Sueyeun Juliette Lee
reviewed by Steven Karl
Underground National by Sueyeun Juliette Lee (Factory School, 2010)
Myung Mi Kim writes in Penury "the place I'm from is no longer on any map." Place—both as a geographical and emotional landscape—is a primary conceit in Sueyeun Juliette Lee's brilliant second book, Underground National. One of the more intriguing factors about Lee's poetry is the way she conflates images and language to thrust the reader into a space of indeterminacies. We are confronted with the mathematics of bodies being (mis)governed, as well as the inability to attach concrete definitions to both people and situations. As Lee's words struggle, search, prod, and probe, we are forced to decipher what it means to be human and all the codifications that come with existing in a world filled with violence, greed, and damaging political ideologies.
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." ("Korea, What is")
A kite is an ornamental object held by a human hand yet soaring to heights unreachable in our bodies. Lee interweaves the location of the sky with those of the ground, " * Chemical production sites. / + Biological weapons sites. / - Uranium enrichment sites. / would they fight if there were an unforeseen rebellion?" The next canto further explicates the kite imagery:
Kite: 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. ("Korea, What is")
Once Assata Shakur was safely out of the United States and exiled in Cuba someone asked her how it felt to be free and she replied, "Freedom! You askin' me about freedom. Askin' me about freedom? I'll be honest with you. I know a whole more about what freedom isn't than about what it is…" Lee works within the same dialectic, "cast free but held." Much of Lee's poems examine the states of inbetweeness— this desire to be free but the inevitability to define or redefine an identity either in or against the structure of power's eyes.
In Frantz Fanon's Black Skin White Masks he writes, ""To speak . . . means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization." Underground National is occupied with searchers bearing the weight of civilization and culture. As with Lee's previous collection, That Gorgeous Feeling, the poet once again examines pop culture as a partial representation of the citizens' pulse. Lee writes about the death of Korean Boy Band member, Lee Seo Hyun, "And the celebrity suicides continue in 2008. M Street's member Lee Seo Hyun (30), was discovered hanging from his neck, on 12/1 at 4:30pm KST…" ("Korea, What is"). Lee expertly mixes in snippets of reports, "the suicide capital of Asia, is moving to ban search engines from excepting search queries such as, 'suicide,' 'suicide methods,' 'group suicide, and other terms pertaining to" (Korea, What is"). What happens when language is banned and a national identity is affixed?
In the book's second poem (the book consist of six long poems), "Underground National (a priori" Lee writes:
Isn't that the home we tend garden of spilt teeth the wordy dialects we send underground? And by dialect, to indicate that very thing both home and foreign what marks you safe but also alien— All porous confines confound, perhaps. A ray of light. A sting.
Much of the tension throughout this collection of poems is the realization of how being marked one thing "female," "male," "Asian," "military" can bring comfort from within the confines of those that also have the same words affixed to them, but how these same words can cause alienation from those that do not fit into these definitions or those that apply these identity constructs as blanket stereotypes. "THE BENEFIT OF HAVING A HUMAN BODY," examines the complexity of pinning a place or definition, or destination such as there, "When we talk about going there, it is with the tacit acknowledgement/ that 'there' is not a space. By going 'there' we mean a psychological location…". Then the following poem continues, "If I suppose 'there' as another word for night, or what the sun can't touch, or the things that are occluded to us in a variety of periodizations and unruly circumstances…" In these poems the landscapes exist, the geographic locations can be marked on a map, but these poems explore what the effects are when this place, for better or worse, becomes a part of you and you become a part of its identity and culture. One must then go to an internal place, a place that cannot be mapped. One must psychologically sort out the manifestations of the physical.
Underground National is a fierce exploration into nations, identification and the need to maintain a sense of humanity in the face of an ever-shifting and often destructive world.
You would say it is grounded in the sun. I pin it up to flight. What
light makes visible, but currents transport elsewhere buried under
rock. Are these divergences so different. I am not writing about a
release. The body stabilizes as a form of brightness, heat. The
quantities arising as fingers and eyelashes are held for a breath,
As though history conquers—in some instances, it evades or slips
past. The origins of a national boundary—a stain.