ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
Unbearable Splendor (Coffee House Press 2016) is a book that I love. Because I love it, it’s hard to write about. Any love is hard to write, as the Elizabethans knew very well with their icy-hots and their lively deaths, because love is or exists in a tension or flux between knowledge (that which can be conveyed in words) and mystery (that which cannot be conveyed in words); between speech and silence; between that which falls, failing, into sense, and that towards which all senses only dimly point. (Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a kind of lover’s discourse, perhaps more so than Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse.) And that difficulty’s multiplied when you’re writing about writing that you love. Because writing itself is always in tension between what can and can’t be said, what can and can’t be known. Writing itself is a kind of love, and so writing about love always undermines itself.
Unbearable Splendor is a small red-covered book. From beginning to acknowledgements page it is 119 pages long. On the red cover there is/are:
“Sun Yung Shin” is how her name’s written there. But on Facebook, recently, she’s changed the spelling of her name (in accordance with the Revised Romanization system, which was approved by the Korean Ministry of Culture in 2000) to “Seonyeong Shin.”
This doubling of the author’s name is coincidental but emblematic, because Unbearable Splendor is a book that’s obsessed with dualities, with doublings, with doppelgängers, with layered, palimpsestic contradictions. It opens with one. A black hole, despite the name, is “anything but empty space,” says one of the epigraphs to the first piece in the book, “Valley, Uncanny.” What seems to be an absence is in fact a surfeit of presence. “Valley, Uncanny” is itself double or uncanny, fitting neither here nor there, following, as it does, the dreamlike logic of a poem, with all of a poem’s obliqueness, ambiguities, redactions, silences—but moving visually like an essay, with long lines, paragraphs, graphs showing the curve of the uncanny valley, as plotted on the y-axis of familiarity and the x-axis of human likeness. “I was a hole,” says the speaker of the piece, with the verbal echo of “whole” hiding, unheimlich, just behind the “hole”; the hole making the whole hollow. “I brought it, myself,” she says, immediately breaking the whole/hole and herself into two, to “미국 mi guk ’beautiful country,’ America, the United States”—a list of names for the US that gives the lie to the easy unity of “United.” Later on in the piece the speaker’s two-year-old self and her adult self meet. Later still the speaker reflects on her “performance of childhood,” as a two-year-old Korean child adopted by American parents; in her memory she becomes a “robot, / a creature of industry / a tool with a perfect face and perfect thoughts,” like a reverse Galatea, becoming effigy; becoming, in order to be accepted as human, inhuman. In “The Other Asterion, or, The Minotaur’s Sacrifice,” a short story that is a riff on a story by Borges, the narrator, who guards the Minotaur Asterion in his labyrinth, gradually becomes the Minotaur, and the Minotaur/narrator, who has been disposing of the human sacrifices offered to him every nine years, submits humbly to Theseus’s sword. “Orphan: The Plural Form,” a meditation on the etymologies of the words “orphan” and “adoptee,” segues into fractured lyrics that address, or speak for, Antigone, which in turn segues into “The Limit Case,” an essay about Antigone as cyborg, a lá Donna Haraway, “a machine pretending to be a disobedient girl [...] excessive [...] eternal [...] hybrid of life and death.” Faced with the unknowability of the past, not knowing their date of birth or the name of their birth parents, the “we” of “Exactly Like You,” a long prose-poem slash memoir slash found-poetry piece, invents possible origins for themselves: “perhaps our father and mother were people from the north [...] perhaps [...]we were the fourth child, one too many [...] perhaps our mother was raped by a taxi driver [...] perhaps our parents were involved in an extramartial affair [...] perhaps our father died.” Caught in the labyrinth of radical doubt, the speaker(s) respond(s), not with a cogito, but with a cogitamus: the “I” splintering into many, who coalesce or coagulate, Minotaur-like, into a many-natured, many-historied “we.” “We are a copy and an original,” they say: “nameless, and renamed.”
An early attempt at this essay, in which I was trying to explain why Unbearable Splendor moves between poem and essay, between the lyric and the discursive, began with:
Poetry is about saying what cannot be said.
Since nothing can be said, this means that poetry is about saying nothing.
I still think that’s true.
The lyric is about being a dying thing, about being something, a thinking feeling human mind, that is always just about to become nothing.
The lyric is about being.
And being is precisely what can’t be said.
An essay, by way of contrast, is about trying to say something, about trying to make something happen. An essay essays, tries. To do.
If a poem is about trying to be something, while an essay is about trying to do something, and if you accept that this is a real difference, then a poem’s about being, about being-defined-by-death, while an essay’s about struggle, about trying to live. This contradiction—in impulse, in thrust—makes any combination of the two—any child, any “hybrid”—monstrous, like Shin’s Antigone, a “hybrid of life and death.”
