Friday, August 10, 2007

Celebrity Vessels in Sueyeun Juliette Lee's Perfect Villagers

Octopus Books, 2006

Reviewed by Jessica Bozek

The six poems in Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s chapbook Perfect Villagers, one of the recently published Octopus eight, are very much concerned with “catalog[ing] the discrepancies”—between internal difference and external likeness, between human reality and political delusion, between the writer and the celebrity.

Margaret Cho is the addressee in two fan-letter style poems entitled “Dear Margaret Cho.” The speaker in both poems is concerned to draw attention to her own superficial similarities to Cho: “I too think woo lae ok is really petrified of its own fish” and “we aren’t differentiable with bangs and hooded lids.” But, she knows, “the likeness doesn’t stop there.” Their “shared” cultural heritage works as a joke in the first poem:

korea might be gay but I do not think you are.
korea is a peninsula. you and I are people, meaning that we have hair we comb and things to look at. our lips pout and take on the fullness of an adopted meaning.

What could these two women possibly have in common apart from their positioning in a stereotyped prospect by other people? Lee suggests that their real point of connection is “on the inside … without curves and artificial spaces, many of them not gay or korea.” In fact, in the second Cho poem, the speaker dreams she climbs into Cho’s belly:

… punched inside you laughed and laughed,
converting persimmons into a freedom jelly.
slathered all over, I found us both exuberant,
happy to swing or go both ways.

What enables such a release for the speaker is a role reversal (the speaker, who in the first poem laughs “inside,” here provokes the funnier, flashier Cho’s laughter) borne of intimacy. Both Cho and her letter-writing fan use words: “these are our secrets. our punch lines and couplets.” By the second letter, though, the speaker is fully comfortable with her preference for quiet words and inside spaces, and so succeeds in paying homage to Cho in the most fitting manner she can dream.
Aptly, the shortest poem in the book, “Daniel Dae Kim,” a nine-line tribute to the Korean-American actor of Lost fame and who was People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2005, offers some of Lee’s most gorgeous writing:

aren’t we of beautiful tangents
beautiful ox blood, black sand
morning from small wire filigree, a gesture

The poem articulates a subtle but unmistakably privileged sense of the bicultured being, as one who exists in a liminal space receptive to bleedings into and over. Kim embraces his position at the cultural crossroads, such that his “perfect symmetry” is “electric, transmitted from the foreground into appropriate weather.” Inside and outside come together as a multicultural success story that just might serve as subversive model. At the very least, Daniel Dae Kim is innocuous and as such an antidote to the other real-life Kim Lee devotes a poem to.

In “Kim Jong II: A Reader” Lee collages details from the North Korean leader’s “official” biography, dicta by the Kim regime, life lessons, false aphorisms, and a much qualified record of the people’s experiences in an “‘isolated but not uninformed’” country. The myths surrounding Kim, that his rise to power was allegedly “heralded by a bright star and double rainbows” at birth and that he has “good fortune in love” and is “a lady’s man,” are cold comfort for his citizens, denied “necessary articles; necessaries. necessities. / daily necessaries; the necessities of life.” Hunger is the undeniable internal marker of involuntary human sacrifice for external political delusion; citizens are left to “suck on our fingers to kill the hunger pains” as a result of “a crippling famine.” Such recourse floats detached at the bottom of a page that begins ominously, “You may have received letters from your relatives living here about the food shortage. / The situation is not as bad as it may appear.” More effective than the busy surface of “Kim Jong II: A Reader,” with its italics, quotations, double parentheticals, brackets, and lists, is the impossibility of attribution—readers cannot be sure of the origin or voice, and sometimes even subject, of a given fragment. Lee effectively mirrors the political evasions of responsibility that have been a hallmark of the Bush administration and which have certainly led to the birth of a triumvirate, “Iran, Iraq and North Korea / a new bond of brotherhood / in the mouth of the American president.” When we reach the poem’s final quotation, “‘his brinksmanship does work,’” we wonder which leader Lee is referring to. So, what is a citizen to do?

Lee finds inspiration in the figures of Bruce Lee, circa Enter the Dragon, and Toshiro Mifune, the Japanese actor who starred in such Kurosawa films as Yojimbo and Rashomon. Early in “Toshiro Mifune,” the book’s final poem, Lee’s speaker expresses a lapse in confidence: “Many of my minutes are worth so few of yours or / the incompleteness of this dance calls you forth from the dead.” Yet, by virtue of her access to Mifune through film only, she is able to exact a certain degree of power over him: “you are where I have left you / every moment that I leave you.” In contrast to such control, Lee offers mythological variations on female powerlessness:

know this: the youngest daughter never deigns to take up her father’s sword; she drowns for fifty bags of rice, reincarnates inside a lotus in the king’s royal garden. or takes up a lover and refuses to say his name. or survives a mad prince to become a dowager, or loses her heavenly garments by the mountain pool. she does not take up torch, bow, horn, hook, spear, drum, or horse. never maverick but martyr.

          my sister wears a face and sighs
                    my brother wears a face and sings

Thus, Lee acknowledges the necessity of confrontation, of bucking tradition in old movies and contemporary life, particularly when the possibilities for external performance have such divergent internal ends.

Change, particularly in “Enter the Dragon,” seems most possible as an internal dream. The poem champions distinction despite its insistence on perfunctory physical likeness. The figures in “Enter the Dragon” have been “chased into the ghetto, the factory, the warehouse” and comprise a crowd, “categorical only in its lack of a tonal key.” But, we learn, “explosions can be implicit, silent, constructed out of a hundred thousand water-based powders. there are nuances, grievings…” The poem concludes with the potential for a triumph of the oppressed; once “the will is fireproof, / engulfed in a liquid shroud,” “we rise without repenting, stand tersely for the cue.”

Throughout Perfect Villagers Lee debunks the myth of “ten thousand perfect villagers / ten thousand perfect kites” by stopping short of convenient equation and by looking past similarity to difference. The result is a deeply political book whose argument for hybridity is supported, stunningly, by historical example.


Sueyeun Juliette Lee grew up 3 miles from the CIA. She edits Corollary Press and lives in Philadelphia. Her chapbook Trespass Slightly In is out on Coconut.


Jessica Bozek just received her MFA from the University of Georgia and has poems in the newest issues of Apocryphal Text, Columbia Poetry Review, Dusie, GlitterPony, and Gulf Coast. This summer she is in Massachusetts watching the sailboats pass.