiny me to worry about, along
with my older sister, just a year and a half

older, they would’ve made an extra effort
to make things appear normal for us and step

into the world of that fiction, translating
any external panic into calm. And even

if they had shown panic, even if they’d carried
me into the looting and right into the face

of the Son of Sam himself, would I remember?
My mom used to tell us stories of how

we’d cry and cry if she didn’t buy us candy
at the supermarket, which I’m sure she rarely

did on my parents’ budget back then, we’d cry
in the store and cry on the walk home,

embarrassing her, she could do nothing
to stop it, cry all the way up the elevator

in our building, louder if there were people
present, until we got to our door, where

we stopped, because we knew we were about
to get it. But I don’t remember any of that.

I don’t remember the Yankees, who came
to represent the “soul” of the city in people’s

eyes (that is, through the writers who wrote
about them), whom my mom told me stories

about as I was growing up in Cleveland
and getting into baseball, Ron Guidry,

Thurman Munson, Lou Piniella, Billy Martin
vs. Reggie Jackson, my mom must’ve watched

a lot of games to remember the names so well
a decade later, but I don’t remember watching

any with her, which must’ve happened
at some point. The Bronx was burning

and I missed it, from the beginning I was a poor
student of history, right there in the middle

of the cauldron, the only thing I remember—
and I’m not sure this isn’t a memory from

Toledo, Ohio, where we moved next—is getting
my first splinter, the pain I was in (which

couldn’t have been much), my dad pulling it out
with some tweezers, actually I’m not even sure

of the tweezers, the image I recall is of a room
seen from under a lampshade, where my hand

must have been as my dad, the young doctor,
tended to it. That splinter: all that was pulled

(maybe) from my time in New York, 1976-79.
I don’t even know how long we lived here,

I like to tell people about two and a half years,
I might’ve gotten that from my parents

at some point or I might’ve made it up
to add to the mythology of my being born

in New York, you can’t really claim the city
as your birthright if you weren’t at least here

for a couple of years, but as I’ve said, I
don’t remember anything of those years

but a silly splinter, so what does it matter?
What’s amazing—or maybe not, maybe

normal—is how little I’ve asked of my parents
about that time, except about the Yankees

when I was a kid following the shitty Indians
of the late 80s, when I watched Spike Lee’s

Summer of Sam it didn’t occur to me to ask
my parents about living through that summer

with me not yet one, until writing this poem
it didn’t occur to me that the summer of Sam

took place the first year that I was born, I
don’t remember thinking that while I watched

the film, just as I don’t remember thinking
about the year I was born while watching

The Bronx Is Burning, the miniseries about
the Yankees capturing the soul of the city

in the summer of ’77. But something must
have filtered through, as it finally did

occur to me thinking about my parents
in New York in 1976 that I was born during

a rough time in the city, I thought generally
things must have been worse, especially

the crime, as my parents still sometimes
tell me to be careful at night or watch

where I park my car, even though I live
in one of the most gentrified parts of the city,

and then I thought, They lived in the Bronx,
and I remembered burning and the summer

of Sam and Wikipedia took care of the rest,
amazing how I didn’t bother to check out

the Wiki pages about New York during the year
of my birth until I started writing this poem.

Say what you want about Wikipedia, but
it is recovering history for those of us

who grew up knowing nothing of our past
and not bothering to look up a book about it

or spend some time talking to our parents—
now just type in a search and within seconds

your consciousness has been filled in, before
you had to go to the library and know what

to look for and how to look for it and chances
are the library didn’t have what you wanted,

ah those card catalogs and bulky computers
of my youth, no wonder I turned away

from history into the imagination, those libraries—
what books did they even have in them?

It always seemed like the books I found led me
away from what I wanted to find—which maybe,

from a creative standpoint, was a good thing,
but sometimes you just want to know the facts

quickly and Wikipedia helps you get there
then points to books like Ladies and Gentlemen,

the Bronx Is Burning that will give you a deeper
understanding. This age has helped me catch up

to my age. And now, as I write this a couple of days
later, that book has arrived courtesy of Amazon

Prime, I spent this morning reading the first
thirty pages, thirsty for knowledge, I liked what

I read of Billy Martin and his managerial career,
saving three ball clubs and getting fired by all three

in six years before being hired by Steinbrenner
under a series of onerous contractual clauses

that, as Jonathan Mahler says, put him on parole
before he’d even been arrested. Billy would’ve

been an Internet sensation had he managed
during this age, though he likely would’ve gone

insane under the even more intense 24-hr scrutiny,
there would’ve been memes made of his every

expression. “You hire twenty-five players.
Fifteen of them are for you a thousand percent.

