"Believe the Hype": Jeongrye Choi's Instances

by on Feb.26, 2013

OK, I’ve written about Jeongrye Choi’s Instances (trans. Brenda Hillman and Wayne de Fremery) in the past, but I thought I would hype it one more time.
In the interview with Ruth Williams that we published a while back, Jeonrye Choi said:

“Literature is to assign linguistic order after attempting to give new meanings to the things we hardly knew before. At the same time, I believe it reveals the fact that even though we say we know something, we don’t know it very well or we don’t know it at all. I believe it is one of the tasks of poetry to make us recognize that we don’t know what we think we know or that we know it incorrectly, and to make us rethink the matter.”


In the afterwords to the book, this aesthetics of disorientation gets a more visceral, metaphoric explanation, when JC compares reading/writing to a dolphin whose sonars ceases to function causing it to swim up a river, which ultimately leads to its death. In JC’s poems, slight glitches in the speaker’s “sonar” leads to a disorienting experience, one that is beautiful but also grim, gothic and often more than a little disturbing. They also tend to bring in political issues through the backdoor so to speak, generating a kind of “social surrealism” (which is how the chicano art group Asco defined their aesthetic).I like to think of the “instances” of the title as referring to these viscerally disorienting glitches in reality.

For example, I love this poem:


It looked like I was going to buy some meat and was on my way.
Someone said I had to get it from that store.
I went past the fake fish pond behind the church
to arrive at the place
near where Susong kalbi was written,
but that wasn’t it.
I had to go farther.
Where a heap of yellow earth crumbled,
children were catching ants.
Where the ant laid her white eggs,
they were looking for the queen.
One kid touched an ant’s behind to his tongue
and was shuddering.
I was just thinking: I need to get the meat and go home.
Everything was quiet.
Trees leaned over,
as if a big storm were passing through.
Windows were closed soundlessly.
Blood-colored water
flowed in the gutters.
I was on my way to buy meat.
The kids were face down.
They slept,
speechless, blood smeared on their lips.
They were the ones i had seen in the newspaper.
Those who kept the chaff of the rice and wild fruits in their pockets –
someone said they were spies.
I was lost on my way to buy meat
and been captured there too.
I needed to be awakened.
The rain outside –
it was blood-colored.

The glitches/instances in JC’s poems often surprise me. The poems lull me into thinking I’m reading a mundane narrative poem but before I know it, I have slipped from a mundane act of buying meat into a warscape where kids are laying face down. Of course, in the Korean context, the war caused a lot of children to become orphans (and dead), and caused a lot of hunger and starvation.

I’m interested in the way these changes happen often by a moment of intensification – here the way the poem moves inside the mouth of the kid playing with ants (“One kid touched an ants’s behind to his tongue and was shuddering”) seems to cause the brain to become lost like a dolphin without sonars, make her vulnerable to the history of Korean war, and before we know it the kids have smeared faces and are being accused of being “spies.” The world become “blood-colored.”

Something similar happens in another favorite of mine:


The smell escapes from itself
and looks at its body for a long time.

Without revealing its wings
or the sound of their flapping,
its’ the bird the body lets fly out.

Smell is the guide
for the underworld of the thick darkness.

I just baked a mackerel.
The whole house smells.
It hovers
over the kids doing their arithmetic,
and over me, doing the dishes.

I open the window to shoo it away
but it sneaks into the cracks of the dresser drawers and the chink to hide.
It’s so quiet.
It’s so stubborn.
It won’t show the tips of its extended wings after all.

A lead-gray belly blinks as it crosses the ocean –
smell, in the end, flies off.

A coal-like lump flies out
beyond the evening lights.
A dark sky is not far away,

A lof to JC’s poems take place in typically feminine spaces – domestic, cooking, taking care of kids etc – but the glitches of the poetry erupts out of that space. What makes it interesting is that the poems – in this case represented by the smell of the mackerel – comes out of that space, but it also ruins it: “The smell escapes from itself.”

And like the meat poem, this eruption, this glitch is not necessarily – or ever – liberatory. Here it lead us into the the thickly mediumistic underworld, and across the seas (to America?) in a “coal-like lump” of an airplane (ie one that will likely plummet!).

This fish-bird hybrid of the metaphor’s vehicle troubles boundaries like Kristeva has written about the abject and hybrid. But it’s important that the pun of “sae” (“bird”) and “namsae” (“smell”) is what starts the flight of underworld fancy; language is what leads JC’s speaker astray, ruins her happy home for the sake of the underworld, Art.

In some ways this thickly mediumistic smell that leads her into art’s underworld reminds me of Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”… But, well, it’s a mackerel not wine that leads the flight of fancy…

1 comment for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    Very beautiful, startling poems here. I like the way “Smell” doesn’t make sensory experiences into something comfortable, familiar, “mine” so to speak. It reminds me how in Proust the sensory experiences unfold of a logic of their own, and the writer is simply going along taking notes, reading the signs, as Barthes might say. “Smell is the guide / for the underworld of the thick darkness” — really wonderful!