JANUARY 5, 2016
“I SEE A WORD like a Russian nesting doll. How can I strip it to what its imagined core would be?” asks Hannah Sanghee Park in an interview with Jessica Laser. Her Walt Whitman Award–winning poetry collection, The Same-Different, searches relentlessly for the “core” of its own language. Park’s poems echo the wry humor of Rae Armantrout and Lyn Hejinian. Like them, Park does not shy away from puns and wordplay. Rather than contain her experiences in apt phrases, she lets these experiences become fragmented and objectified. She treats language as a semantic force field that shapes and fragments her speakers’ self-expression. In his New Yorker review of Armantrout’s Versed, Dan Chiasson praises her for “tak[ing] the basic premises of Language writing somewhere they were never intended to go: toward the mapping of a single individual’s […] uniquely broken heart.” At her most ambitious, Park follows in this path that blends skepticism and deep feeling. She tests whether the abstract contingency of language could express something about the unresolvedness of feelings themselves.
Park’s signature move could be described as imaginary etymology. She mines words for visual or auditory illusions of semantic depth. Her successive lines follow from each other based on such sensory contiguities, and are tied together by them. As it pursues its varied forms of wordplay, The Same-Different strives for a degree of objectivity about the arbitrary means by which we make our experience seem coherent, something that can be narrated.
“Bang,” the first poem in the collection, begins as follows:
Just what they said about the river:
rift and ever.
And nothing was left for the ether
Park’s successive words unravel, accordion-like, into lines with the integrity of fully formed objects. But the unraveling produces only a momentary illusion of self-scrutiny. All of this poem’s stanzas follow the same pattern: the last word or phrase of the first line is “unpacked” in the second one, in a way that is ostensibly etymological, and always emotionally charged. “The ether” becomes “there either.” “River” becomes “rift and ever.” “Bang” highlights the random ties between words and their referents. Yet it also ironically indulges in a more naive, hopeful fantasy that there is something organic and meaningful about such auditory connections — that the word “river” somehow prefigures the “rift” its speaker tries to make sense of, and contains its infinite time frame. The poem takes its force both from this imagined series of connections, and from their obvious, vulnerable unsustainability.
This lyric strategy has its precursors in modernism. It makes one think of Heidegger’s philosophical philologies, or of the Russian Futurists’ zaum (trans-sense) poems, or of the famous “place-names” section of the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In the latter, Proust’s narrator describes the fantastical sensory experiences he used to divine, as a child, in names of cities that he longed to visit. “The name of Parma,” the adult narrator explains, seemed to him “compact and glossy, violet-tinted,” and “soft.” “Florence” was a town “miraculously embalmed, and flower-like.”
Like Proust’s place-names, Park’s expanding lines are dreams of getting somewhere — and rhetorical performances of getting somewhere — even as they stop short of accomplishing mental travel. Supposedly moving beyond, or burrowing into their chosen words, these lines stall within them. Park’s lines show how the speaker’s voice continues to fall into expressions of disappointment and then erodes within them.
The moods that pervade Park’s poems fall on a spectrum between detached bemusement — as in the lines quoted above — and intense grief. Most of her poems are retroactive accounts of losses and breakups. In some of them, Park’s speaker spirals into half-comic, half-pathetic attempts to distinguish between the truths and lies a former lover told her. In others, she tries to give her frustrations a fragile sense of coherence by expressing them with words beginning with the same two letters (“Ps and Qs”), or containing the same few sounds.
Park’s tone is sadder in her longer poems. The second section of the book consists of a 12-poem cycle in which Park adopts the voices of 12 shape-shifter figures. These figures include the Russian Baba Yaga, the Dogon spirits called Nommo, and a sorceress from the Arabian Nights. Each of them is represented with a single month of the year, progressing from January to December. Through these various voices, Park recounts a succession of disappointments. The poems seem to advance in time, but they ultimately lead nowhere. Full of empty performatives (“I flay the stone in him, the human of him,” says Park’s speaker, and what follows is a blank space), they are the verbal skeletons of an emotional satisfaction in which these poems never completely let themselves believe. Eventually, even Park’s speakers begin to seem like grammatical placeholders: they no longer seem to refer to any concrete subject or occasion. Park’s language expresses a sadness unyoked from any particular context in a way that is at once liberating and claustrophobic.
The last section of The Same-Different, entitled “Fear,” is a long poem cycle broken into untitled page-long sections. These sections catch Park’s speakers at their most vulnerable. Park’s other poems are compact and relatively formal in their structure; these last ones sprawl out in uneven lines scattered across predominantly white pages. They have the air less of a series of verbal conceits than of a diary or a stream-of-consciousness monologue. In this regard, the last section of The Same-Different reads like a gathering of dividends from the two prior ones. Having prepared her reader, in small chunks, for the linguistic terrains of her grief, Park leads us on a long emotional and verbal hike:
It is a fear of rejection
Keeping my cards close.
Do what is needed do you hear me?
Do what is needed.
In another part of her interview with Laser, Park quotes W. H. Auden to describe her poems as trying to “strike for the heart.” In this last section, Park’s ambition to do so is especially present. Generic but insistent on an emotional urgency, her lines seem like the internal physiological communications of a body adjusting and monitoring itself. “It’s only been a day, you say,” Park’s speaker continues on the facing page. “A day plus a night.” Described in such flat, stereotypical language, inward experiences seem at once very intimate and impossibly alienated from the implied mind and body they originate in. Her abstractions sound both like expressions of defeat and a fully satisfying, solipsistic private language. Park’s poems are at their best when they trap us within such paradoxes: making the selves and feelings they describe seem completely undone yet inescapable.
The value of The Same-Different does not lie in its novelty: Park’s insights are refinements and rediscoveries of tropes that the language poets began developing in the 1970s. But Park’s poems do make one feel that this school of poetry is still very much alive. “I watch my language: it seems to be doing OK,” her speaker says at one point. This collection reminds readers of the capaciousness of language poetry’s verbal and emotional range.
Marta Figlerowicz is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale and a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows. Her writing has also appeared or is forthcoming in n+1, Boston Review, Post45 (Contemporaries), Film Quarterly, and elsewhere.