December 16, 2007

Review: Skirt Full of Black

Skirt Full of Black

Coffee House Press, $15

Transmogrifying Type

In Skirt Full of Black, Sun Yung Shin’s first collection of poetry, our expectation that the collection will entertain a meaningful and creative dialectic between American English and Korean languages is quickly and fruitfully complicated. It is true that almost all of Shin’s poems take language as at least part of their subject, but she is less concerned with a simple contrast of Korean versus English; rather, she is interested in some of the forms in which language manifests (oral, written, in typeface, as icon) and this leads her into a thematic and formal examination of the tension between spoken/written language, written/typed characters, and human/technological voices. She opens with, “MACRO-ALTAIC”:

“Sometimes even the surface forms defy etymology.”

In place of reading, two doors open

Away from each. Door—paper—door—
Because in her opening poem, a reader grasps the relationship between the textures of the first two voices readily and they stand in stark contrast, we might expect the two-voice formula to return to guide us through our reading of this maze-like collection where conjoined twins split and reform, human typewriters work in pork-processing plants and enormous flowers budding petals of countless histories shake loose one message at a time. The first voice, the one in quotes, reads like an out-of-date textbook on how to translate (Korean into English?) but as easily it could be something else (maybe a primer on structural sociology?), but in “MACRO-ALTAIC,” and throughout the collection, Shin does not acknowledge where she cribs the quoted voices or if she is cribbing at all We can call this first voice the “textbook voice,” to help us keep things straight. The second voice, the “poetic voice,” is the image-driven voice that we encounter often. A few lines later, in the same poem:
“Korean contrast structurally with European languages such as English in a number of ways.”

Your sister’s spirit escapes through a pinprick in the paper wall.

The shaman kneels at her side as before a meal.
In the first poem we can begin to understand how the images created in Shin’s more poetic voice operate with the textbook voice. This makes for an engaging play. Anyone who spends time though with Skirt Full of Black, will come to realize that Shin is interested in this play for about three pages.

The poems that follow build on the concept of multiple textures set-up by the first poem in increasingly alarming and rewarding ways. Images fly out of control, across time periods and continents and voices intermingle to the point of assimilation. In the second poem, “KUAI-ZI,” both voices from the first poem return in similar typographic manifestations (“poetic voice” and “textbook voice”), but other voices show up here to complicate the picture. Now we have a voice that appears in italics and dialogue. This voice reminds us of prose fiction and fairytale:

“We are cannibals,” said a man to his wife, in a picture. He took a picture of the page of words and saved it for processing later.
We also have a kind of bold, capitalized computer print-out voice interspersed:
And additionally we have the complication of the earlier voices; that is, they are unstable, they do not return and sound the same. They assume different postures. This voice falls somewhere between “poetic” and “textbook”:
Chinese chopstick, called kua-zi (quick little fellow with bamboo heads) are nine to ten inches long and rectangular with a blunt end.
And I think we have at least a second textbook as well to end the poem:
“Each soldier is an individual.”
I focus on the style and font to lead us to content. Over time, a reader might be tempted to expect certain things when they see a certain style font appear on the page, but a reader with those expectations will be quickly disappointed, because Shin adapts the fonts and styles on a per poem basis. The bold, capitalized computer print-out voice returns in the next poem only to reveal itself as the voice of a very specific typewriter that is important to the collection as a whole. As readers, we begin to understand the necessity of a multiplicity:
By the 1920s, virtually all typewrites were “look-alikes”

only in capital letter: QWERTY: WOMAN TYPING: HARD RETURN

We should not say there are four or even eight different voices at work in Skirt Full of Black; rather there are four or eight or sometimes ten different voices at work in a single poem. Take the book’s longer poem (almost all of section 2), “FLOWER, I, STAME AND POLLEN” for example. Here we see a plethora of styles and voices, from lists to imperatives, stories to truncated lyrics, historical allegory and rules and, perhaps, one might even say, a good old prose poem, but that comes along with a kind of asterisk dance that is dangerously close to a linguistic expression…

The beauty of this book is that we are always slipping into new forms and new styles with and within each poem. Never too far away though is Shin’s disarming poetic. One is reminded of a book like Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, by Marilyn Chin. On the jacket Chin describes Skirt Full of Black in relation to form, things like “collage of ancient fragments” and “catalogue of associative statements;” but these comments I think do not acknowledge the rigor of this project and how seriously Shin’s poems feel rooted in their new and challenging forms. The poems themselves are visual landscapes, typographically speaking, and they are very controlled compositions. On the cover: a monochromatic orange typewriter on baby blue background, where from a sheer dark gray sky letters rain either out from or into the typewriter and solid, in a yellow sheet of paper feeding out from the typewriter, we see the title and the author. The typewriter is a guide throughout the book, a control mechanism, that lets us know our language and our space, however unharnessed it may seem, has been mitigated. The typewriter provides also an early touchstone for some of the other kinds of control.

All Shin’s titles appear in bold capital letters, which kind of loom over the poems as signposts. They do not feel oppressive in their looming though, authoritative yes, but rather like things to take note of on your way by into the body of the poem. Sometimes they are a single word and sometimes we come across something like this as a title:


About two-thirds of the way though the book we find a table of the Korean alphabet, divided into vowels and consonants, with Korean symbols and English equivalents. This table guides us through the penultimate section of the book where we find spare, delicate poems that seem to center around uniformly one-word titles the table invites us to translate and speak. With the introduction of this table, we settle down, the page becomes less crowded and more of a portrait than a landscape. We see in this penultimate section and as well in the last, that there is indeed a place for elegy in the collection. We find poems like “LEFTOVERS,” that have a more typical contemporary American poetic:

“I’m a Gay Dad”
T-shirt on a young Korean man

Holding hands lightly with his girlfriend

“Pity, all of this Westernization”

The English language is true

Nonsense, everywhere
There is a prime number
That begs to be reduced

Resist the beggars

They have no rights

Is this Mass the same everywhere there is God

Even though different people eat differently
When we reach the end of Skirt Full of Black, we do find ourselves asking the question: what is total work of the book? What have I just been through and what has it asked of me? Did I pass the test?

We also find ourselves wondering, what would have happened should we have ended still at the mercy of the out-of-control-many-voiced typewriter? If Shin had pushed us to the brink and never calmed down? Or conversely, what if the Korean alphabet opened the book, grounding us in that aspect of the project?

Part of what a reader walks away with is the idea of the ambidextrous voice: a voice that understands space and time are dangerously out of control in the most sublime sense and can reflect that; a voice that can distill space and time into beautiful, abstract, tight-knit impressions that challenge the relationship between American English and Korean, language and sound. Shin understands we all share a lingua mater, there is no indivisible sound in any language; she dedicates the collection to “the worldwide Korean diaspora—six to seven million overseas Koreans living in 140 countries.” As I walk away from this collection, I take with me a sense from one of the Siamese twin poems in the middle of the collection, “THAT CAME TO BE SPLIT INTO A PLURALITY,” where Shin’s ideas of twinning, conjoined twins, adoption, and linguistics come to a head in the imbalance and symmetry between two simple statements:

That we each have a number assigned to us
That we each have a name, or three assigned to us
by Thomas Cook