Skirt Full of Black by Sun Yung Shin
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2007)
[First published in Great American Pin Up, 2008]
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 life.
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, but it is capable of redemption.
Lisa Bower is a native New Yorker who has lived everywhere from Roanoke, VA to New Orleans. Currently freelancing in Boston, her reviews and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming from from such places as Mid-American Review, Subtropics, The Southern Review, & Cutbank Poetry Review.