Five are probably undecided and probably five
don’t like you. The secret is to keep that last

five away from the undecided so you’ll have twenty
going for you instead of fifteen against ten.”

When I read this I thought of the Intro to Poetry
class I taught last fall, whose roster had grown

to twenty-five students due to some absurd thinking
(or lack of thinking) on the part of the powers

that be at my university about how many students
can effectively be taught in a writing class,

and Billy was right, there were probably fifteen
who loved me, five undecided and five who hated

me, and the five who hated me dominated
my evals and infected the five undecided, which

was a problem as only thirteen students filled out
the form: amazing the impact one toxic student

can have on a classroom, the one who hated me
the most because I called her out for using

her cell phone during class and told her to redo
assignments in blank verse and the sonnet

that she’d written in free verse, she took over
the whole back row of the class with her terrible

energy, I could see the students respect me
less over time because she was so blatant

in her dismissal. I go back to teaching full-time
again in two weeks and I have all the same

hopes about teaching in more illuminating ways
and getting students to love poetry—that is,

love its difficulties—by changing my approach
to teaching Intro, making it feel more like

a generative, creative workshop than a boot
camp on close reading and the foundations

of form, but I know not to expect much,
there will be that same ratio of students who

love me, students undecided and students
who hate me, this seems to be a universal law

of humanity, everywhere I’ve taught seems
to have the same ratio of good students and bad

in every class, perhaps only the better—i.e. more
moneyed—institutions have a greater percentage

of undecided students willing to give you
the benefit of a doubt as you instruct them

in your passion, something you’ve given
your life to that they take up for a few weeks

because they think it’ll get them an easy grade
then put aside like an app they’ve lost interest in.

Probably not once in 1976-77 did my mom
think I’d grow up to be a poet and a teacher

of poetry in this city, not once did she think
I’d live in Brooklyn, where she probably went

not once, she had clear plans for all of us
and ideas on how we were to be successful

in America, she was ruthless, willful and cunning,
she had to be, as was my dad, to get us out

of that neighborhood in the Bronx to where
we are now, I inherited her ruthlessness and will

and cunning, my strange blend of patience
and impatience from my dad, I remember

the wars on the phone with my mom throughout
my 20s as I tried to piece together my path

to becoming a poet, not knowing how to do this,
having no model, but ruthless as a motherfucker

at getting my way, telling my mom I’d work
as a paralegal in New York for a year after college

as a prelude to law school then applying to
MFA programs that year, allaying her fears

by saying I’d apply to law school after that
then applying to PhD programs in literature

and creative writing, trying to give myself
enough time to develop, to write the poems

that would become my first book and win me
an NEA and help land me my first job,

only after all that would my mom start to relax
into thinking I could pull this ludicrous life

off, something she never imagined when
she thought of the future in the same way,

I’m sure, that I do, with a ruthless sense
that what I imagine, if I imagine it enough,

will happen. I remember my dad asking me
what I imagined I’d be doing in ten years

back when I was toiling away at my PhD
in Missouri, a moment I wrote about right

after it happened, before those ten years
had played out, and I remember thinking

I had no idea except that I wanted to keep
having free time to write and read and watch

Cleveland sports, preferably in a city, to find
someone to love: this seemed like a stupid dream,

you couldn’t even call it a dream, it wasn’t
something I imagined so much as proof

that I wasn’t imagining enough, that I was
a child and wanted to go on being a child,

but look at me living a life in which I have time
to write and read and watch Cleveland sports

in New York City, having found someone
I love, and—is this a dream? Stupid? Childish?

