TO DESIGNATE A WORK of literature “experimental” is to risk calling up so many associations and avenues of interpretation as to render that label at least as impenetrable as it is illuminating. Yet Sun Yung Shin’s third poetry collection, the strange and captivating hybrid Unbearable Splendor, is animated by a spirit of irrepressible experimentation in the sense that the scientific definition of the word “experiment” means simply “a procedure undertaken to make a discovery.”
Propelled by a desire to push form and language to their limits in order to test various hypotheses and make discoveries about identity, immigration, and big ideas from black holes to Borges, Shin’s book as a whole and the methods she uses to create it call to mind an analogy she made in an interview with the Twin Cities Daily Planet. “Poetry,” she said, “is like stem cells, […] universal and full of potential to become anything.” This flexibility and willingness to interrogate even what poetry and art themselves consist of make Unbearable Splendor read like an irresistible invitation to test out and redefine notions of race, gender, and the rules that govern everything from creative writing to the political economy.
Both of the book’s epigraphs suggest that the reader ought to maintain a mind of science fiction as much as of science. The first comes from “A Cyborg Manifesto” by Donna Haraway, and states:
The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence […] Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden […] The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust […] The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring.
The second, much shorter epigraph is drawn from the 1982 dystopian sci-fi-noir movie Blade Runner, and quotes Roy Batty, leader of the rebellious Nexus-6 Replicants: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”
These notions of partiality and perversity weave in and out of the opening prose piece, “Valley, Uncanny,” which includes an anecdote pertaining to the speaker’s adoption: “I was an uncanny guest. Two years old. A week after arrival from Korea, a brother, born in America, asked, ‘When is she going back?’ Like the heavenly maiden with too many children to carry, too many holes to go back t(w)here.” Typical of Shin’s gift for blending theory and abstraction with lived experience, the first page of this prose poem/essay concludes, “There is a limit to canniness, but not to being uncanny.” The piece contains both references to the astronomical phenomenon of black holes, and also to moments that might read as a kind of hole, or gap, to a non-Korean-speaking reader in the shape of the several Korean words Shin uses throughout. The subsequent two pages explore this sense of displacement and space with side-by-side diagrams of the continuum of the “uncanny valley,” one in English and one in Korean, before continuing on the next page with the assertion that “To many immigrants, exiles, and pseudo-exiles, back becomes a manifold; space and time — an asymmetrical nonevent.” Here and throughout, she juxtaposes lineated poetry with paragraphs and single-sentence stanzas, making dynamic use of white space, lists, and even typesetting as when she ends the piece with the unpunctuated non-ending,
T h e r e i s n o e n d
thereby visually and verbally representing the uncanny on-goingness of exile the piece takes as one of its many subjects.
Born in South Korea and adopted when she was an infant to an American family in Chicago, Shin is the author of the poetry collections Rough, and Savage (Coffee House, 2012) and Skirt Full of Black (Coffee House, 2007), which won the 2008 Asian American Literary Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She’s also the co-editor of the 2006 anthology Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption. In Unbearable Splendor, she establishes and writes from her authority as a transracial and transnational adoptee through a compelling blend of historical fact, personal narrative, and documentary techniques.
In “Exactly Like You,” she martials statistics to make her points, writing, “Our country, a people with a continuous history of over five thousand years, has been left divided since the end of the Korean War, that peninsula-wide trauma that resulted in tens of thousands of children being made available for adoption to the West.” And in the following piece, “Harness,” she writes, chillingly, “At seven months old, I became the chief and sole member of (my new branch of) the Shin family.” To concretize this feeling that, as she so aptly puts it, “We are a colony of one,” she includes an image of an actual typewritten page from the “orphan hojuk,” the family registry which made it possible for such children to be made legally available for intercountry adoption.
Fittingly, then, identity and its construction and transmission through language and culture appear in piece after piece, providing a through-line for this voracious and wide-ranging collection. In a 2015 interview conducted on the occasion of her receiving a 2014–2015 McKnight Artist Fellowship, Shin said,
I don’t know that I would be a writer if I weren’t an Asian American immigrant, and a person of color raised in a white family. Because growing up and still now, there’s no language to express my experiences. I don’t see my values or political commitments depicted in mass media or visual culture. I feel very invisible. But I think that the erasure and silence can be a really powerful ongoing force for writers and artists because we want to create something out of all that.
With this collection, Shin undoubtedly does create something out of all of that. In doing so, she joins the exhilarating ranks of poets who cross the borders of genre to use poetry/the lyric as essay, including Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Elisa Gabbert, Juliana Spahr, and Jenny Boully to name a few. Throughout the book, Shin cuts across boundaries to assay both intellectually and emotionally such binaries as personal versus public history, insider versus outsider, native versus immigrant, and humanity versus technology.
