Craig Santos Perez | Book Review
Skirt Full of Black (Coffee House Press, 2006) by Sun Yung Shin | $15 | 100 pp | Paper | ISBN: 9-781566-891998
Sun Yung Shin’s Skirt Full of Black (Coffee House Press, 2006), winner of the 2008 Eleventh Annual Asian American Literary Award for Poetry, is dedicated to “the worldwide Korean diaspora—six to seven million overseas Koreans living in 140 countries.” Shin’s collection contours her own experience within the Korean diaspora by articulating the pluralities of gender, language, ethnicity, and culture.
In "Obviously, These Were Home Rather Than Office Machines, Meant for People of Limited Means Who Needed to Do Some Occasional Typing,” Shin collages various kinds of discourse to create an intersection of writing, race, and gender:
It looked rather like a sewing machine, because it was manufactured by the
sewing machine department of the Remington arms company.
By the 1920s, virtually all typewriters were “look-alikes”
only in capital letters: QWERTY: WOMAN: TYPING: HARD RETURN
woman: understroke or “blind writer”
The movement from the first discursive sentence into a maze of associations creates a cut-up feel to the text, a certain understroke of organization. Shin’s use of colons repeats later in the poem: “carriage: skirt: drawers: shades: ghost: confusion: lifting”. The effect is quite haunting as we are made to fill in the association—relating both to typewriter, but also to something more ghostly. Following the above line, the poem shifts again:
The native carries goods to market to be bartered. She returns home with rice, salt,
cloth. She strips to the waist at the river, singing work songs while beating clothing
against wet rocks in the sun. Over time the basket shapes to the curve of her skull
but we do not know if her head responds to pressure in the same manner. (15)
The relationship between women and work becomes transformed in this poem. While the reader might imagine that women would only use the typewriter for “occasional typing” or that the work for a native woman is to carry goods, Shin shows that writing becomes something more to those with access, a space for memory and protest, expression and explosion.
The poem above really acts as a carriage for the other poems, drawing and shading our experience of Skirt Full of Black. In the serial poem “ECONOMIC MIRACLES,” there’s a similar collage of discourse. The first section begins with “Also this confusion about Korean names is further complicated by the fact that Korean women retain their maiden name even after marriage” and ends:
eligible for adoption
legal resident alien
alien registration number A35300104
Light reflects off my computer
monitor not the glittering
rice paddy, not the sewing
needle dipping like a cormorant into tomorrow’s
Nike and this
the Culture at work. (26)
Shin writes against traditional female roles by highlighting her own position as a writer (not a typist, not an “entertainer”). She resists the idea that a woman’s role in “Culture” or “Eastern Society” is simply a “dancing-girl” or laborer.
The “this” in the last passage above echoes in a later poem titled “Kyop’o (Overseas Korean) on Location”:
Hanguk → Korean → English
Konglish → Kinglish → Queenglish
inglish → inklish → ink (this) (46)
“MISSING MASKS: NAMES” also places us within the space of language(s): “Kyop’o = Overseas Korean / Omoni = Mother / Aboji = Father” (45). These two poems work to set up the fullest exploration of language in this book, an entire section called “VESTIBULARY.” In the section’s introduction, Shin provides a brief history of hangul, the Korean writing system, before describing her project: “I used the hangul characters and (the old Romanization)—their orthography, form—to create bits of narrative and images inspired by their shapes. The eros of language acquisition. We are the hunted and the hunter, submitting to the demand of the utterance” (65). Using each letter of the alphabet as the title, the poems alternate between associative lists and lyrical prose poems. From “kiyek”:
stained raw your lover's knee,
scythe, raw grain;
late, wet harvest;
half-chair in silhouette (67).
Although I can’t replicate the orthography, you can imagine each of these lines suggesting the shape of the letter. In “hiuh,” we have a more formally complex letter:
Vocal folds open. A passage of air through the pharynx.
Puff of white.
The sound of heat, her, heart. A sparrow hops over a leaf
on a boulder. We are busy bowing to brides and broken headstones (80).
Throughout “VESTIBULARY,” the vocal folds of both languages open new narratives, associations, and meanings. The reader is balanced between the two, entering a space where the speaker submits to the “demands of the utterance.”
One of the major themes in Skirt Full of Black is adoption—specifically, the troubled history of Korean adoptees. In “Over the Course of Several Decades Following the Korean War, South Korea became the World’s Largest Supplier of Children to Developed Countries,” Shin manages to say so much in the title alone. Yet the poem speaks to this issue from a different angle, as it ends:
[…] Elsewhere (Norway, Australia)
National bears the imprint
of my din. Cribs, nurse, hands, rice-milk, powder, down
& rocked—carefully dated
asks Why. We don’t speak. Years
burn to decades, this permanent
Again, Shin’s use of “this” reverberates, referring to the theme of the poem itself, but also to the empowering act of writing. The theme of adoption becomes fleshed out more in the serial poem “SPEED,” as Shin returns to her collage-and-response method:
new generation of abandoned or orphaned
many of these children were Amerasians, fathered and left behind
by U.S. servicemen
as did their Vietnamese counterparts a decade or so later
Human skull reaches adult size by age eight
What we once called vocal chords we now call folds
Science, like Adam, names and then—upon new intelligence—renames
Learn quickly that all cries are not musical (60).
The poem continues in this vein, exploring different aspects of transnational adoption. Strikingly, Shin’s folding together of various “vocal chords” and registers creates a text that cries and sings, humanizes and intellectualizes.
Skirt Full of Black is a ghostly carriage of open vocal folds. Within these folds, Shin exposes the structural oppressions of women and
adoptees in a Korean and global context, while re-defining and re-articulating the possibilities of both “roles.” In addition, Skirt Full of Black is a poetic vestibule of language exploration that presents a vibrant vocabulary of words and forms. Shin’s work not only bears witness to the personal and collective experience of the Korean diaspora, but it also provides a shelter for the expression of such difficult experience.
Lantern Review: A Journal of Asian American Poetry
Issue 1 | June 2010 | pp 79-90