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What We’re Reading: Rough, and Savage

2012 November 15

What We're Reading

Check back tomorrow for an interview with Sun Yung Shin in The Writing Life column!

The poems In Sun Yung Shin’s second collection, Rough, and Savage (Coffee House Press, 2012), are more focused and more ambitious than her fascinating and strong debut, Skirt Full of Black (Coffee House Press, 2006). Revisiting many of the themes from Skirt Full of Black, Shin takes us further into the realm of myth, exploring the history of Korea and the people who have inhabited and ruled it. Blending academic research with her own composed text, Shin calls our attention to the erasures in history—erasures both deliberate and unconscious.

Shin moves past the traditional lyric and into mythic realms almost immediately, opening the book with an epigraph from Robert Pinsky’s verse translation of Dante’s Inferno. In fact, the epigraph contains the title of Shin’s collection, placing the book squarely in Dante’s shadow. The first line of the opening poem, “Beggar } Chooser { Beggar” begins the journey-epic: “Was the first to cross over a woman, curious, or alone[.]” The line launches us into a collection full of divisions and crossings over. Each subsequent section of the collection begins with a further epigraph from Pinsky’s Inferno translation, moving the epic through the geography, both literal and figurative, of Korea and Shin’s experience of Korea. In the context of The Inferno, Shin is our Virgil, albeit a guide who is exploring and questioning even as she explains.

The lyric poem is not forgotten in Rough, and Savage despite how indebted the collection is to epic and journey poems. A lyric poem can highlight gaps in a narrative and focus on single images in ways that an epic cannot and those gaps are never more apparent than in the pair of “REDACTION” poems from the fabulous sixth section of the book. In both of the poems, Shin cuts words and phrases from the CIA World Factbook entries on North and South Korea leaving huge blank spaces on the page. This act of erasing further divides the countries within themselves, not just from one another. The eight poems that follow are Shin’s attempt to fill those gaps, highlighting spaces and places, in contemporary Korea, especially women in those spaces, and how the spaces and people interact with history.

Shin interacts with that history in a slightly different way throughout the book, pulling quotes and text from a variety of sources as an entrance into Korea. If Shin is our guide then research is her compass. Poems such as “American Missionary,” “Best Protect: Clippings,” and “Coal and Iron and Gold” have other sources woven so expertly into them that picking out the fragments is difficult, if not impossible. Only when Shin quotes directly does the reader realize that there are, indeed, outside sources. Take, for instance, the opening of “The Labor of Childhood”:

“The passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation.”

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces


dream, arrival, a fist filled, the tools of one’s future—

ink stamp, coin, horsehair brush.

A full page and a half of endnotes follow the collection, including links to online articles the reader can access on their own to illuminate the book further.

Towards the end of the collection, Shin quotes Percival Lowell, “a counselor and foreign secretary to the Korean Special Mission to the United States,” as he is described in Shin’s acknowledgements. Lowell, writing home, says, “Even as I write, Korea has ceased to exist.” For Shin, however, Korea is still very much alive. Shin’s ambitious and complicated text takes on the complexities of Korean history, exposing what was hidden and, in doing so, exposing the fact that much more has been erased and obscured. While cerebral and dense, Rough, and Savage features moments of lyrical intensity and beautiful images that make Korea come alive for the reader, despite what Percival Lowell wrote on the subject.


Editor’s Note: Today is Give to the Max Day here in Minnesota! Consider giving a little to your favorite Minnesota-based literary organizations even if you don’t live here: 

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