I wanted the blood from the lip
open for me. I wanted the soft back
of your knee that glowed like an otter's eye,
the flag of hair you'd throw out through the wild
sky, singing praises to Him through the air.
Clearly put, I was not born to be one
more pretty poppy in that garden.
more handful of fruit just for you to bite,
a patch of dirt where you could plant your heirs.
I was a song you had to put your back
into. The first born fairy. Artless, wild
and bare. And I wanted more than my eye
It’s not words we need tonight, but the antidote
to what has already been said. Yes, there’s a man
sitting lakeside in an idling car. Yes, there’s
a slug crossing a road in the rain, and a drugstore
where people sway like tropical leaves—in a wind
that thinks of antibacterial soap and condoms,
a two liter of coke. Yes, my father is dying
and the soil turns with its vocabulary
of beetles, its glistening, diamond vowels. Yes,
any face is a temporary face, and God knows
enough about when the mangoes must turn red,
when the garbage man must wake in the dark.
Here. There. A bowl left out in the rain. We fill it
with so many thoughts. As if afraid to merely live
in love. As if even this fear belonged to us.
"The poem is a form of texting ... it's the original
text," says Carol Ann Duffy. "It's a perfecting of a feeling in
language – it's a way of saying more with less, just as texting is. We've got
to realise that the Facebook generation is the future – and, oddly enough,
poetry is the perfect form for them. It's a kind of time capsule – it allows
feelings and ideas to travel big distances in a very condensed form."
The job is taxing clanking on the bars
we all agree we need some new work boots and yet and more over we need a new
outlook Sir it is one hundred degrees in here and the air is obscene as well as
our knees hurt where our heavenly body speaks to us and nothing Sir to scratch
our dreams on the wall with and there Sir is another rape another fucking
suicide goes underreported and guards scream bust your head if you buck and
some of us live Sir in San Francisco where the smells are all kind brown and
blue musk that in our dreams fuses railroad a chain of events Sir that lead
here and suppose us dead and deserving we all agree we have families we hurt in
real life we step out of line we talk shit eat watermelon on Independence Day
as well as find our handcuffs birdcalls women or booze until the sun goes down
our feet bar after bar Sir as the clanking renews itself as we take lint from
the laundry room to cot with us we all agree as we ink we blot out we meld we
murder we assemble for chow with each clanking bar our heavenly body speaks of.
Listen carefully, my son: bombs were falling
over Mexico City
but no one even noticed.
The air carried poison through
the streets and open windows.
You’d just finished eating and were watching
cartoons on TV.
I was reading in the bedroom next door
when I realized we were going to die.
Despite the dizziness and nausea I dragged myself
to the kitchen and found you on the floor.
We hugged. You asked what was happening
and I didn’t tell you we were on death’s program
but instead that we were going on a journey,
one more, together, and that you shouldn’t be afraid.
When it left, death didn’t even
close our eyes.
What are we? you asked a week or year later,
ants, bees, wrong numbers
in the big rotten soup of chance?
We’re human beings, my son, almost birds,
public heroes and secrets.
Oh, Jeanette Winterson. I remember reading three or four of her books for a class I took in college: "How Writing Is Written." Eye-opening, really: her perspective or vision is sharp and slightly off-kilter. There's brilliance there: contained but not, as she writes, containable.
Every spot I've laid my head has been temporary -- I've known this. Every year, I pack my things -- sometimes neat and tight in a suitcase & sometimes half-hazard and without organization. I am constantly moving. At camp, I only half-unpack. In New Orleans, I unpacked but then left half of my things in boxes because I knew summer would come.
This year, I move in with my best friend of 16 years. We're headed to Brighton, and if it goes well, there's the possibility that it could be more than a year. I may sublet the place during the summer but could still leave things. I might work on the business of building a life.
Day 1 of Session 3 at Camp: rain from the moment we wake. It pours and pours. My hair's frizzing, my staff t-shirt is drenched, and I am doing my best to smile at each parent and child I greet.
We swim every single day, and there was hesitation about what to do on this first day. We always swim. We always conduct swim tests.
I'm old-school. I was raised with the notion, "camp will always run." My role models pushed me when I needed to be pushed. They threw my cautious 19-year-old self into the deep-end & it worked because I knew they'd save me if I drowned. It worked because I respected them enough and cared for the kids to make just about anything work.
My poor staff: we told them all to come down dressed to swim. The swim tests would happen. Camp would run.
I knew I had an amazing staff all summer -- hard-working, positive, and loyal -- but they proved it to me on days when things were hard but we lifted one another up. That Free Swim was one of my favorites of the summer. People dove into the water -- staff, kids, teens. We literally danced in the rain. From Day 1, you could feel that sense of family. We are a never-ending web of tight knots.
"Caring passionately about something isn't against nature, and it isn't against human nature. It's what we're here to do.”
-- Annie Dillard
When I was in middle and high school, I often felt like I had to hide the fire inside of me. Intellectual curiosity, sadly, didn't seem a priority of my peers. To express love or to ask for a better world wasn't the norm. I spent too many idle years working retail jobs in a town run dry. I spent too many hours in a high school where students sat in lines and listened to teachers. I spent too many hours hiding my interests.
I could have gone to a State school, seen high school folks, & become a high school English teacher.
I could have gone to community college and saved SO MUCH MONEY -- hello, free ride.
I could have stayed in New York.
Instead, I stumbled my way to a small liberal arts school in Roanoke, Virginia: Hollins University.
The first year was overwhelming: surrounded with intelligent and creative women. I swear, that dining hall was as much a classroom as any other. Harder, too, because friends will push you to the edge of the cliff and ask you the toughest questions.
Hollins taught me many important lessons. One of the most important was to claim my passions, to feel deeply and understand why, and to act.