I do more for people than I thought I would
ten years ago, I’m more of a public servant

and social creature than I ever thought I’d be,
I’m no longer the same romantic innocent,

but what I am doing and who I am is the same,
essentially, or ostensibly, as what I was doing

and what I was back then. On Saturday
I’m going to see a Godard double feature

at the Film Forum with Ana, Gunny and his
new wife Di, Contempt & Breathless, in that order,

I don’t watch nearly as many films as I used to
(neither does Gunny), but this is the kind of thing

I would’ve done when I lived here in ’98-99,
my first year out of college, when I was seeing

the city as if for the first time, experiencing
a second birth here or a first true one, but instead

of going alone I’m going with a woman I love
and my best friend and a woman he loves,

ironically we’re going to see two classic films
on romantic disillusionment and alienation,

I wonder how we will experience them? As
an homage to our former selves, the raw skeletons

and nerves inside the fat of our adult lives?
I remember the first time we watched Contempt,

Gunny was visiting me in Houston during
my MFA and we were inside watching television,

which he preferred to actually doing something
(which I preferred), when I flipped to a channel

unearthing Brigitte Bardot, whom Gunny
had never seen before, and everything stopped,

or began, I knew there was no moving Gunny
from the television that day, this incredible

classical music score kept cutting through
the scenes, “cutting” is too hard, more like

“regretting,” an auditory imprint of time
kept moving through the characters, altering

their lives, I loved Bardot and had spent
my last months in New York before coming

to Houston watching Truffaut at the Forum
and reading a new biography on him and thus

kind of distrusting Godard, so I acted more
knowing, critically aloof, but Gunny was reborn

next to me, after that day he would go on
to watch all of Godard’s films and immerse

himself in the Nouvelle Vague and Antonioni
and more highbrow stuff that just bored me,

he’d rewatch films and do that super-serious
cinéaste thing of watching films with sound

silenced and watching them backwards, he had
a year like I had in ’98-99 where he watched

probably over 500 films, but he went even
harder than me, surpassing my film knowledge

because he wanted to make films, whereas
films for me were one part of all of creative life

I was trying to imbibe, they seemed the quickest
key to cultural knowledge back in the days

before Google and Wikipedia and social media.
Gunny now works in advertising, time having

moved through him, but his bedrock is still
that cinéaste year, when he Venmoed me

the cash for his share of the tickets he wrote
“Le Mepris” in a note which he knew

I’d appreciate, the French like a little song
out of the shared seriousness of our past.

He also texted to say it required some serious
diplomacy on his part to make the double

date happen, he and Di had another double
date for brunch already planned with another

couple who’s just had a baby and, as Di
is pregnant, presumably there’s knowledge

she wanted to pick up from them or, as new
parents, theirs is a friendship she would like

to cultivate, married couples, especially those
with kids, have a different way of cultivating

friendships than single folks, they talk as teams
and bank on different shared experiences,

as I noticed, again, when I went to spend
a weekend in wine country a few weeks before

my 40th with my two sisters and their husbands,
Lily & Hank and Julie & Ben were so chatty

with each other in a way they never were
with me, they asked each other about recent trips

they’d taken, laughing like old friends,
Julie & Ben have only been married

for a year and a half but already they’re part
of the club, every now and then someone

would throw a random question my way
to include me in the conversation politely,

as if I were an acquaintance just crashing
for the night, this was the first time us three

siblings had taken a family trip together
without our parents and I was excited to see

how the interaction would go, how much
fun we’d have without Mom & Dad,

but from the moment I arrived, jetlagged
from my cross-country trip, I felt I’d already

missed the first time, the interaction was
continuing like we’d done this many times

and I had never really taken part and everyone
knew my role, to just kind of be there, even

my three nephews didn’t seem to take me
seriously, they sensed, I think, that I was

just an older, more absurd version of them,
a big, awkward kid at the table, and indeed,

the two married couples did all the cooking
for us that weekend, as if it had already been

decided, I wasn’t even consulted, they were
just used to this, it was part of their nature

now to work as domestic units, had Ana
come with me things might have been different,

but as I was alone and had always been
the loner in the family, the one son, the one

poet, the one child not an MD, the one
who’d had too many relationships, the one

obsessed beyond reason with Cleveland
sports, I was left outside of things, a curiosity,

a curiosity perhaps because of my curiosity,
and I wonder how far Gunny and I will drift

as he gets deeper into his marriage and they
have their first kid, perhaps this double

feature double date will be a kind of elegy
for the first 25 years of our friendship,

in fact we’re not even both seeing the double
feature, G & D can only stay for Contempt,

likely because Di in her state can only sit
for so long in a cramped seat, soon there

won’t even be Contempt, replaced by a shared
commitment not to let the marital contempt

seen in the film take over in real life, or perhaps
not, perhaps that commitment means letting

individual curiosity stand out, I know
that’s how Gunny and I feel, he texted me

that he’s “basically ruining important shit”
for Di and that couple who just had a baby

