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  • "What of the Partition":Dictée's Boundaries and the American Epic
  • Josephine Nock-Heepark (bio)

Near the end of its nine meditations, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's experimental epic Dictée (1982) recounts a simple story: a young girl, in search of a cure for her ailing mother, meets a woman at a well who gives her ten packets of medicine.1 Nine packets are for her mother, but the tenth is a gift for her. Dictée's nine sections are named after the classical muses and shaped into a novena; this tale unfolds in the final section, "Polymnia/Sacred Poetry." In adding the tenth packet, Cha signals the completion of the text's ritual. The story ends with the child about to enter the house where her mother awaits her:

Already the sun was in the west and she saw her village coming into view. As she came nearer to the house she became aware of the weight of the bundles and the warmth in her palms where she had held them. Through the paper screen door, dusk had entered and the shadow of a small candle was flickering.


She arrives at dusk and faces her house, lit within by a solitary candle; the warmth and heft of the bundles promise recovery. Yet why does the ninth day end here, at the threshold? "Polymnia/Sacred [End Page 213] Poetry" ends at the border between child and mother, figured as a paper screen. At this final moment, when it is clear that the child will cross into the house, she hesitates before the flickering screen, I contend, because the art of Dictée is to make such boundaries visible.

Cha discovers revelatory possibilities in Dictée's proliferating borders. This essay examines the range of boundaries in Cha's complicated and genre-bending text. The opening pages of Dictée introduce its central figure, a subject poised at the boundary between nations and languages; my analysis begins with the special properties of this fragile subject who presides over the nine-day ritual. Cha discovers a formal mode for exploring this precarious stance by imagining the experience of her complicated heroine at the cusp of two different genres. Cha invokes two masterpieces of modern poetry in her play between genres: Charles Baudelaire's lyric portrait of exile and Ezra Pound's epic descent into a modernist underworld. By reading Cha's text against these emblematic instances of each genre, I examine the border between lyric and epic modes within her text, arguing that Dictée plunges a revised lyric "I" into a fractured epic journey. This essay provides a reading of Dictée's formal adventure, in which the self of lyric takes on the risks of contemplating the transnational epic.

This formal boundary between lyric and epic frames the many partitions that appear again and again in Cha's text. The final portion of the essay considers Dictée's key borders and ultimately comes to rest on the partition within the nation that preoccupies Cha, namely Korea's demilitarized zone, the dividing line at the heart of both this text and scholarly accounts of it. In moving through the various permutations of boundaries in Dictée, my analysis insists that the screen Cha holds in place between mother and daughter is an intimate version of this national division: both mark the place of an unhealed rupture. Through its avant-garde strategies, Dictée weaves together different kinds of afflictions: individual somatic concerns, mythic plights, and political occupations. It is my contention that Cha has created an aesthetic framework that is both rigorously ordered and flexible enough to delve into a single body and survey a historical landscape. [End Page 214]


Dictée makes its way through its nine sections only after several initial starts and stops. The text's stuttering beginnings provide a kind of textual birth for its heroine, whose voice painfully emerges in a failed dictation exercise. The hesitations at the opening of this text demonstrate the difficulty in starting to speak, as Cha gives us a page of dictation, a literal "dictée" which shows us an instance of French converted into...


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pp. 213-242
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