What happens in a world where language fails us? Sun Yung Shin’s poetry collection, Skirt Full of Black, fills in the gaps between language and between the past and
present by crafting poems that dip from many pots. Shin’s eye is a critical
one: This poet is definitely conscious of the social ramifications of not only
her poems but also of different cultures’ practices, the news, traditions, and
faerie tales. The poems in this collection are like a collage: there are
different voices, material, and subject matter. What unites the pieces of these
poems is their critical gaze: nothing escape’s this poet’s eye. The world seems
open for the taking and for examination.
From the beginning, Shin’s
intentions are loud and clear: the first poem, “Macro-Altaic,” takes on
assimilation and “the color of death, Western clothing.” This poem maps the
collection’s journey, and its attempts to make sense of what is lost between
languages and what is lost at the cost of assimilation. In this first poem,
Shin writes: “Date on the red book from Korea, year prior to birth, folk tales,
year of gestation, folk tales, year a maternal body with double interior.” Time
is marked in Korea’s
color – red – and the past is referenced, as is the feminine and its
misrepresentation. Shin’s work in this collection is focused around the “double
interior” of language: Through a collage of perspective, the poems address what
is missing, neglected, and/or oppressed.
And yet, with all the differences between English and
Korean, there are still boundaries. In the collection’s first poem, Shin
addresses this: “…not easy to draw boundaries in any language between what is a
word and what is not a word and Korean is no exception.” What is and what is
not are two dichotomies that exist in each language. This idea aligns to what
is implied about each culture’s treatment of women: they are told what they can
and can not be. She writes in “Flower I, Stamen and Pollen”:
Even the knot of her shadow
reckoned him starlet, sparrow, hummingbird.
Her youngest older brother. His
devotion was positively medieval.
Sanctified. Gilt. He had made a deaf rope of roots and her mute mouth
stained abundant with the prophecy
of berries. A replica of paradise. Their
mother’s womb he scraped clean. Red-empty-red.
Her favorite lineage.
Women are protected only to be used as a vessel, for their
womb. The poem is as gruesome in its imagery as Grimm faerie tales. However,
instead of the old faerie tales that were used to warn women against leaving or
disobeying their parents or husbands, this faerie tale is a feminist response
to a life of oppression, a life of control.
The major accomplishment of this poetry collection is the
collection’s fifth section, “Vestibulary.” Here, Shin takes the Korean language
(hangul and the old Romanization) and creates poems inspired by the traditional
meanings, sounds, and associations of this language. Language is notoriously
biased, notoriously linked to the patriarchy (historically made for men by
men), but Shin takes this language on and gives each character, a story, a new
Women and their ethnicity are recurring subject matters:
Shin gives women their voices and throws a spotlight on the generalizations of
ethnic groups. Sometimes these spotlights seem to drown out their subjects. Like
someone screaming from a rooftop, the reader can sometimes nod their head with
frustration and mouth, “I get it; I get it.” Shin is at her best when she
attacks subjects in a creative fashion and through metaphor.
It is in this section that Shin
that her politics and poetics learn how to work off of one another make sweet
music together. It is here where the collection’s ideas come together and
coalesce. “Vestibulary” is a true accomplishment: part dictionary, part
critique, part association, and a blending of perspective and culture, this
piece of the collection is strong because it touches on many things at once.
Here, Korean culture can meet Western culture. Here, what can not be explained
by one language can be explained through their combination.
The pieces of “Vestibulary” touch not only on the literally
meaning of the Korean language but also its look. Many of the poems take on the
shape or allude to the shape of the Korean characters. For example, “kiyek,” is
a poem based on a Korean character that looks very much like an upside-down “L”
(and looks something like this: ┐). Here, Shin writes:
stained raw your lover’s knee,
scythe, raw grain;
late, wet harvest;
half-chair in silhouette.
The poem’s language alludes not only to Korean culture and the tug-of-war
relationship between English and Korean (i.e. “the half-chair in silhouette”),
but the poem’s spacing and line-length links strongly to the character’s look:
its shape and the thickness of its line.
Forever in limbo, Shin makes sense of the world through purposeful
collision. English and Korean come together without losing their individuality.
That’s not to say that this collection doesn’t explore the multitude of issues
involved when two cultures not only compete for standing but oppress its
members. The poems in this piece are loud with their discussion of
What one language can express,
another can not, and Shin asks for more language, another language to speak for
things that are unspeakable. In “Half the Business,” she writes:
We should all have two languages, one of our childhood, and
one of our
God, let those two be the same.
No more songs about bureaucrats, armies, a confetti of human hair.
Shin asks for a language that
can shrug off the confines of the patriarchy, a history of misogyny.
Additionally, Shin seems tired of what has been said again and again in the
same languages. The poem continues with “Every woman a scholar dissecting her
own body, eating her own words / until the end of words.” Here, language again
is linked to the oppression of women. To study language, to be scholar, one
must “eat her own words,” one must see the limits of language. This love-hate
relationship is one that is key to the poems in this collection, key to Shin’s
plight. A poet may love language, but as a woman, language is as oppressive as
anything else in the world. As someone balancing two languages – Korean and
English – the struggle is even more complex.
Shin’s poetry collection is a revolving door of perspective.
Like a skilled juggler, Shin flips the coins again and again to peer in on the
reflections, the differences and the similarities. What is a poet to do when
language fails her gender, her ethnicity? This poet takes the languages that
have failed in the past and combines them. The resulting collage of perspective
and language tackles its subject matter head on. Though the subject matter of
these poems is loud and ablaze with a critical eye, the poems do not lack in
sound play or form. Shin marries her poetics and politics, and the resulting
poems will challenge a reader’s ear and assumptions. Language may have its
limitations or its issues redemption is possible.