Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Organs of Articulation: Skirt Full of Black by Sun Yung Shin

Coffee House Press, 2006
Reviewed by Molly Sutton Kiefer

Reading the poems in Sun Yung Shin’s Skirt Full of Black is like standing in an echo chamber full of variation—a cacophony of voices clanging against each other, some fusing, some trailing behind, some simply lingering. The poet’s main concerns are the Korean diaspora, adoption, women’s labor, and the complexities of language. Her poetry resembles a collage—borrowing technical phrases and syntax from texts on adoption (calling for a Works Cited page), utilizing intruding voices, and painting brief images—all reflected in the use of italics, punctuation, and occasionally, the alternate font.

Much of Sun Yung Shin’s poetry focuses on the call and answer, the give and take of dialogue. “Myopia” takes us into an optometrist’s office, gives us a poem in the form of conversation between eye doctor and patient, neither one listening to the other—the doctor giving the characteristic instructions, the patient in an act of confession revealing her personal history and future hopes. Many poems aren’t as clear in the use of voices—often the technical jargon of an texts on adoption will adjoin a memory which will then lead into a listing of terms. The result is the kind of perplexity that would come from a layered background, the reader sifting through the voices, instructions, and observations. Perhaps the poet herself puts it best in the poem “The State Will Be Served Even by My Hand on These Letters” when she writes, “the letters jockey for position but tangle in broken limbs / stray musical notations are crushed for their outrageous deviance” (pg 55).

Not all of Sun Yung Shin’s language focuses on the narrative, the direct address, the prose-like movement. Her greatest use of figurative language comes in the time-honored simile: “Finger bones like wingspan / of flightless bird” (11), “Slow like glass as a verb” (26), “previous children repeat themselves like rain” (42). Often there are visceral images to accompany those similes, such as “the metal that will unskin the world” (39) and “Take out the dog’s boiled skeleton but leave in the whinnying shudder” (43).

There is also a kind of playfulness to her language—much like balling words up and rolling them on the plane of a desk to see where they end up, as in “Fruit of Arrival”:

My mate cut the purple cord, I drop a kiss onto my son’s birth, now closed and clean.

The navel a door closed like an ear, something smothered.

I never sang sweet lullaby, my voice has poor affect. The bones of my race, the back of my head, all flat as a cradle.

Aluminum, life. A mirror. An image. “One that closely or exactly resembles another; a double: He is the image of his father.” (pg 17)

This concern with belonging and family comes from Shin’s family history: she is a Korean-American adoptee, and this may explain her focus on dualities, belonging, and contrasts. In “Economic Miracles,” she writes:

      Light reflects off my computer
      monitor not the glittering
      rice paddy, not the sewing
      machine’s glittering
      needle dipping like a cormorant into tomorrow’s
      Nike and this is
      the Culture at work. (pg. 26)

Her poetry relies on juxtapositions of culture, of text and intertext, and experience, as well as the idea of without, a certain kind of loss and pretending, as in “The House”: “Take my hand and look, look at the costumes / pretending to be real clothes” (40). The poem “Missing Masks: Names” includes the mathematical symbol “does not equal”(≠) when listing family names and terms.

One of the most striking lines from Skirt Full of Black comes in “Half the Business” when we get the raw sentiment:

      We should all have two languages, one of our childhood, and one of our
      God, let those two be the same.
      No more songs about bureaucrats, armies, a confetti of human hair.
            (pg. 47)

This plea seems to spin throughout the narrative of Skirt Full of Black, where rarely is there one language, one understanding of a given situation. The poem ends on these lines:

      Every woman a scholar dissecting her own body, eating her own words
            until the end of words.
      Dear God, give no more speech or speeches.
      This is the business of language, its livelihood. Even now. Even to

The centerpiece of Sun Yung Shin’s collection is “Vestibulary,” a kind of dictionary, an associative collection of images in relation to Korean vocabulary. Here she is free from intruding voices—this is the poet and the shape of her ancestor’s language, the way it feels in her mouth and on the page. An example of one collection of images is in “kiyek”:

      stained raw your lover’s knee,


      scythe, raw grain;

      late, wet harvest;

      half-chair in silhouette. (pg. 67)

All these images resemble the shape of the character “kiyek,” which looks something like this: ┐. Some become more imaginative, as in the case of “liul”:

Dictionary of myth. A child in her library. Sounds eaten whole. A bull and a virgin.

The lonely Minotaur haunted in broad-backed, forbidden heat. His human clothes remained in two suffocating wardrobes, pinna to pinna. On all fours he tried a wrecked ladder, a hoof slipped while he had a vision of a snake meandering the legs of a four-poster bed. (pg. 70)

And “piup”:

Bring a list of symptoms to your doctor.
A broken rope. Story.

A man stares out the window in drunken gravity, holding a glass half full of sheer whiskey. His wife lays [sic] down among the fur coats, unknowing of her womb half full of inheritance. She palms a book, open, margin mislaid. (pg. 72)

Skirt Full of Black is not for the casual reader, one who simply wants an afternoon read, but what collection of poetry should be? Sun Yung Shin demands this of her readers: to explore language and origins, to explore heritage and dualities, to pay attention to what value we place on the personal experiences and assumptions we bring to the page.


Born in Seoul, South Korea, Sun Yung Shin grew up in Chicago and now teaches at the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Minnesota. She is the author of the children's book Cooper's Lesson and an editor of Outsider's Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption.


Molly Sutton Kiefer's poetry has been published by Yes Press, Dislocate, and La Fovea. She currently teaches English in Minnesota and and plans to begin an MFA program this upcoming school year. Read more at mollysuttonkiefer.com.