August 11, 2007

Review: Perfect Villagers

Perfect Villagers

Octopus Books, $6

The recognition of the inverted world still requires a knowledge of the order of the world which it inverts and, in a sense, incorporates.
-- Linda Hutcheon

The particular world that a poem creates, populates, and governs is, in one sense, an inverted world. Images, lines, and meanings are all arranged according to the ordered world of the poem. This “poetic world” is not arranged in some dictionary-definition, upside-down order of inversion, though. It is a world that has been turned inside-out, its entrails exposed. But no matter how inverted a “poetic world” might be, it must remain, to use Hutcheon's phrase, aware "of the world which it inverts."

Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s chapbook, Perfect Villagers, is a wonderful example of this inversion. Topics are sometimes large—Korea, Kim Jong Il, language, “the insubstantial ‘universe’”—but the poems in which they situate themselves are striking microcosms of playful precision. For example, the book’s opening poem, “Dear Margaret Cho” (the first of two poems with this title), begins:

korea might be gay but I do not think you are.
korea is a peninsula. you and I are people, meaning that we have hair we

comb and things to look at. our lips pout and take on the fullness of an ad-

opted meaning.

the fact of the matter is that relentlessness is a handshake, a limp fish or glass

of lukewarm tea. the fact of the matter is that standing on a stage everything

is comic, meaning small and memorable, of the insubstantial “universe,” a

minor disaster or floating chord.

the darkness is outside when I see you, not in.
What’s funny about this poem (and some of the other poems in Lee’s collection) is that it’s not all that funny. Based on title alone, one might expect a poem called “Dear Margaret Cho” to be humorous, but this is not the case. Expectation gets turned on its head. There is an overwhelming seriousness that permeates Lee’s poems, and it becomes clear that no matter how cheeky the poems might initially seem, they are primarily concerned with memory, place (both geographical and orientational), and the process of language.

The poems are imbricated with these weighty notions in image after image and idea after idea, but it doesn’t mean Lee misses out on having a bit of fun. Language is the process of progression throughout the collection, and Lee’s oft-fragmented lines are playful with their stunted or piecemeal syntax:
a wellspring of thought. moves on without gaps or expressions of ecstasy.
continuous, fibrous, multiple—violet shades drawn down over a liquid vibe.

(“Enter the Dragon”)


this and that. between you and me; between both sides.

make a fire ((in the stove))

smoke. lifelong. one’s lifework.

(“Kim Jong Il: A Reader)
Other lines are straightforward and clear, their images spelled out in simple, subject/predicate declarations, but are no less as playful:
you are where I have left you
every moment that I leave you

(“Toshiro Mifune”)


we aren’t differentiable with bangs and hooded lids.

I know the likeness doesn’t stop right there.

what’s so great about being horny? the joke is insatiable.

it rips and roars between and through.

(“Dear Margaret Cho” #2)
Perhaps the most striking poem in Perfect Villagers is its final one, “Toshiro Mifune.” It is a fitting close that revisits and muses on the concerns that traverse the entire collection. In it, Lee sprinkles some of her most heartbreakingly beautiful lines:
I slept with a woman and woke up as a curse
I slept with a man and woke up silent

I ate alone and clasped hands at the kindness of strangers


mimicking a glint on a drawn edge, a standoff on the beach

these words draw oars from their spaces

treble their volume with a nay-sayer’s dust

she waxes most eloquent

when of her eloquence she speaks


categorically he was a man just as any other man

was born, breathed, one day stood then spoke
In Perfect Villagers, Lee crafts a haunting world of language and memory. There is a freshness and clever sincerity in her work that is, to borrow her words, both “bliss and aftermath,” so dolefully fun.

by Nate Slawson

This is the seventh in a series of eight reviews on the chapbooks from Octopus Books.