Reviewed by Thomas Fink
Underground National, Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s second book, consists of six sizeable poems, the two shortest of which each span six pages. The book’s dedication casts what follows in a political frame: “For all who’ve suffered the multi-generational consequences of nation-building. May the shapes of the future arise from a renewed imagination.” Specifically referring to the two postcolonial Koreas, their diaspora, and the dream of reunification, the poet probes facets of this suffering and its complex causes, harbingers of renewal, and questions about how “shapes of” a better “future” are thwarted or cultivated.
The opening poem, “Korea, What Is,” spans 34 pages, each one featuring a unit or two of prose blocks, verse, or computer photo. Lee’s “Notes to the Text” speaks of a “density of materials” that found their way into this poem and documents source texts ranging from the CIA’s World Factbook, news articles in The New York Times and Time, global affairs experts’ editorial texts, blogs and other websites, and postcolonial scholarship. Frequently, “texts” have been “altered. . . through erasure, lineation, or rewrites of short phrases.” Lee’s collage method sometimes presents various attempts in the source texts to say “What” “Korea” “Is,” and sometimes pulverizes them beyond ready contextualization. Further, the juxtaposition of disparate points of view undermines the ability of premature, rigid, narrow, or ahistorical definitions of a people or a political structure to gain authority.
Regarding the movement toward a desired collapse of the current North Korean regime and possible reunification, the poet cites a prediction involving seven phases, with three of them missing:
Phase one: resource depletion.
Phase two: infrastructural failure.
Phase five: active resistance.
Phase seven: the formation of a new national leadership.
These omissions suggest the poet’s resistance to any U.S. pundits’ smug graphing of precisely how the fate of both Koreas and possibilities of reunification will “play out.” While an end to the military dictatorship of Kim Jong-Il and his family is surely a desirable outcome, there is no guarantee that “a new national leadership” would be a distinct improvement.
South Korea’s vulnerability, of course, is not confined to the North, but also involves its position on the world stage. At various points in the poem, there are allusions to South Koreans’ mistrust of U.S. military presence in their nation: “’whose armored vehicle crushed two schoolgirls to death.” One passage actually comes from a New York Times article about incidents early in the Korean War: “who won a warm spot in the hearts of the populace when he entered this capital as a liberator nearly three months ago, now is regarded with suspicion by many.” For 60 years, doubts about U.S. intervention in Korean affairs have surfaced, and this must be particularly unsettling for a poet of Korean descent who was born and has always lived in the U.S. A noted Korean farmer-activist and martyr, Lee Kyung Hae, is quoted as declaring that “human beings are in an endangered situation” because “a small number of big WTO members are leading an undesirable globalization. . .”
It is arguable, perhaps, that Lee presents multinational corporate platforms enabling Korean youths to fashion a semblance of identity and a tacit sharing of national pride on the basis of culture: “Kim Tae Yeon is “Single” Again Girls’/ Generation leader and I got konglish lyrics. . ./ about to take a drastic change as a viable option/ for Kangin Come Party with Se7en in Atlanta/ featuring Lil Kim/ through a fancam at the Gimpo Airport. . . ./ Kim Yoo Jin Joins After School + Diva Teaser.” However, such collages can also underscore the triviality and ephemeral quality of pop cultural topoi fostered by Web 2.0’s blinding speed, as well as the implication of a widening generation gap—hardly conducive to national unity.
Various references to the suicides of pop stars, a former South Korean President, and “’the suicide capital of Asia’” indicate that social and economic pressures—and perhaps the very problems of national identity and nation-building—are troubling the mental health of the more prosperous Korea’s citizens: “Lee Seo Hyun left a note saying sorry to his parents as well as to his fellow church-mates. The reason for his suicide: failed stock investments, a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of borrowed money”; “’But Teacher! What if you have so many money in debt and not good job? Then maybe making suicide is best choice’.” The false plural “many” in the borrowed language of world commerce underscores a threatening destabilization of currency’s unitary flow.
One might be buoyed by “a ‘united Korean anthem’ created by blending the melodies of the nations’ anthems seamlessly. . . to promote Korean re-unification.” However, any idealism risks corruption, as Lee indicates on a page near the end of the poem by interspersing snippets of Kim Jong-Il’s Juche (self-reliance) philosophy about “man’s” “position and role as dominator and transformer of the world,” the narrative of a young woman’s abduction by an older man, and a theorization of “the spread of a political order,” colonialism, as inscribing “in the social world a new conception of space, new forms of personhood, and a new means of manufacturing the experience of the real.” Though homegrown, Kim Jong Il’s “manufacture” of “the experience of the real” for his citizens might be as masculinist and coercive as that of the colonial powers that preceded him, and indeed, he probably learned strategies of control from the occupiers.
