Unbearable Splendor – Sun Yung Shin


What is essay? In recent years I have been exploring the fiction form and the boundaries being pushed in the fictional format. Recently I have noticed an inordinate number of new essay collections hitting the shelf. Is the factual argument or the exploration of a subject via experimental means lesser of an essay? I recently reviewed Brian Blanchfield’s “Proxies; Essay’s near knowing” where personal restriction was put in place (for example, no research whilst writing each essay), this collection was vibrant, exciting, thought provoking and thoroughly enjoyable. Can others also experiment with the form for similar results?

As mentioned in my recent post about Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”, reading such a dense, complex and large book poses mental and physical restrictions. Generally I read one book from start to finish, pick up something that seems to suit the flow of my previous reading and then complete the new one, and continue ad-nauseum. A few “breaks” by participating in Women In Translation Month or Spanish Literature Month or other style read-alongs can break the flow I’m in and set me off on a new tangent. As regular visitors here would know I have been primarily focused on Latin American, South American literature for quite a few months now, and switching to the German was a massive cultural shift. Given the sheer size of “Bottom’s Dream” it is not a book I take to read on my daily work commute, I’m therefore breaking up the Germanic, at the moment, with various essay, short story or poetry collections. Regular visitors here will notice that over the comings weeks or months my posts will be reviews of books of the shorter form, although I do have a few unwritten reviews from novels read (and heavily notated) which I may get to write up and post.

For my essay reading I referred to a recent post at Book Riot titled “25 Great Essay Collections from 2016” http://bookriot.com/2016/09/20/25-great-essay-collections-from-2016/ – a number simply didn’t take my fancy as they appeared to address American History, or the blurb indicated a severe case of narcissism (“It tells stories about growing up and coming to understand her intelligence, her role as a writer, and her place in the world.”), I culled the list to six, yes I was savage in my culling process.

The first collection off the pile was Sun Yung Shin’s “Unbearable Splendor”. As publisher Coffee House Press tells us, “Sun Yung Shin is the author of poetry collections Rough, and Savage and Skirt Full of Black, which won an Asian American Literary Award. She coedited the anthology Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption, and is the author of Cooper’s Lesson, a bilingual Korean/English illustrated book for children”. With their blurb of the book saying, “Poetry as essay, as a way of hovering over the uncanny, sci-fi orientalism, Antigone, cyborgs, Borges, disobedience.”

Doesn’t help much does it?

An essay collection blending micro-fiction, poetry, graphs, all musing on themes linked to cultural or scientific references. We have Borges, Kafka, Antigone, the Minotaur, Dante, Pinocchio, the movies Alien and Blade Runner. Starting off with the universe’s creation, astrophysics, light, and black holes:

Maybe I am a kind of star. Burning – sending you the light to read by. A valley you might come upon gradually, not a hole to fall into.

Don’t be perturbed by the early graphs, showing ‘moving’ and ‘still’ plotted against axis’ of ‘human likeness’ and ‘familiarity’, the opening appears complex, but as you work your way through this fragmented poetic text the messages of identity and singularity come clearly into focus. In these graphs, the axis ‘human likeness’ appears as a demarcation line, policed with cameras and guns. As our poet was born in Korea the DMZ (demarcation zone) immediately springs to mind.

Parallel to Sun Yung Shin’s journey as a star, is her journey from Korea to the USA as an adopted child, a two-year-old. Attempting to explore her roots we have an ‘essay’ titled “One Hundred Days In The Cave” where Sun Yung Shin explores Korean history until the Bronze Age, as well as Korean creation myths.

Our time is recursive and forking. Our time is a garden in which all realities are simultaneously possible. All paths are truly one path. From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence. This sentence is utterly, heartbreakingly unique. Never before and never again. Yet they, in ensemble, create One Sentence. It holds and houses us. Announces and defends us. Blesses and confesses us. Curses and condemns.

Not your usual collection of ‘essays’ you need to dwell on the poetics, the message behind the written word, the timbre and the metre. Mixing myth with poetics, with familial recollections or dreams this is a startling revelation of a search for identity.

At one stage the Minotaur in his labyrinth is fed nine youths every nine years until visited by Theseus, and later the scientific research of dreaming in-utero is presented followed by “dreams are ephemera”, the adopted Korean cannot discern between truthful and deceitful dreams, the ones she has of her life in Korea, her biological parents being unknown, as evidenced by a facsimile of her Birth Certificate.

At one stage Sun Yung Shin links adoption to Gregor Samsa, the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, the similarities of having to change in a new environment, new restrictions, new cultural norms, new learned histories.

At times written in the plural, is this the royal “we”?, when the dreams of a forgotten childhood are documented, we later learn Sun Yung Shin’s playful language is in use here, in the essay “Autocionography” the concept of no such thing as “I” is explored.

to love the word we more than I – we don’t have to capitalize we even in the middle of a sentence – the I has been sprung from its prison no more stretcher for you letter I – who do you think you are letter I to be so tall to be like the Roman numeral one – you don’t stand for one anymore – you don’t stand up anymore

Not only exploring her cultural roots, her homeland, her adoption, this is a work deeply rooted in cultural references both Korean and American. We also have the themes of motherhood, of what it is to be female as evidenced by the epigraph from Carl Jung;

A particularly beautiful woman is a source of terror. As a rule, a beautiful woman is a terrible disappointment. – Carl Jung in an interview with Frederick Sands, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 10, 1961.

Even surrogacy is touched upon, “my womb a piñata”.

Antigone becomes as reoccurring character, and I have to ask are there parallels to Jacques Lacan’s 1997 quotes: though Antigone represents ‘‘a turning point in . . . ethics’’ and reveals ‘‘the line of sight that defines desire,’’ it is ‘‘Antigone herself who fascinates us, Antigone in her unbearable splendor’’? I’m no psychoanalyst, nor have a clue what half of their work means, so I’ll leave that to the more educated (wish me luck when I get into the whole Freud thing in Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”!!)

Unlike your more “vanilla” essay collections, this work uses poetic building blocks to slowly reveal the existentialist heart, a very impressive result as the personal connection is palpable. Successful where so many fiction writers fail. This work is layer upon layer of revelation, a slow unwrapping of identity, a convincing view of numerous ephemera, myth blended with science blended with history and culture, poetically descending into our consciousness and leaving a memory behind. Thoroughly enjoyable, experimental poetic essay, who would have thought!

4 thoughts on “Unbearable Splendor – Sun Yung Shin

  1. This is a must have for me (you know me so well). Fortunately it won’t be released for a few weeks—October is proving to be a fertile month for new releases—but I only have so much time. I have a few outside review commitments, an online copy editing course and plans to spend much of the weekend volunteering at out Word festival, so this one can afford to wait a bit. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Shame and Wonder – David Searcy | Messenger's Booker (and more)

  3. Pingback: My Private Property – Mary Ruefle | Messenger's Booker (and more)

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