What role does poetry have to play in society today? How does poetry address the world around us? If you are a poet or are invested in the poetry industry, it is always good to have an elevator speech at the ready. You might be on a plane someday, and someone might ask you what you do, and to just say poetry or translation or publishing poetry sounds to the layman like you live on the moon and ride unicorns to work. One has to always explain—because how can something which has little to no market value still exist?
With its lack of big rhetorical lines or absence of a direct political message, Lee Jangwook’s Request Line at Noon might not seem like the book you would want to use to explain to nonbelievers the power of poetry. However, I think it is precisely the absence of such gestures that makes it such a good book to explain not only why contemporary poetry matters, but also how it works.
This is a book interested in repetition and difference—a poetic materialism argued through praxis, not through declaration. Because poetry has the power to enact philosophy—to put it on stage, here repetition functions as a way to unhinge the mimetic function of language. What I mean is that the politics of these poems are in the machinery of how the poems work, not in what they say. Repetition recycles words by reimagining their function—much like how the seatbelts of old cars can be refurbished into the straps of bags, or made into bags themselves—Lee not only reclaims and recycles, but he also takes language and rolls it out flat like a piece of dough and then cuts it into distinctly separate, but similar shapes.
Suppose I come upon an alley while walking along the alley,
All I can do is to look around.
There are things that start living all of a sudden
From a place that happens all of a sudden.
The old, new world
That unrolls where the blind alley appears. (p. 34)
The doubling of the word “alley” conflates space while “all of a sudden” distorts time. Paradoxically, interiority and exter ior i ty, sing ular i ty and multitude, are not singled out and meditated upon in the idiosyncratic moment of a heroic speaker, rather they (un)roll like the world itself. It is no s...
Lee Jangwook (b.1968) made his literary debut with the publication of his poems in Contemporary Literature in 1994. He has authored two poetry collections, A Sand Mountain In My Dream (2002), and Hopeful Song at Noon (2006); essay collections on poetry, My Gloomy Modern Boy (2005) and Revolution and Modernism: Russian Poets and Thinkers (2005); a novel, Joyful Devils of Callot (2005); and a collection of short stories, The King of Confession (2010).