I want to note before I dig into this month’s dispatch that I have a fairly in-depth essay about my relationship to reading that will go out to paying subscribers next week. I mention it because it’s the kind of thing that only feels possible to write in this kind of setting—I can’t imagine trying to pitch it to any online outlet or expand it into some kind of formal personal essay. Which is also a way of saying, thank you for being here and reading this. There’s a button below if you’d like to subscribe to the paid newsletter.
Moon Bo Young’s English-language debut, Pillar of Books, published in English earlier this spring by Black Ocean Books, won the Kim Soo-young Prize in Korea in 2017. Kim Soo-young was a 20th Century poet known for being part of a group of writers that attempted to move Korean poetry away from some of its more traditional leanings, incorporating more surreal images and gestures and a conversational style to address social and political issues. Pillar of Books is in a clear lineage with Kim’s: Moon Bo Young’s poems are, in Hedgie Choi’s translation, conversational, irreverent, and often strange.
Irreverence is the kind of thing that can make a piece of art feel trivial or fluffy, which also makes it an exceptional tool when deployed well, as Moon does in Pillar of Books. Her serious inquiries into the nature of God and death sneak up behind a veil of playfulness. The opening lines of the first poem in the collection, “Down Jacket God,” are exemplary:
God wears a massive down jacket. Humans are the countless duck feathers trapped inside, the poet writes. Sometimes a feather pokes out. God plucks it carelessly. That's what people call death.
The poem—and book—open with an odd, rather delightful, image before taking the image to its conclusion in a series of simple sounding sentences that belie the scope of their concern: an attempt to understand death and the afterlife. From here, the absurdity abounds, by turns funny and sinister. “My eyes open every day, and I nightmare / diligently,” begins one poem.
“Down Jacket God” also invokes another of Pillar of Books’s themes, that of writing, reading, and creation. Tucked at the end of the second sentence, almost a throwaway, is the phrase “the poet writes.” It’s unclear if this is meant to point back to Moon herself or to another poet, even a fictional poet. In these poems, writing often turns literal:
When the book is opened, the sentences are immersed in creating double knots. They twist their bodies constantly. Like little bugs under a rock, they repeat pointless motions for years.
—“The Earth from Far Away”
The title poem, “Pillar of Books,” refers to a cylindrical library that is held up by the books themselves.
Reading Pillar of Books, I kept returning to John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” both in the way words become literal, and in the tension between the real—things like science and math—and the philosophical or spiritual.
Truth goes beyond consent and nonconsent, tolerance and distrust. The researchers prefer facts over truth and falsehood. As a matter of fact, facts have no feelings. Facts don’t require consolation.
In another poem, “What Got Seen By The Two Ears A Passing Dog Ate,” a pair of ears fall off when someone’s beloved says something terrible to them. The poem reads like a closet drama, with an introductory section (ending with the line, “The dead ears went to heaven and had a look around”), followed by a series of seven short vignettes. One of the sections, “Education,” begins this way:
Even in heaven 44.5º C is fatal for wasps. Even in heaven they teach you Survival 101. The ears take notes.
Heaven and science mingle resulting in strange and unsettling moments. Is Survival 101 meant to help against the wasps? Or the heat? And what happens if you don’t survive heaven? The ears don’t tell us.
“What Got Seen By The Two Ears…” is a microcosm of the book as a whole, which itself feels like a very loose closet drama, or even several all being performed at once. The book is separated into four sections, which, rather than bringing together poems of similar themes, act more as breaks in the ongoing narrative and action. They’re brief intermissions. Five poems—one in each of the first three sections and two in the closing section—feature the exploits of three poets, Antoine, Gemelle, and Strains, a narrative unfolding over the course of the book. There’s even dialogue:
Antoine: What will you do when you get home? Gemelle: I think I’ll eat some ice cream and scribble in my brainstorming book. Antoine: (falling over backwards) You have a brainstorming book? How cheesy! Strains: (swinging a staff) I have a brainstorming book too! It’s for writing down useless things.
—“Possible Summer for a Fly”
The exploration of death in Pillar of Books is reminiscent of another contemporary Korean work, Kim Hyesoon’s astounding Autobiography of Death. In that book, each of the 49 poems represents a day the spirit roams after death before entering the reincarnation cycle. Hyesoon’s work feels more anachronistic, looking back on older spiritual and cultural traditions, than Moon’s, whose poems feel entirely contemporary. In one poem, “The poet and the novelist order one Merry Strawberry Cream Smoothie.” In another, “God ordered his minions to give those who entered the world Costco bread” instead of wages. Moon has updated Kim Soo-young’s project of conversational and surreal poems, bringing it into the 21st Century, and in doing so, has even updated visions of the afterlife. As she writes in “A Real Carrot Crying Real Tears:” “I don’t count how many heavens there are.”