KR Reviews

On Pillar of Books by Moon Bo Young

Translated by Hedgie Choi. Black Ocean, 2021. $16.00.

“In Kafka’s The Trial there’s actually a sentence that goes ‘__________*’,” we learn in Moon Bo Young’s collection of poetry Pillar of Books, translated from the Korean by Hedgie Choi. You might not remember that sentence from The Trial because, according to the poem’s speaker, she’s the only one who has seen it. Pillar of Books includes many features that flourish at the edges of the actual, from fog that’s “like a bus stop” to an imaginary biography of Salvador Dalí. In this case, Moon’s consideration of a sentence that does and does not exist brings her closer to Kafka, raising questions about who authors the messages that readers find:

So is “__________*” Kafka’s sentence? Or is Kafka citing a friend? Or is Kafka quoting me? The sentence “__________*” only exists in my eyes. Who besides me can help Kafka?

The tenderness of that final sentence—which casts Moon as a compassionate detective, following a clue only she has seen—leads to fantastical scholarship. “In Kafka’s childhood in my head / I found the answer to ‘__________*’,” Moon writes. She explains that she was “sitting on a refrigerator in Kafka’s head,” along with a cobra. Or is she the cobra? Is Kafka? Is “Kafka’s head” inside her head? One pleasure of Pillar of Books is that such ambiguities remain lively and layered, even as they’re explored through the language of systematic inquiry. That approach can recall story problems (“A slept with B and C and D and E and F and G”) and includes fanciful equations and diagrams (the title of one poem is a triangle with a dot next to it). In “A Real Carrot Crying Real Tears,” Moon develops a surreal premise through propositions that propose more than ordinary logic:

1. Someone goes to a carrot store to get carrots.
2. There isn’t a single carrot that is truly carroty.
3. Where should they go?
4. Someone, believing the past can be erased,
1. goes to the carrot store to get carrots.

These gestures of inquiry cause poetic phenomena in Pillar of Books to seem more real, because, like complex encounters in the natural world, testing them doesn’t explain them away.  “__________*” is now a sentence in The Trial, or in my impression of it, as surely as Yeats actually encountered a bird “of hammered gold and gold enameling.” Whether offering an allegorical vision of God in a “massive down jacket” (“humans are the countless duck feathers trapped inside”) or considering the meaning of a secret word (“Sseuksseuksseuksseuk”), Moon emphasizes instances that grow more mysterious and evocative as they face investigation. It recalls the researchers that Moon describes in “White Factory” who “prefer facts over truth and falsehood.” A fact, in this formulation, is more actual than true, a distinction that can turn research into a “form of love,” of tending to facts in their own right. “The collection of facts isn’t a matter of taste,” Moon writes. “The researchers want a revolution.”

One should hear “collection” as both verb and noun, especially in a book packed with libraries and gatherings of writers. “Because I need a mental diet,” Moon writes in “Identity,” “I read books daily. I read until the content of every book becomes the same. Because the librarian wears the same clothes, it’s impossible to distinguish between the sad story I read yesterday and the unhappy story I read today.” The sameness of the librarian’s shirt obliterates her ability to differentiate among books; like the “__________*” that her poem perceives in Kafka, this obliteration points to the porousness of readerly experience and to the significance of observations that begin in whimsy. In “Identity,” the blurred distinctions among books lead to a blurring between the poem’s narrator and “a child whose only possession is a bruise-colored balloon.” Reading is analogous to how the imaginary child passes the time:

So the child blows up the balloon. The child blows until the balloon is about to bust and then, slowly, the child lets the air out. I take in that air and sigh. If the balloon bursts the child will have nothing to play with. Because yesterday-me and today-me are indistinguishable, the balloon maintains its bruise color.

In her translator’s preface, Choi notes the fluidities of Moon’s Korean: particular phrases “ripple” beyond “the individual sentence” due to minimal punctuation; tenses mix in ways that, in her translation, Choi made sure wouldn’t wrongly imply causal relationships; similarly, because “in Korean, conjunctions such as ‘but’ and ‘and’ are often appended as particles onto the last word of the clause,” they function “more casually and flexibly” than in English. These dynamics, in Choi’s translation, feel especially important when the methodical meets the magical, as in “Laws of Science” (“a is a to the power of 1 but it pretends not to be. Here, 1 is something like air”). With Choi’s preface in mind, a reader perhaps shouldn’t seek exact causal connections but an experience of the poem’s suggestive, rippling field.

In a series of pieces about “the young poets Antoine, Gemelle, and Strains,” narrative causality ripples between action and fantasy. We first meet the poets at a poetry lecture at which “the poet at the podium scatters different sized bananas on the floor”; the bananas’ differing sizes are characteristic of Moon’s mix of the exuberant and the nuanced. Everyone at the event goes “bananas” and becomes “banana-rich.” The young poets get jealous. They decide to write their own poems, which, in Moon’s work, feels reasonable: an excess of bananas leads to a desire for more poems. A brief anthology follows. Gemelle’s poem focuses on a “long-necked reader” on a path:

A crab appears and blocks the path.
She goes this way
and the crab crab-walks and blocks her.
She goes that way
and the crab crab-walks and blocks her.
The poet crab-walks
to interrupt the reader.

Pillar of Books offers a wealth of such sidelong interruptions, both in its bemused, fantastical physics (in one poem, God jaywalks, which causes an early birth) and its attention to cycles and refrain (“I want to drink water and / there’s this fallen kid,” one poem begins, words that chime throughout the piece). A reader’s expectations may be interrupted by what they read, which brings them into a closer relationship with it. In Moon’s collection, this closeness causes reading and its specimens to gain imaginative depth, so that “the library begins to breathe / like a person.”