“but I can’t live with myself if I choose this
couples brunch over Contempt,” adding,

“These are the small decisions that define us,”
basically texting those words directly into

this poem, this is exactly what I’ve been
writing about, and my small decision

to welcome those words here, to write about
this interaction at all, is what defines it,

and me, all the small decisions I’ve made
and continued to make to give myself time

to read and write and think in just this way
define me, so many small decisions, barely

registered as “decisions,” had to be made
over the years for me to open up in this way

for texts from Gunny to enter into a poem,
this roof I’m writing on is available to everyone

in my building, one of whom has to be a writer
or some kind of creative with similar free time

yet not once have I met anyone up here
reading and writing in the morning, no one

else is making the small decision to do that,
these small decisions lead to a life just as each

line here, each decision to make an incision
onto the page, small unto itself, lengthens

into a long poem, each new long poem
builds into a book, each decision an incision

onto time, mostly imperceptible in retrospect,
not seen as decisions usually, just things

you’re doing or have to do, insignificant,
far from irrevocable, but they add up,

incising a vague shape on the blank vast
that says you are here, as Paul in Contempt

makes decisions he feels are nondecisions
that define his marriage to Camille and

ultimately destroy it, Prokosch asks her
to ride with him in his tiny sports car

back to his place and tells Paul to take a cab,
which is clearly inappropriate, Camille

knows this and feels threatened, telling Paul
they should take a cab back together,

but Paul, possibly trying to show confidence
or ingratiate himself with his new employer

or maybe because he feels emasculated
by the asshole American or maybe because

he’s just not thinking at all, says it’s okay,
she should ride with him, he’ll get a cab

and meet them there, and Camille looks
at him incredulously, for her this is

a monumental decision, a turning point
in their relationship, but Paul barely

registers it, he’s unaware he’s done anything
wrong, until Camille’s contempt grows

to the point where he has to search for
what he’s done, and by then it’s too late,

she’s gone, even after she leaves with Prokosch
and is killed in a car accident we don’t see

Paul register the tragedy, he doesn’t even speak
of it, he just goes and says bye to Fritz Lang,

as if that’s the important thing, telling him
he’s going back home to work on his play,

and this might seem absurd from a dramatic
standpoint but it is exactly what defines Paul

as a character, his obliviousness to others
and his impact on their lives, his decisions,

perhaps more than most people’s, are
nondecisions, and it’s perhaps because of this

that he instinctively looks up to Fritz Lang,
someone who’s made and continues to make

decisions decisively, who understands that
decisions are decisive, that they define him,

Lang tells him, Always finish what you start,
which Paul clearly never does, he lets things

dribble away, even his marriage to a force of nature
like Camille, who, played by Bardot, dominates

every moment on screen (even when she’s not there)
so that we feel the anguish of Paul’s smallness,

every time Bardot pouts, “Paul,” she might as well
be saying “small,” it’s so painful, that cry for him

to understand magnitude, and I understood
all this watching the film now at 40, with Ana

and Gunny and Di, not having watched the film
in over ten years and more than fifteen years

removed from when Gunny and I first saw it,
we talked after the film about how obvious

it was now what Paul had done wrong and yet
how in our early twenties we couldn’t figure out

exactly why Camille was so mad, why she’d
go off with that dickhead Prokosch, we were

like Paul, and hopefully now we understood
magnitude as we held our good loves near us,

I was happy during the film, holding Ana’s hand,
at how far I’d come from Paul, how none

of the contempt on screen was in this relationship,
whereas if I’d seen this with my ex I know

we’d have been miserable, seeing our lives
projected on screen, and I know Gunny felt

the same way, he texted me, “God bless Di
for not only cancelling the couples brunch

but coming with me to Contempt,” I heard her
laugh through the more absurd moments,

her laughter a sign of their distance from that
kind of marriage, but we never know what

small decisions we are making right now
that will come to define us, I am making

the decision now to wrap up my writing
for the day so I can go downstairs to watch

some baseball, that may be a poor decision,
I can feel this poem close to ending yet

I am not sure this is the ending, part of me
feels I should continue to push through

and arrive at an ending today, part of me
feels that pushing through might be a mistake,

that I have more to say about my parents
and living here in 1976 and what all that means,

and I can see now like Paul the poem is just
dribbling away, undefined in a way that defines it,

maybe it ended a long time ago or maybe it hasn’t
even begun.