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 The first voice, the one in quotes, reads like an out-of-date textbook on how to translate (Korean into English?)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

December 8, 2007

Review: The Myth of the Simple Machines

The Myth of the Simple Machines

No Tell Books, $15 paperback

Truth is made, not discovered.

-- Wayne Gabardi

Their voices are bringing the trees to their knees
-- Will Oldham

In Laurel Snyder’s playfully perplexing new collection, truth has its way with myth (or is it the other way round?). The “simple machines” of the title are multitudinous: landscapes, games of chess, conversations, grocery store charades, bodies, movements, dreams, thoughts, language, and seemingly everything in-between. The myth is the assumption that the machines are, in fact, simple. Like Snyder’s poems themselves, the machines are part truth and part myth (or perhaps they are always truth and always myth), and Snyder dutifully crafts her narrative across the book’s four sections.

The first section of the book, “The Machines,” is primarily centered around a mysterious, unnamed girl. In the opening poem, “The Field Has a Girl,” we, like the girl, “become” in Snyder’s world:

The sky has a blackbird.
The field has a girl.

The sky is to the field as

the field is to the sky, only

backwards. White is

to the blackbird as fear

is to the girl, despite

she’s small and alone.


“I live

in this,” says the girl.

“Alone,” says the girl.

Things become quieter.

Things become.

“No matter what you

may do with your life,”

says the girl.
It’s not a stretch to draw a comparison between this poem and that most-popular of blackbird poems by Wallace Stevens, but Snyder also shares some of Stevens’ other poetic sensibilities. Her line breaks, her ample use of “to be” verbs, and her command of a simple yet powerful landscape are all Stevens-esque. This isn’t to say that all eleven poems in “The Machines” are Stevens-esque (they’re more akin to off-kilter fairy-tales, more in line with Kristy Bowen’s work in Feign), but there are teacups and clover and, yes, a jar.

The book’s second section, “Their Casings,” shakes things up a bit. The girl from the first section is gone, and we are introduced to a first-person speaker. Is this the same girl, now speaking directly to the reader? It’s unclear. But one thing is certain: like the girl in “The Machines,” this I is vulnerable and endearing. In fact, that’s exactly what she wants us to say:

When my tea gets cold I like to cry,
and there’s a run in my stockings

that won’t ever end. It gets me.

But isn’t it endearing?

Tell me I’m endearing.


At the grocery store, I’m

“That quiet girl in the blue coat.”

I shop alone.

I like myself against the Bartlett pears

and the smell of pears.

Do I look sad

I think I’m very pretty, sad and alone

in the grocery store.

(“Posture Matters”)
Somewhere in this section, though, a question does arise: who is this speaker addressing? She constantly addresses a “you,” and as readers, it seems like we keep coming to the conversations a little too late:
Like it or not, this is for you,
so pay attention.


Maybe you’ve never been wrong,

but then I can’t believe a word you say.

The things that don’t work

are the important things to have wanted.

You should have all this

figured out by now.



But instead I have you. You staring

at that corn field, saying nothing. You sighing

at that huge green sea, with all its tides

like rulers. You tell me they run straight

until a wall happens. To them. Or something.

What’s that supposed to mean?

(“Beast in the Cornfield”)
In the book’s third section, “In Technology,” everything becomes more frenetic. Points of view shift, God makes an appearance, language speeds up and slows down, and the section ends with a trio of triptychs: “Triptych of Useful Rules (Pictures),” “Triptych of Useful Rules (Words),” and “Triptych of Useful Rules (Conclusions).” If image and language are the central concerns of “In Technology,” perhaps their best representatives are the final three poems. Snyder’s triptych of triptychs is one of the highlights in The Myth of the Simple Machines. They’re whip-smart, light-heartedly haunting, and exquisitely voiced:
Sometimes we catch the kettle.

(“Triptych of Useful Rules (Pictures)”)



1.) You’ll know it when you see it. 2.) Anything that lasts longer

than it needs to, look, hand on shoulder. 3.) I mean to

say, it lingers. I mean both things.

(“Triptych of Useful Rules (Words)”)
The book’s final section, “At Rest,” begins with the poem “Half-sleep Segue,” before closing with a cycle of five prose poems. “Half-sleep Segue” sets-up the dream-like prose poem cycle:
On a Tuesday night, the girl dozes and dreams
of a fireplace. She’s a whisper, a murmur in a slip,

dancing in a slip made of diamonds beside a fire.

The walls are close. The air is warm

red wine and there is candlelight, from somewhere

golden behind her. Deeply golden.

She’s hushed in her heavy slip, dancing slowly

on a thick carpet, alone. When she bruises, she feels

like money, like extra money. She’s a full pocket.
The five prose poems, all titled “Night,” are mythical dreamscapes full of sensory bombardment. And in the final poem, “Night 5 (The Bake Sale),” we finally get a named character: Lucy. It’s such a shock to read Lucy’s name that her existence is itself a revelation. But it’s a short-lived revelation, for Lucy quickly exits the poem. There are more revelations, though, once the speaker finds him at the Bake Sale and the little message written inside the smallest circles of the smallest cake.

The Myth of the Simple Machines
is from that wonderful world where poetry intersects with storytelling. And as Laurel Snyder shows, it’s a world of endless possibility, myth, truth, and reward.

by Nate Slawson