Sun Yung Shin’s Poems Explore The World Of Transnational Adoption In “The Wet Hex”


book review

Sun Yung Shin dedicates his revealing fourth collection, “The Wet Hex,” to those who are “rejected,” using a verb to remind readers that surrender is an action with intention and responsibility. In the formally innovative poems that follow, she demonstrates that the castaways generate unique and vital knowledge from the dark margins to which they have been relegated.

As in his previous collections, Shin explores the particular knowledge generated by the orphan forced to rebuild after the disorientation of transnational adoption. She notes that “most borders make orphans”. In a poem, she wonders about the results of a commercial DNA test in an alphabet book which formally evokes the “(in)aptitude” of genealogical disturbance in fragmentary lines where contradictions coexist.

Shin quotes extensively, involving Herman Melville, Rainer Maria Rilke and Korean funeral rites. In a stunning collaboration with abstract artist Jinny Yu, they tell the Korean myth of Baridegi, a powerful healer who was abandoned as a child because of her gender. Despite this betrayal, she returns home to save her father’s life. “A child’s body is both a debt and a time machine.”

A time machine, the body holds both ancestral knowledge and trauma: “My body is a kind of necropolitan cradle, a flamboyant museum inside the circus of the last night of the world. Like time machines, these poems also project us into the future, using the past as a resource to create materials for survival. Shin acknowledges that “this wound is my last resort”, and urges, “to breed bruises and poetry”. Refusing the separation of mind and body, Shin writes of the “skeleton inside us as a second person. The marrow thinking its rich red thoughts.

Their direct, incantatory language gives Shin’s poems a mythical quality, even when they don’t refer directly to ancient tales. In “The Wolveish Forage,” she celebrates the “poetics of wolf space” in which a pack of wolves “gnaw through an organ manuscript,” feasting on the deep well of body language.

She mixes Old English references and mentions of the Pliocene mass extinction event that happened around 5 million years ago into startling descriptions of the disasters of the present. She examines “the wreckage of human invention” left by “modernity… a rusting factory”.

In these poems, museums and archives seem to hold what we have already lost. She asks what is the difference between “a tomb and a museum” with taxidermied dodos.

Shin draws an amazing line of solidarity between humans and the animal kingdom: the placenta. She writes, “The blue whale, the bumblebee bat, and you and I are placental mammals,” all teetering in the age of annihilation.

In this apocalyptic landscape, Shin demonstrates a deep concern for the dead and a call to preserve the living. Looking at a mass grave, she reflects, “I wish I touched all faces / None exactly the same.” She also offers these words as “an army of /alphabets to keep us warm at night” as a castaway returning with life-saving knowledge.

“The Wet Spell”

Sun Yung Shin, Coffee House Press, 120 pages, $16.95

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