Repetition and Difference: Request Line at Noon by Lee Jangwook
- onAugust 2, 2016
- Vol.32 Summer 2016
- byJacob Levine
- Request Line at Noon
Tr. Sun Kim and Tsering Wangmo 201668pp.
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 surprise then that in a poem that echoes Vallejo’s “Black Stone on a White Stone,” Lee writes:
I will call you on Thursday.
I will call you on the sole Thursday.
I lost my interest in martyrs today
[…] I am a skill-less magician,
If I go around the corners,
Thursday will show up like magic.
I don’t like martyrs,
The martyrs from the Nine O’clock News,
So I shall call in the rain. (p. 11)
Most of these poems take place either in the afternoon or at dusk, when the quality of the light makes vision mysterious, when the shadows of things become bigger than things themselves. Objects in the poems are given their own subjectivity and they will often have agency to change on their own. This relieves the speaker from being the center of action, and flattens human subjectivity to that of an animal, an elephant, a giraffe—just another object or being floating in the world.
While the poems are always written between an “I” and a “you,” the addressee is often a self-reflexive echo that bounces out, extending into the landscape. “Eleven a.m. I absorbed the sounds./ Eleven a.m. I was as noisy as possible./ Opening the window I became countless voices transformed into the speed of sound.” (p. 13) While Lee’s poetry has been described as operating on the border of fantasy and reality, because identity almost has the fluidity of the snow and rain, the poems move horizontally. “A woman who jumped off the 8th floor of Jugong apartment/ Lay on the railing of the second floor/ Her long hair dangling/ There is no music tonight.” (p. 7) When the cognitive mapping of the self merges with the outer world in a single landscape, suddenly it is not only the self, but the entire world that is changed. “When the number 7 bus that I’m on shakes/ I am only the number 7 bus/ […] Shaking my head boldly/ I’ll walk on the road where flowers endlessly bloom.” (p. 49) And like the speaker, none of us are observers alone, but are one with what we observe.
by Jacob Levine
Poet, Translator, Editor at Spork Press
PhD Candidate, Seoul National University