Sun Yung Shin dedicates her revelatory fourth collection, "The Wet Hex," to those "cast away," using a verb to remind readers that abandonment is an action imbued with intention and responsibility. In the formally innovative poems that follow, she demonstrates that castaways generate unique and vital knowledge from the obscure margins they have been consigned to.
As in her previous collections, Shin explores the particular knowledge generated by the orphan forced to re-construct a self after the disorientation of transnational adoption. She notes, "Most borders make orphans." In one poem, she puzzles over the results of a commercial DNA test in an abecedarian that formally evokes "genealogical disruption's (in)ability" in fragmentary lines in which contradictions co-exist.
Shin cites capaciously, bringing in Herman Melville, Rainer Maria Rilke and Korean burial rites. In a stunning collaboration with abstract artist Jinny Yu, they retell the Korean myth of Baridegi, a powerful healer abandoned as an infant because of her gender. Despite this betrayal, she returns home to save her father's life. "The body of a child is both a debt and a time machine."
As a time machine, the body holds both ancestral knowledge and trauma: "My body is a kind of necropolitan cradle, a museum blazing on the inside of the world's last night circus." Like time machines, these poems also project us into the future, using the past as a resource to create materials for survival. Shin acknowledges "this wound is my latest resort," and urges, "give birth to bruises and poetry." Refusing the separation of the mind and the body, Shin writes of the "skeleton inside us like a second person. The marrow thinking its rich red thoughts."
Their direct and incantatory language lends Shin's poems a mythic quality, even when not directly referencing ancient tales. In "The Wolveish Forage" she celebrates the "poetics of wolveish space" in which a wolf pack "gnaws on a manuscript of organs," feasting on the body's deep well of language.
She folds references to Old English and mentions of the Pliocene mass extinction event that happened some 5 million years ago into startling descriptions of the catastrophes of the present. She examines the "wreck of human invention" left by "modernity ... a rust factory."
In these poems, museums and archives appear to hold what we've already lost. She asks what's the difference between "a tomb and a museum" with taxidermized dodos.
Shin draws a surprising 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 on the age of annihilation.
In that apocalyptic landscape, Shin evinces a deep care for the dead and a call to preserve the living. Looking at a mass grave, she reflects, "I would like to touch every face / 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 vital knowledge.
Elizabeth Hoover is the author of "The Archive Is All in Present Tense," forthcoming from Barrow Street Books in October, and is an assistant professor of creative writing at Webster University.
The Wet Hex
By: Sun Yung Shin.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 120 pages, $16.95.
Events: Book launch June 14, Moon Palace Books, with Michael Kleber-Diggs and Heid Erdrich; 6 p.m. June 16, Next Chapter Books, St. Paul, with Chavonn Williams Shen.