On Hannah Sanghee Park's "The Same-Different"
The Same-Different is divided into three parts; the book begins with a sequence of gnomic, unconventional sonnets (assuming a group of fourteen-line poems is a group of sonnets despite being written mostly in couplets). The poems, so full of half rhyme, chiasmus, and variously deployed word stems, suggest an echo chamber, a house of mirrors, a labyrinth. But, as in the labyrinth of Crete, this is not all fun and games. When unexpected and even opposed meanings leap out of related words, how can we tell friend from foe?
In the book's first part, titled "The Same-Different," Park is playing a kind of epistemological Russian roulette. Binary logics are undermined. The second poem, "Another Truth," is followed by "And a Lie." There we encounter the lines:
The asking was askance.
And the tell all told.
So then, in tandem
Anathema, and anthem.
The truth was on hold,
I love the way a reader may find the plea "ask" latent in "askance" and also the word "theme" as it appears—and perhaps takes wrong turns—in "anathema" and "anthem." The music of the repeated sounds may lull readers, while the meaning of the words tells us to question what we hear.
In the poem "T/F" Park continues her punning, giving us a twist on the familiar nursery rhyme "There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe" that is, perhaps, a response to the spin of corruption and disaster in the news cycle.
I have so much bad
faith in our future
I don't know what to do.
This statement is false.
This falsity true.
Like the old woman in the nursery rhyme who "has so many children she didn't know what to do," we humans have produced and reproduced our way into a dire situation, while our politicians and pundits play shell games. In her subtle, cautionary deployment of nursery rhyme, fairy tale, and riddle, Hannah Sanghee Park finds ways to point at danger without becoming didactic. In this she reminds me a bit of a modern-day version of San Francisco Renaissance poet Helen Adam.
Since the poems in the book's first section disassemble and reassemble words so obsessively, it seems quite apt to find that, in the second section, "A Mutability," each sonnet is named for a different chimerical creature. There are shape-shifters, doppelgangers, and demon-lovers from a variety of cultures. The collapsed binary is no longer true/false (as it was in the first section) but self/other and also human/nonhuman. It seems the monster in Park's labyrinth is love (or sex). In "Q," she writes, "May I master love, undo its luster / do in the thing that makes us lust?" The answer to this question appears to be a resounding no. Lust is too protean for that. In poem after poem the lover (who may or may not be the speaker) is either deceptively human or inhuman. In "Naga in July" (the Naga are demigods and serpents) Park writes:
I admit, I do not know where you cease
into scales, where your body joins and coils
its partings into one uninterrupted
in your absence. Left a ghost's husk of skin
to trace back, knowing:
This may be archetypal lyric poetry with its sonic loveliness and its address to an absent beloved—but it is much complicated by the fact that this beloved is dangerous, formally incoherent (she doesn't know where he/she/it "ceases" into scales), and, ultimately, not really distinguishable from the poet (herself) or indeed the poem (itself). We begin to see the poem's self-referential quality as it continues:
All monsoon season, letters repeated
in your absence. Left a ghost's husk of skin
you'd long outgrown, a tunnel of O's as the trail
you trace back knowing:
Surely it is the poem's own tunnel of O's (like those in monsoon, ghost, outgrown, and knowing) that form the beloved monster's abandoned "ghost husk of skin." These poems haunt themselves and the reader, and thus the last section of the book is aptly titled "Fear." The poems in "Fear" slip beyond the sonnet form into long, untitled sequences. Here Park drops the logic games and the mythological personae and writes a bit more directly of a failed or failing relationship in a toxic world:
We joke of thinned air
leaked gas, breathing things
that only impair.
Now I think if I push a little bit harder you
But by now the reader suspects nothing will stay put. Hannah Sanghee Park's lines seem somehow both shifty and extremely precise. Can precision exist in a world where binaries like true/false or self/other break down? Apparently, in poems as lapidary as these, it can. Art may be said to be serious play, and Park's poems are serious play of the first order. They combine a fine ear, a sharp intellect, and a questioning spirit. This is exactly what a poet needs. I can't wait to see what Park will do next.
This essay originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2014 by the Academy of American Poets. To receive American Poets, become a member online.