One gathers quickly that this is not a book to disappear into or get lost in — it requires alertness and makes the reader work hard to help the author close the circuit of communication and create meaning. This is not a criticism, but a compliment. Shin’s writing is dense and rich and hard to read straight through in one go, and might be better read in smaller bursts, reading a piece and then pausing to let it sink in before moving to the next.
In the piece entitled “The Hospitality of Strangers,” Shin intersperses the etymology of the word “guest” throughout the various sections. If to read a book is to make oneself a guest of the author, then the definition of guest most applicable to spending time in Shin’s collection is, as the piece puts it, “the root sense, according to watkins, probably is ‘someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality.’” In Unbearable Splendor, reciprocity is a must. The reader who expects to share in the labor and be open to foregrounding the idea of reading as “a mutual exchange relationship” will likely have the most rewarding experience.
Shin’s book’s superlative title demands that the mind take notice, Unbearable Splendor standing as a deliberate paradox designed, perhaps, to make the reader think about what she wants and what she might get. Splendor, yes please, but more than can be borne? Well …
The splendor on display in Shin’s book consists of an incredibly compact use of commanding and vibrant language which coheres into work that feels restless and deft, as cerebral as it is emotional. In her author statement, she writes that this book, like her previous two, is about, “obscured or disrupted genealogies, the struggle with authorities, banishment, colonization, punishment, objectifying one’s self as The Stranger, and highly mediated relations between human beings, whether that’s religion, government, or technology.”
Each of these themes comes through complexly yet clearly, even as the genres of the pieces themselves perpetually shift and blend. In “The Other Asterion, or, The Minotaur’s Sacrifice (A Story),” a disconcerting reimagining of the familiar myth of the labyrinth, for instance, Shin expands the ideas of struggle and banishment to a mind-boggling scope: “I am a guard at an unusual prison. In fact, it is the only prison in the world, or the universe for that matter. Actually, I will admit to you, reader, that this prison is indeed the universe itself.” This piece really is a story, as are several others in the collection.
Yet, disorienting and multivalent, the pieces seem simultaneously as concerned with forms and language as they are with narrative. The piece “Autoclonography,” for example — a meditation on cloning and its ramifications in 10 numbered passages of prose blocks — comes with the head note that it is “for performance.” And the piece “In the Other Future,” which consists of 17 numbered stanzagraphs, opens with a reproduction of a postcard featuring Valeda, the transparent anatomical manikin that Shin saw on display as a child during her visits to the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in suburban Hinsdale, Illinois.
Here and throughout, Shin combines poetry and essay, obviously, but the result resembles yet another genre: cinema. Like a film, the book is built on cuts and splices, montages comprised of smaller frames in the interest of creating various contingencies, juxtapositions, and alternate realities in order to make as many tools for structural innovation available to her, the author, as possible.
She opens the piece “Paradise” with a map of Dante’s Paradise and Inferno by Michelangelo Caetani, dating from 1855, which was altered with the addition of frames by John Coulthart in the 21st century. The piece takes the reader on a tour of the nine depicted “spheres” before arriving at “The Empyrean,” where: “Time is now inside me, transfer and possession, never holding anything back, indifferent to my illegitimacy, disinterested in my grief, pierced with all of my joy” and where there is, “Inside me, a second, better person, furnished with perfect recall — my convict, my warden, my guest, my host.” Both the opening image and the piece itself showcase the best of what Shin’s approach to experimentation has to offer: a chance to revisit received truths and ideas from the past with new eyes, and a way to chart new paths forward into heretofore largely unmapped realms of thought and being.
Shin cites among her many and varied influences for the book Franz Kafka, her fellow contemporary poet Kim Hyesoon, Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, and Sophocles’s Antigone; with the latter, she goes so far as to test the hypothesis, “Is Antigone the original cyborg?” The book’s “References” section, which contains her works cited, reads like a glorious hybrid of the syllabus for a class you’d love to take and a list of book and movie recommendations from one of your coolest and most brainy friends.
Shin also cites Julia Kristeva’s essay “By What Right Are You a Foreigner?” extensively before the piece “The Error of Blood Relation.” In this essay, Kristeva asserts that the figure of the foreigner, “underscores the limits of nation-states and of the national political conscience that characterizes them and that we have all deeply interiorized to the point of considering it normal that there are foreigners, that is, people who do not have the same rights as we do.”
After you finish Unbearable Splendor, you might find yourself questioning your own deeply interiorized ideologies. And then you might pick up Shin’s previous books, as well as the titles from her “References” list to further challenge and experiment with those beliefs in the interest of coming up with more splendid ways to think and to be.
A founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, Kathleen Rooney is the co-editor of Rene Magritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) and her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in January 2017.