Perhaps to signal aspirations, there are images floating through different parts of the poem (and returning twice in a later poem) of kites, which were used by the Korean hero Admiral Yi to relay information that helped turn back a Japanese naval assault in the late 16th century. Lee makes the kite a trope for the longing for a liminal experience:
A cross-kite. My link to the sky, pinned up into wafting blueness there. Grafted together, folded like a paper coat, a hidden oath like a never worn golden ring. Wait—I thought this was the beginning of my skin. ‘[T]hat may be an indication of what lies ahead.”
Kites: between two impossible states. A tug and pull enforced by sky’s restless dreaming, contrary wakefulness of earth, nerve-like. Flicker feeling in the flesh, cast free but held.
In these passages, among the most lyrical in a poem incorporating disparate kinds of discourse, the “link to the sky” seems a desire for access to a space that affords the imaginative reconstruction of a homeland for diasporic subjects. This includes finding an opportunity to pledge fealty to a nation, to wear a precious token of fidelity, but this is difficult if the terms of the “oath” or “vow” are unknown. These subjects exist in the “impossible state” of disjunction between their own lived experience and that of their ancestors’ existence in a nation-“state” that is “impossible” to re-enter, as postcolonial history has changed it so extensively. To relinquish tense “wakefulness” on earth and to surrender to the kite’s “dream” of travel to origins may seem available in the “flicker feeling in the flesh,” captured by alliterative frissons. However, the phrase, “cast free but held,” reminds us that the kite will not transport the body; the individual will either limit the kite’s trajectory or will let it go and see what happens. “Korea, What Is” does not anchor “Korea” to any definition. Various scraps of definition and processes of de-definition are held aloft to catch divergent “winds.”
Another potent poem of nation-probing is “(the underground national didn’t blow up) for want of love.” In this text, short and medium-sized paragraphs tend to be the norm, with lines of verse used more infrequently. The title foregrounds ambiguity. If parentheses are seen to separate the title’s two units, it suggests two divergent themes of a near-explosion and something occurring due to lack of love. And perhaps the reversal of where parentheses usually go—around a second phrase or clause—emphasizes this doubleness. However, if we read a continuity into the two parts of the title, then we may assume that a blow-up has occurred despite the existence of love. Further, “underground national,” the book’s title, seems to signify Kim Jong Il’s “nation-building” gesture of staging “an underground nuclear explosion near P’unggye on October 9, 2006,” as the Korean Central News Agency reported, and yet “underground” also suggests a covert resistance to Kim’s regime.
The poem supports this ambiguity by interspersing images that might relate to the problems of love relationships with fragments hinting at numerous aspects of the explosion and contexts surrounding it:
A plenary approach between two foreign bodies, what the sky dreamed as we all fell still. Confluence of isolations, most certain. I am confused, dumbstruck ((deadly pale))—it tickles when I touch you there, there. “I am not quite comfortable.”
“was born into this system and is in a sense a prisoner of it himself”
A tectonic pulse, another way to imagine a breach, or what else stands against the DMZ.
Intimately placed “bodies” and nations are “foreign” to and perhaps “’not quite comfortable’” with one another. Love is “explosive,” not only in an orgasmic sense, but in the vulnerability it creates. The pulsing “underground” of each lover’s unconscious encourages one “to imagine a breach” with consciousness and a “DMZ” thwarting mutual recognition of the unconscious impulses of the two. Subterranean communication disrupts the best intentioned efforts of conscious dialogue. Perhaps lovers are “born into [a] system” of signification that may imprison them in a paradoxical “confluence of isolations.”
The most obvious subject of the quoted fragment in the middle of the passage above is Kim Jong-Il, who inherited power from his father and might not have insight about how to transform his “system” into something that would diminish the culture of fear and improve the country’s dire economic situation. Further, he may not know how to communicate with the international community (or with the South) in a less reactive, more nuanced way than flexing nuclear muscles.
By placing in relation numerous sub-contexts within the situation of the underground explosion, Lee suggests that provisional understanding of the historical dynamic comprises a resistance to any conceptual reduction. She gives us indications of the violence of the explosion, its impact on local citizens who “had no idea anything was wrong” and on the environment, the sense in the North of “a slow starvation on a mass scale” yet “no sign of a verging popular revolt,” the North Korean government’s assertion that the explosion constitutes “’a great leap forward in the building of a great prosperous powerful socialist nation’” and “an ‘historic event that brought happiness to our military and people’,” and international responses and forecasts of reprisals: “’and the international community will respond’”; “risking even further isolation.” Attention to all these particulars is neither partisan nor disinterested; Lee evinces a distinct love for future realizations of the “national” through “underground” and gradually unearthed speculation and action. To return to the dedication with which I began, brutal power relations involved in colonial and neocolonial “nation-building” is precisely what the movement toward critical articulation of the national intends to overcome.
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