Sun Yung Shin’s second poetry collection, “Rough, and Savage” from Coffeehouse Press, is simultaneously alluring and caustic, lovely and mournful, ambitious in both its moral ambition and literary invention. Shin’s poems deal in pain and love and alienation, but she weaves those well-worn themes into something fresh, a contemporary fairy tale in verse about the making and unmaking of both identity and nations — fitting for a post-colonial, uneasily globalized world. Her poems are at once intimate and mythic, in both tone and character; they’re visually complex and self-consciously oblique, hard to parse but laden with indelible imagery.
Consider this “faux-ku” from a suite of poems about the divided nation of Korea: “The shoes of North Koreans sit patiently behind the vitrine, as if outside a neighbor’s door./ North Korean money fingers itself soft like flannel./ Ginseng wine sings its sour ballad, while I slide my wôn into the binoculars’ slot-mouth.”
Or, this unforgettable description, one among many to be found in the prose poem, “Isolette:”
1. I reached into the isolette and turned the baby on its side, gently but firmly like turning a breakfast sausage link, as to keep the browning even.
2. The baby did not protest, but it did turn its twin black eyes at me and blink, like the animal it was. I blinked back. I felt something tender pulse to life within me. It was as though a little glass opened up a space in time, a little circle of memory, a little round of moonlight.
Born in Korea and adopted at just over a year old, Shin was raised by a Chicago family, untethered from her genetic history or any grounding in her natal cultural roots. With her poems, one gets the sense she’s inviting us into a private geography; her country-of-one is an archipelago rather than a clearly delineated land mass, a loose confederation of darkly surreal destinations, requiring of the reader attentive navigation through uncertain waters.
In one poem, she writes: “Work at this riddle as though walking backward up the stairs./ The cocoon unknits itself, silk falling to threads.”
Shin’s collection is framed, in part, around Dante’s epic, “Inferno.” But her poems also weave in elements distinct to her own experience and concerns: drawing from Korean and American histories and military records, the moral thicket of contemporary transnational adoption, surrogacy and gamete donation. The whole is a magpie’s hoard of personal and cultural souvenirs. There are recurring figures and motifs: snakes and changelings, heroes and demons, mothers (and shadow mothers) and babies, the post-colonial era’s conquerors and conquered.
Shin’s poetic gestures (her publisher’s press materials dub the style “lyrical collage”) are suggestive but slippery, working on the reader’s mind like half-remembered dreams: vivid and visceral, revelatory in the moment of experience but revealed as gossamer in the sunshine of waking memory, leaving in their wake a tantalizing but unmoored sense of significance.
After several readings of “Rough, and Savage,” I confess I’m in no way sure what it all means – I’m not even convinced such legibility is of particular concern to the poet. But I can say that Shin’s is a unique and arresting voice in a crowded field of too-much-the-same, and one worthy of considered attention.
I’ll leave you with a part of a poem:
Here I am, in a state
of starvation for metaphor, famished for a comparison
of one thing to another, even the various taste of trash
Even thing sounds like metal
the song of it turning my skull into a stainless cup
I change sizes with each breath
David and Goliath
soldier and enemy
son and sister
I lie as in a loop
I renew by distant colonies
I forget how to avenge myself.
Sun Yung Shin will read from her new collection of poems, “Rough, and Savage,” joined by poet Sarah Fox (author of the just-published debut “Because Why”), on Thursday, October 25, 7 p.m. at Common Good Books, 38 South Snelling Ave., St. Paul. For more information visit the author’s website: www.coffeehousepress.org/2012/06/rough-and-savage.