“Unbearable Splendor,” by Sun Yung Shin. (Coffee House Press, 119 pages, $16.)
In her third book of poetry, Sun Yung Shin investigates how to construct a self as a displaced person. She mines literature, science fiction, myth and science in her obsessive examinations of family, identity and the significance of being an immigrant, or being “potential enemies as well as guests.”
It is a difficult task, and sometimes the author corrects herself, leaving crossed-out words on the page as a record of her process.
“Unbearable Splendor” quotes canonical writers such as Luis Borges and Sophocles, as well as science fiction films “Bladerunner” and “Alien.”
Shin’s project is scholarly and personal. Born in Korea, she was raised by adoptive parents in the U.S. She was “abandoned and then re-en-familied, re-kinned,” rendering her “no longer recognizable.” “If no one speaks our language, who are we?”
The question of the adoptee’s identity is creative; it is “a form of ongoing transit and re-territory, a re-form.”
The idiosyncrasies of Korean law required Shin to be registered with a family before being adopted. She includes a facsimile of the document registering her a member of a new family, a family of one.
Shin writes, “We are a copy and an original,” employing the first-person collective as she often does throughout the book. The self contains many selves, “I spent sixteen years living with American parents./They are inside me now, they are my guests.”
This collective concept of identity explains Shin’s fascination with clones, potential antidotes to the loneliness of the orphan: “There will never be one knife or one self — knives selves doesn’t that sound better we are better together — we won’t need the word I anymore.” As selves proliferate, they become “drunk on togetherness.”
She also considers the cyborg, a hybrid mechanical and biological creature. “Unbearable Splendor” is itself a hybrid of poetry and prose, text and image, fiction and reportage. The reader must encounter it without the help of genre-based reading conventions.
While unabashedly scholarly, “Unbearable Splendor” is heartbreaking. The reader witnesses an orphaned individual urgently trying to position herself in the world and constantly failing, though there is something productive in the trying. She is “abandoned, a student of ourself, a stranger, a double, one disowned and re-owned, winged, made of polished horn, in debt, haunted by guilt, monstrous, arbitrary, punished, rewarded, nameless, and renamed.”
Sun Yung Shin will read at 7 p.m. Oct. 12 at Moon Palace Books, Mpls., with Heid Erdrich and Roy Guzmán.
“The Sky Watched: Poems of Ojibwe Lives,” by Linda LeGarde Grover. (Red Mountain Press, 85 pages, $18.95.)
From 1870 to 1975, the Bureau of Indian Affairs forced some 100,000 American Indian children into boarding schools, often through violence.
In her debut poetry collection, Linda LeGarde Grover writes in the voices of family members who survived these brutal places.
She writes achingly about children separated from family, watching in bus windows the “reversal of heart’s order/reel after reel reflected in the glass.” At home, mothers carry the “full-blown bloom of [their] hearts/damp on a dark cotton dress sleeve.”
Students are told: “Forget the language of your grandparents. It is dead. If you are heard speaking it you will kneel on a navy bean for one hour.” Grover repeats images, including that of the navy bean, to capture the drudgery and constant violence of these schools.
Also a fiction writer, she relies on the significance of the narrative rather than on poetic techniques.
Her formal innovation is to include poems written partly or completely in Ojibwe. In a collection about the systematic eradication of Indian language, this subtly tells a powerful story about resistance and survival.
Grover will read at 7 p.m. Oct. 12 at Bockley Gallery, Mpls., with Jim Bettendorf, Leslie Mattoon-Flynn and Venessa Fuentes. Hosted by Birchbark Books.
“Tanka & Me,” by Kaethe Schwehn. (Brain Mill Press, 58 pages, $14.95.)
In her chapbook, Kaethe Schwehn names the narrator’s wild muse or alter ego Tanka, a traditional Japanese poetic form. How Japanese poetry fits into this project is a mystery. However, the language is so seductive that it hardly matters.
The narrator of these poems is “a Midwestern white girl” who is “deathly afraid” of being normal and unsure about her fiancé: “I love a man but maybe not enough.”
She invents Tanka to transport her from her banal life. Tanka “snaps her fingers and there you are upon/a boat.” Unlike the narrator, Tanka is a doer, defined by vibrant verbs. She “butts through the doors,” chooses “the boxcar full of ferns” and rips “chives/out of their earthen sockets.”
When her lover proposes, Tanka had to “bark out sharply/no and bite him on the earlobe, hard.” She isn’t rejecting him; rather, she rejects notions of what love should look like and how women should behave.
Tanka is pure possibility, and through her we can find our own way to a place where “All the doors are open. All the doors are opening.”
Elizabeth Hoover is a poet and writer in Pittsburgh.