If Unbearable Splendor is about becoming monstrous—about what it feels like to be a monster, about what it feels like to be torn and doubled and doubled up inside—which is a one way to think about being an immigrant, about having (at least) two heritages, two lines of descent, and if it’s talking about this in a form that is itself monstrous, doubled, hybrid, then the obvious thing to say is that it’s deploying this monstrous combination as a figure for the immigrant experience, or for Seonyeong / Sun Yung Shin’s specific immigrant experience. A torn form for the torn identity. 
But some of the pain is also the pain of being torn between genres, torn by the idea of genre, what Derrida calls the “law” of genre: “as soon as genre announces itself, one must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly, or monstrosity.”
And: “the law is mad.”
To write an essay that is also a poem is, in this framework, to create a monster, our own little Frankensteined patchwork, strange hybrid of life and death,
Shambling rot-seamed hulk always lurching in opposite directions
one mouth singing while the other calls it liar
one mouth fumbling for a lost word the other drawling we speak English here
(what an American mouth) (what a truly American thing to say)
a genre of trouble, of troubledness. Mad.
Like this thing I’m writing right now, the thing that you’re reading, which started out as an attempt to talk about Unbearable Splendor and is now spinning off into something else, something I can’t quite see. Torn into sections. Diction and vocabulary veering back and forth.
This is an essay, supposedly. That’s the genre I’m working in/with, or simply working, the way one works metal or a seam of metal in a mine.
But as soon as I say that I’m filled with anxiety. You could say that I find the whole thing trying. How does genre even work, is what I want to know. And what, as a writer, do I get out of the whole thing? (Alternately: how do I get out of the whole thing?) Is there a genre that’s not troubled? Is genre a material? A repository of material? A neighborhood? A climate? A prescription? An algorithm? A law? A set of commandments? A process? A formula? A nation? A family?
The best essay in the English language, by my lights, is a chapter in a novel. The chapter is “The Whiteness of the Whale.” The novel is Moby Dick. The second best essay is a poem by Anne Carson called “The Glass Essay.” Other essays that I love are also poems: “One Poem,” by Layli Long Soldier, and “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché, and “I Hoisted Them, Two Drug Dealers, I Guess That’s What They Were,” by Diane Seuss, and Eye of the Needle, by Fanny Howe. “On the Puppet Theatre,” by Heinrich Von Kleist, is an essay, arguably, but there’s nothing in it that’s not fiction. Derrida’s much more enjoyable to read when you read him as poetry. So’s Heidegger. (Neither of them are very good poets, though.) In 2015, right after Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was nominated for the National Book Award in poetry, you still couldn’t find it on the poetry bookshelf in the Harvard Bookstore. Instead, it was shelved with books of essays.
Sometimes I think that the idea of genre is mostly a guide for consumption. Consumption as purchase and use and reception, yes, but also consumption as ingestion. How to buy and how to read = how to cook; how to eat.
Consider: when Moby Dick was first published, critics didn’t know what to do with it. The book didn’t seem to fit into any of their categories. Was it a sober-minded novel? A romance, full of wild circumstance and supernatural intervention? Magazine articles with a frame-narrative? Was it a stirring tale of the high seas? A singularly bloody-minded repository of whaling best practices? Was it meant to be funny? Sacrilegious? Was it fiction? Was it fact? The reviewer for the London Britannia could only define it by what it wasn’t: “it is certainly neither a novel nor a romance,” they wrote. But then what was it? The reviewer for the London Athenaeum was offended by Moby Dick’s multifariousness, its polymorphousness, its promiscuity: “this is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact,” they wrote. (The book as bad drug, as a contaminated potion-poison; pharmakon.) Unlike the reviewer for the Britannia, however, the Athenaeum reviewer was able to place Moby Dick in a genre. Not a book-genre, though—a food-genre. Moby Dick was a salad. But not a good one (if indeed such a thing as a good salad existed for the reviewer). It was indicative of “bad tastes,” this “salad” of “ravings and scraps of useful knowledge flung together.” They didn’t like the recipe; it tasted bad; they wanted to send the salad back. No compliments to the chef.
