Ah, Mouthless Things by Lee Seong-Bok
Los Angeles. Green Integer. 2017. 95 pages.
Ah, Mouthless Things, published in Korean in 2003 and now translated for the first time into English, is a pocket-sized collection of poems that bespeak astonishing pain and awe. Born in 1952 and educated at Seoul National University, Lee Seong-Bok has won a number of awards over the past several decades and is a long-standing voice in Korean poetry. Lee’s work is free verse but has elements of more structured genres, such as the sijo and sonnet. Within that semblance of structure, however, and as the title of the collection suggests, is something beautiful and often dark, something unpronounceable.
Lee brings together discordant and strange things that often perplex in ways that remind me of Horace’s “Ars Poetica.” “I Dislike This Greenish Hue,” for example, moves from the green of spring to the experience of pain in the neck, pastel hues, and a “body left unclothed, / like a mermaid on cold sand.” Lee plays with gender and surprising associations: in this instance, a man suddenly rendered a mermaid, cold, on the sand.
“The Flower Is in Yesterday’s Sky” is a poem composed of just two quatrains, the first of which collides into the second. “Love is not / inside a person loving. / Rather, a person loves / inside of love.” The pleasure in this muddled and meandering syntax that circles back in and around itself is painfully thrashed into us with the second quatrain: “A flower stalk jammed / into the narrow neck of a vase / withers with the musty smell of a floor / and the flower is in yesterday’s sky.” Those bodies colliding in the mind are transformed into flowers jammed, smelly and rotting over time, and then opened out into the sky, like a dream or memory. Is the pain here the nostalgia of that first love, or is all love, for Lee, brooding?
There is much to explore and enjoy in Lee’s collection; may the taste leave you smiling.