In this post, I will engage brief discussions and considerations of Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s Underground National, Linh Dinh’s Borderless Bodies, and Brian Kim Stefans’s What is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers. When I first took on these poetry collections, I knew I had my hands full. Factory School Press prides itself on publishing a series known as “heretical texts.” These three books are all in that series and I can see how they might be heretical in the sense that they certainly and flagrantly push the boundaries of our metaphorical devotion to poetry.
Of the three, I certainly found Stefans’s collection the most challenging. After a certain point, I realized that I should not attempt to create some sort of incredibly sustained scaffolding over all the different sections and just enjoy them as I read them. This attitude and approach was especially justified when I finally got to the graphic “narrative” section at the end, where we were moving entirely into a visual register I was not prepared for. Certainly, Stefans, as does Lee and Dinh, all play with white space on the page, but there weren’t any sustained uses of images until that point. As I reflect upon Stefans’s work, the piece that comes most immediately to the fore is “Social Cripples,” a prose poem, if we can call it that, that seems to reflect a larger aesthetic and political approach to Stefans’s creative productions:
“If all language, even the most basic such as that used when purchasing oranges (the classic example always seems to be the language used in commerce) is merely some version of foreign policy, then certainly all language is charged with implications that extend beyond one’s involuntary sublimation of its import. Which is to say, there are some elements of foreign policy that we are all quite comfortable with; most of us can safely walk into a store and purchase ‘oranges’ without much psychological trauma” (95).
The lyric speaker prepares us for a lengthier engagement with the subjective nature of our poetic inclinations or our poetic consumptive habits. The use of the word “foreign,” I think is quite apt in the sense that we have to approach poetry, no matter how seemingly approachable, as this alien landscape, surely to make us pause and consider that the “orange” we might be “purchasing” or reading may not be really like an orange at all. The speaker goes on to note:
“The point being: poets spend so much time troubling the issues of foreign relations, and interesting, engaged poets tend to do this troubling along the entire range of relations from introduction to the seductive embrace, terrorizing manufactured consent, chipping away fervent-[end of 95]ly at the canon, not to mention purchasing ‘oranges,’ that it is no wonder they end up social cripples—all language has become so incredibly deterritorialized, which is to say, made ‘uncanny,’ that the engines are most likely not able to be turned off when talking over some basic issue like baseball scores or haircuts. I notice that I am writing my worst poems when I feel most comfortable in the ‘community’, and that, when I am perceived as somewhat friendly, my poems are rather bland attempts at continuing good relations. This is merely one approach one could take to this issue” (96). Stefans certainly makes language for readers uncanny, pushing them to make the process of purchasing “oranges” something quite dynamic, unpredictable, perhaps not so “bland.” In “Tulubun,” Stefans alters pretty much every use of a vowel to the letter u, but it’s not so radical that we can’t eventually make “sense” of much of the poem. For instance, “Tulubun,” would be translated Taliban in this case, so we’re pretty much operating within an English to English translation, English made uncanny. We have to slow down considerably: a line that begins the “poem,” is “Hu us nurvuus mun wuth nurvuus uy’s, guung about nurvuus busunuss,” (106) which would be something like “Who is the nervous man with nervous eyes, going about nervous business.” The question to ask is: why shift the “language” in this poem? If this poem is all about the post 9/11 era with all of its focus on surveillance and secrecy, the poem gives us a kind of code that requires a cipher. We must “code” break to discover, well, there’s not really a terrorist to find. All that paranoia is perhaps for nothing. In “Jai Alai for Autocrats,” Stefans pushes globality to its poetic limits by jamming together seemingly nonsensical phrases:
in argentina, where they smoke
apple juice by the bushel
in porcelain cars
imported through a straw urethra
from the dominant superpower (vietnam)
listening to haitian speeches
by danish war criminals
on the combo air conditioner/radio
made of refurbished, petrified elephant dung
laughing in hoarse tones
at the slips of Cartesian grammer
that erupt from the photogenic, sad doctoral student” (115).
I only end discussing Stefans’s collection here, because there’s nothing better than to call it a day when you have to discuss, the “photogenic, sad doctoral student.” The good news is that, at least, the doctoral student still has his or her looks (read: sarcasm).
If wordplay is characteristic of Stefans’s collection, we can see the strain taken to a particular comic and grotesque extreme in Linh Dinh’s Borderless Bodies. Indeed, the collection might seem graphic, pointedly sexualized, and perhaps plain offensive, but as the collection moves forward, Dinh expertly politicizes his lyrics. An early poem like “Troubles” seems particularly difficult to root in a specific context; here is an excerpt:
Personally, I can’t think of anything wrong
With the body—the nose over the mouth
Is about right, the asshole under and back
Is also about right—But there are those
Who say that even a so-called perfect body
Is too holey or not holy enough” (32).
