Liam Bishop reviews Lee Hyemi’s second collection of surrealist poetry.

Lee Hyemi, Unexpected Vanilla, translated by So J. Lee (Tilted Axis Press, 2020), 74 pp.

In a recent interview for Words Without Borders, So J. Lee, the translator of Unexpected Vanilla, tells the Korean poet Lee Hyemi that her poems evoke the mode of Surrealist paintings. This is Lee Hyemi’s second collection, and she does seem to be responding to a question like the one posed by the artist Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012), who said, in BOMB Magazine, “I don’t see why one shouldn’t be absolutely fascinated by human form, we go through life in this wonderful envelope. Why not acknowledge that and try to say something about it?” Tanning said that her answer to this question was “transformations,” but Lee seems to be more interested in how she uses her art and language to shape the body’s surface and doesn’t seem concerned with finding the words that might represent an inner world. This is from “Polar Night,” a characteristically weighty stanza of free verse that borders on being prose:

Shattered snowflakes crunch inside my mouth Tossing black bones
    out the window I mutter Dear wanderer who stumbled out of
    view with a broken bell in your arms for the things I wouldn’t
    have known in the dark, things that linger then set like the sun
    You who carried sound this far, then entered two small pocket-
    like ears

What makes Lee’s poetry so beguiling, like Tanning’s surrealist painting Maternity, perhaps, is how references to inner and outer extremities do not give us an indication of whether we’re reading about a world beyond or beneath the skin. If the bell is for the “things I wouldn’t have known in the dark,” it’s as though Lee is describing a “noise” that could clamor and wake a person at night, but also a “noise” from within the body that acts like a terrifying or arousing fantasy. This is, of course, helped by her dense structure; however, later in the poem, when Lee writes “my love cannot hear… there was neither a bell-ringer nor a bell to break yet / a lone toll tore through the frozen sheet of sky,” there is a sense, even though the bell is broken, the noise represents what is felt and rebounding on the surface rather than heard and assimilated within.

If the world of the skin is about “starting” and reaching its surface then perhaps it’s no wonder Lee’s poetry seems laced with allure and enchantment. In “Knocking Droplets” we see how this isn’t only inspired by her folkloric or titillating imagery:


It’s a call to someone, the desire for the rim of an ear There used to
     be a time when we called to loved ones with only sound When
     I gently knocked on your forehead, they opened and looked up

The “desire for the rim of an ear” might seem to state Lee’s concern with outlines of forms rather than the form itself, but that “knocking” echoes the subtle repetitions of “when” to create an image of an approach, like two people exploring, visually and sensually, each other’s bodies. Undoubtedly, this enchantment can spill over into an eroticism and sensuality, yet it’s as though we’re in the throes of desire before consummation, when we’re wondering how to touch another body and to “start.” “To sink into something,” said Lee in that interview for Words without Borders, “you have to start at the surface,” and that’s what she appears to be trying here.

When we reach “Inside the Bell Tower,” Lee has conjured a story of a Rapunzel-like figure stuck in what could be an Escher-inspired stairwell; the question seems to be who is going to be shaped by my call, and who will come to me when I speak? In the final stanza Lee writes:

If I were to pluck my feathers to write all the things I want to, I’d
       probably soon lose my wings and collapse dead on scribbles
       Having become the beast of the bell tower that gained sound
       and gave light, I ring the now enormous bell Until my fingers
       crumble Until my face becomes sound Until everything that
       fell from the bell shakes the tower and promptly knocks it down

More bells, more tolling, but there’s also a mirroring of that tolling’s rhythm in “until” – another preposition – and it’s here we realize how, ultimately, Lee’s poetry is a revelry in writing in and of a state of pre-position and “until-ness.” Yet, whilst you might be inclined to think that there is a cerebral and hedonistic element to Lee’s poetry, there’s a consensual element too, and it is the relationship between her translator and she that allows this wonder at the liminal to thrive on the page. “We must be one person, cunningly divergent. Sharing an intimate language,” Lee apparently wrote in her copy of Unexpected Vanilla for So J. Lee (as she told toAsymptote): it’s a line from “Cupboard with Strawberry Jam,” and it’s a line that typifies how Lee Hyemi and So J. Lee found a way to let the intimate language of the surfaces to flourish.

Liam Bishop is from Leeds, UK. His work has appeared in 3:AM Magazine and Review 31. You can visit his website: http://www.liamhbishop.com

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