To be a salad in 1851 was to be invisible, unnamed. It was to be left off the menu. The heyday of salmagundi was long gone; the periodical named after that dish long shuttered. Lucien Olivier was ten years away from compounding his mixture of grouse, veal tongue, caviar, smoked duck, lettuce, crayfish tails, capers, and aioli—a salad that so captured the imaginations of rich Muscovites that its pale and Hellman-ed descendants, with their bologna and dill pickles, their hard-boiled eggs and cubed potatoes, are still be found on Russophone menus around the world. Auguste Escoffier was 4 years old; Waldorf-Astor was 3. The fathers of Caesar Cardini and Robert Cobb were zygotes. The New York Public Library’s website has a wonderful archive of menus from hotels and restaurants. A typical menu from a relatively tony, high-falutin’ establishment (the City Hotel, in Hartford) in 1851, the year Moby Dick was published, lists:
Mock Turtle Soup * Boiled Mutton Chops * Boiled Corn Beef * Boiled Chickens
Boiled Pork * Boiled Ham * Mutton Chops * Cold Roast Pork * Cold Roast Beef
Cold Tongue Sliced * Calves Feet Brown Butter * Boiled Rice * Boiled Hominy
Roast Beef * Roast Turkey * Roast Gosling * Roast Chickens * Pandowdy Pudding
Cream Sauce * Apple Pie * Mince Pie * Cream Puffs * Cake Flummery * Apples
No salad. They existed, of course—John Evelyn, who was a friend of Samuel Pepys, wrote a whole book (Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets) about salads that included not only recipes but also instructions for growing the ingredients from seed, and for designing gardens in order to maximise yield and flavor. (What is the genre of Acetaria?) But a Sweetgreen, in the 1850s, would have gone bankrupt in a matter of days.
Genre as guide to consumption invites this kind of exclusion, this kind of invisibility. If you’re not recognizable, you’re inedible.
 I have also had more than one name, have been my own doppelgänger.
When I was thirteen, I spent a year in school Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was an awful time for me. I felt like I couldn’t speak.
I’d been living in Seoul since third grade, but that wasn’t the problem. I was bilingual because I’d spent five and a half years in Wisconsin as a small child, and because I read a lot of books in English and wore out the spine on my Penguin Classics paperback of Don Quixote and wore out the spine on my Signet Classics paperback of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with the silhouette of Jeremy Brett on the cover, and had at the time a memory for text that was, if not precisely eidetic, was close enough as made no difference, and because I watched a lot of Macgyver on AFKN (the Armed Forces Korea Network, for America soldiers stationed in Korea), and hummed the theme song to myself whenever I was trying to solve a problem.
So the structure of the language, the shape of the sounds, the vagaries of English orthography (cacography?)—none of this was an issue. The issue was me, my body, the way I carried myself, the way I’d been trained to carry myself.
For example, when a teacher calls on you in class, in Seoul circa 1987-1991, you’re supposed to stand up to speak. To do otherwise invites punishment from the teacher; punishment that, depending on the teacher, can range from verbal harassment to verbal abuse to stress positions to chalk whipped at your head to slaps to rulers to bamboo switches to poolcues to hockey sticks.
So when Mr. Burke, one of the two eighth-grade teachers at Peabody Elementary, big and round and ruddy and crew-cut and all of thirty years old, called on me to introduce myself on my first day of school, I, small and plump and wearing a horizontal striped polo shirt from the Gap in the year of the Guns ’n Roses T-Shirt and straight-cut Levis in the year of the Kriss-Kross Sag and blue Adidas Torsion in the year of the Reebok Pump, I jumped up out of my chair with an alacrity born of years of training, the motion smooth and perfect and without a shadow of hesitation, like a punch that a kung-fu master has practiced tens of thousands of times, I stood with my chin up, back straight, ass clenched, shoulders open, heels touching each other, feet planted at a thirty degree angle, fists half-closed and resting on the seams of my pants, and said Hello! My name is Cha Seung! I’m from Korea! Cha is my last name, not my first! Seung is hard to pronounce, so I’d like to go by Sam!
A moment of silence.
Why is he standing up, I heard a girl whisper to another girl.
How about, said a sandy-haired sociopath with pustules of acne glittering like carbuncles in his face, we call you Ralph? He stuck a finger down his throat and gagged.
And everybody laughed.
Including Mr. Burke, who, since he was all of thirty in 1991 or 1992, may still be teaching Social Studies somewhere, although I would like to think that he eventually found an occupation for which he was more suited. Like being a birthday clown. Or the tail-less donkey at the birthday party. Or the piñata.
That was the first time I was Sam. Or, if you prefer, the first time I was me. There were a pair of us, then. How dreary to be somebody, to be somebodies, I want to say, which adds Emily for a third, and as soon as I have said that here’s Walt because the somebodies crowd and cluster and I have said I have said which invites Virginia in and here’s Johnny and here’s Jack Nicholson peering through the shattered door in the haunted house; I am multitudes, legions: you’ve taught me your tongue and my profit on it’s that I know how to quote.
 But perhaps it requires a bit of clarification.