The lyric speaker’s obsessive attention to orifices is of course part and parcel of the question of the “borderless” that Linh engages throughout the collection. Entries and exits seem to suggest that there might be rules for getting in and out of places or things and thus we always get back to the politics of inclusion and exclusion. Consumption is, not surprisingly, another “border” point that Linh returns again and again to: “Becoming intimate with each other’s meat,/ They marinated each other’s meat, to stew/ Deep fry or roast, or they ate each other raw” (39). The playfulness of Dinh’s lyrics are clearly on display, in which sexual innuendo and consumption habits find their lascivious footing. At a point, though, the collection turns and we begin to get a sense of a specific location for the lyric speaker. In “My Country’s Airport,” the lyric speaker laments that “Airports in other countries are perfect places of anticipation. But my country’s is an illusion, a type of pornography” (49). In “Travelling Man,” the lyric speaker focuses on the superficiality of transnationalism: “Travelling, he sees nothing. In the windows of Amsterdam’s/ Red light district, he doesn’t recognize his plump flesh flashing/ Or slouched on a chair. On the streets of Saigon, he doesn’t see/ His snotty nose on the faces of child beggars. He sniffs and sniffs/ Yet Smells nothing” (51). Thus lyric speaker here begins to include some ethnographic markers in the collection that will occasionally emerge in other poems; the borders of the body then start to engage in a dialogue with the borders of nations. I am always interested in the tourist figure as a site of anxiety and as a site of power relations. Here, the titular “travelling man’s” paradoxical privilege is that he is unable to use his orifices to engage his status as an elite. Thus, both his vision and his sense of smell are not attuned not anything but a particular kind of myopic, congested experience. It is in this second act of Dinh’s collection that we begin to see what is at stake in these borderless bodies, or perhaps more accurately stated, border “controlled” bodies.
Sueyuen Juliette Lee’s Underground National takes a unique approach to poetic creation in that it incorporates texts and images from various websites and sources directly. As Lee writes in the notes to the text, “I am not in the habit of documenting my source texts, but due to the density of materials I incorporated in ‘Korea, What Is’ and some of the permissions involved, I felt it best to include a bibliographic record.” The bibliographic record Lee offers demonstrates, at least on one level, the tremendous variance in the kinds of sources that inspire an artist to produce lyric. In Underground National, Lee puts these extratextual sources to great use, effecting something like a poetic collage throughout, in which other voices can emerge. What is perhaps most unsettling and provocative about Lee’s work is its minimalism, which clearly takes a nod from other Korean American writers like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Myung Mi Kim. One section of “Korea, What is” contains lines that when read in juxtaposition with each other trouble our sense of war and violence. One line reads: “water pollution; inadequate supplies of potable water; waterbone disease; deforestation; soil erosion and degradation” which appears alongside a quotation, “ ‘these brainwashed Asians will stand and fight’” (22). One can’t help but think about the circumstances of war and how military serviceman, even despite great impoverishment will continue to “stand and fight.” The first lines from the section “Underground National (a priori” read as such:
into what future, not
as a foreigner, hardly
but more disciplinary profusion
into the imaginary of
our ‘nation.’ (45)
It would seem that Lee’s lyric speaker is engaged in how the concept of the “nation” is always already a construct, its subjects and its citizens certainly in peril through the various ways they can be categorized and put to use. The “disciplinary profusion” suggests that citizens must play a particular role to stabilize the nation in years to come. But, Lee’s collection reminds us that the future is far more unpredictable and not quite ensured. For instance, some of the later poems focus on the atomic specter that pervades over the Korean peninsula. One track reads: “Irradiated air. Contaminated waterways, or an imagined thickening of the throat. The newscaster claimed area residents had no idea anything was wrong. Was anything wrong.” These lines are placed alongside the quote: “ ‘is expected or cannot be excluded’” (71). Again, readers are made uncomfortable by these juxtapositions. The quoted lines imply that there is a larger structural power that is cognizant of or aware of the dangers of the modernized era and of the continued possibility of nuclear contamination. I end my consideration of Lee’s work with one of my favorite lyric “passages” from Underground national, one that operates through elegant subversion:
“It is beautiful to be made a human, a human with eyes that see, ears that hear, hands that clasp things close to a ribbed chest, within which nests a sleeping cat or remark on white birch trees along a hill. Beautiful to suffer injuries, to see blood ooze from a minor wound or scrape, how the skin, a softened paper, pulls away in a moist mass. Beautiful still to become worn out with appetite, to digest noisily for hours at a time. To wake up coughing and cold, to starched at dried out cheeks and rinse blistered lips at the kitchen faucet, hunched up again. It is beautiful to wash an open wound, catering to the minutest chills and burns with a softened cloth, a splash of vinegar or a cotton swab” (83).
Like Dinh and Stefans, this prose poetic piece functions to make language a little bit strange for us. What’s beautiful seems pretty horrifying in the end. The first line suggests a far more pleasant path for the poetic arc, but by the end, we’re drowning in injuries and starvation, afflicted with blisters and inclement weather. We will hope that to be “made human” would mean we would even have access to the “cotton swab,” the “softened cloth,” and other such tools that suggest how social inequality functions within any process of healing. Underground National is, I would think, better described as a kind of epic long poem. While there isn’t that central hero we might expect, we should say that Lee revises that form to suggest that heroes are few in such times of uncertainty.
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