What I mean when I say that poetry is about saying what can’t be said:
Poetry is about saying things. But because of that, poetry is the art of leaving things out. It leaves things out because not all things that we can be aware of are commensurate with language; i.e., not all things that we can wish to say can be said through language. Human language is confined to that subset of things that are human that can be spoken.
Things that can’t be said are hard to think about. And they are hard to remember. Because they are hard to think about and hard to remember, they are hard to think of as part of us, as part of what constitutes the person here and now being alive and aware.
And they are almost impossible to communicate to other people.
Because they are hard to think about and hard to remember and almost impossible to communicate, we tend to shove them off to the side. We forget that they are human things.
We confuse them with the language of the world. The long slow sentences spoken by sunlight and gravity and heat, which comprise everything that is not human.
(But of course they also comprise that which is: we are not distinct from geological processes, the life and death of stars, the turning of galactic arms. We forget that.)
Poetry is an art that returns to us these nameless and silent things, these forgotten things, these almost incommunicable things, these almost inhuman things. Such as: love (not the concept, which we do have a name for, but the shape of, the sum of, all of the individual moments and awareness of those moments that comprise the experience of love, which is an infinity of names and names for that infinity of names) or the thingness of things or the true nature of time (i.e. that it does not exist).
When poetry does this properly, we feel it as an intrusion into our awareness of everything about the world that is not human, everything that transcends or underlies or subtends or parallels or diverges from the human, everything that we cannot bear or dare—what we used to (or still do) call, variously or simultaneously the divine, the infernal, the otherworld, the world-which-is-not-ours. Which is perhaps what the Neo-Platonists mean by pneuma, the breath of the world, which is spirit, the spirit that blows into every holt and heath the tender crop, in-spiring, inspir-ed, in-spirit, what you give back when you ex-spir, expire, the soul the ghost you give up, surrender, as Teresa of Avila surrendered, as the burning arrow jutting in the angel’s hand entered, the red wet plush of, the hot thrum of, her heart.
Poetry is about everything about the world that is not human, that we can’t experience directly, or, having experienced, will never be able to communicate. Which is to say: death. Which (since death is the limit of what we are, and since we are defined by our limits) is say: being.
 “In every story I tell comes / a point where I can see no further. / I hate that point. It is why they / call storytellers blind—a taunt,” as Anne Carson says, in “Short Talk on Homo Sapiens.”
 When Orpheus was torn to pieces, they say, the head of Orpheus floated down the river, singing. But whether the song from the torn mouth was also torn, they don’t say. Not in the fragments of the story that we have.
 Every definition of genre creates a blind spot.
(—if for instance we were to imagine genres as planets; if we were to consider, however unlikely or incongruous the thought, the attention of the prevailing culture as a light source, a Mordor-Eye, a kind of hooded and blinkered star that, like a lighthouse or flashlight sends light in only one particular direction; if we may imagine critics as intricate mechanisms of lens and prism and mirror and amplifier that serve to concentrate and intensify and focus the light of the culture into a kind of analytic laser; then we may imagine the planet Poetry swimming into the beam of any critic, Blahrold Hoom, let’s call them, strictly for euphony, and a face of Poetry lighting up, the mountains on the terminator in sharp relief, various colors visible only in the wavelengths of Hoom-light fluorescing, Hoom-light loving species thawing and waking up to their cyclical routines of anxiety and agon—and other colors flattened; delicate frost structures melting in Hoom-heat; and the other side of Poetry thrown into dark; the shadow cast by Poetry in the Hoom-light extending out into space like a long hourglassed phlange of black, endlessly, until it intersects the orbit of some other genre-planet, so that, for instance, on the planet of Journalism, Poetry may seem to be entirely in eclipse and the inhabitants of Journalism write article after article on the death of Art, the silence of the iambs—)
Since all genres are related, and equally unreal, every definition of any genre creates shadows that partially overlap with, or land smack-dab in, the heart of the domain of another genre, so that perhaps the capitol of Prose will be situated in a terra incognita of the map of the empire of Poems, and vice versa, until all of literature is a Ukraine or a Macedonia or and Afghanistan or an America of competing histories and boundaries and legal canons. Which is when a certain kind of reader will start building walls and issuing or denying visas and marking passports with jackboots or rubber stamps or RFID.
Sam Cha was born in Korea. He earned an MFA from UMass Boston. A winner of two Academy of American Poets prizes and a St. Botolph's Club Emerging Artists Grant, his work has appeared in apt, Anderbo, Better, Best New Poets, Boston Review, decomP, DIAGRAM, Memorious, Missouri Review, RHINO, and Toad. A very short chapbook, 5 Poems, is available from Damfino Press, and a very long chapbook, American Carnage, is available from Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs. He's a poetry editor at Radius. He lives and writes in Cambridge, MA.