[English] Daily Bread for Bodies that Don’t Diminish: Pillar of Books by Moon Bo Young
- onOctober 4, 2021
- Vol.53 Autumn 2021
- byJordan A. Y. Smith
- Pillar of Books
Tr. Hedgie Choi 2021140pp.
From the opening poem of Pillar of Books, Moon Bo Young shapes a new cosmology where God dons a down jacket stuffed with the “feathers” of human lives. That God carelessly plucks out the feathers to send humans from one realm to another, an afterlife in which the soul floats and drifts through the air, to settle on some undefined ground in the great beyond. From this vast, airy opening, Moon’s collection stacks up a pillar of poems in diverse forms (free verse, prose, lists, dialogues) and cycles through tropes of literary meta-referentiality, anthropomorphic accessories and cosmic clothing, and Ovidian animal-human metamorphoses.
The entire collection carries on that feeling, of moves as powerful as death blows, accomplished in such graceful motions that even revelations of biblical import come floating down like feathers. Similarly, as the transmutation of the human being to the afterlife of the soul is grounded in the physical metaphor of the feather moving from jacket to open air, sentences become knots, twisting like insects, and Moon’s effortless transformation of people, animals, objects, and words imbue the totality of existence with a comforting continuity. That may be why she can pull off a volume with perhaps a dozen poems mentioning death that still feels like a walk in the park.
In a move that seems to blend Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” with Julio Cortázar’s “The Continuity of Parks,” the library’s architecture is both a database of linked first chapters and a basement where the chain can be hidden. The trope of the library is also central in the eponymous poem, a place where books are stacked up in pillars in which the book on bottom—always the one we want to read!—“sums up all the books above it.” The weight of literary history bears down, and reading becomes a defiance of physics like the game Jenga; when the reader slips a book out to read it, there is always the risk that the tower will come crashing down.
From the title, Pillar of Books, it will come as no surprise that the volume breathes with a sense of homage to literature and its paper manifestations. The recurring figures who are given only the first names of Antoine, Strains, and Gemelle, roam an intellectual, literary scene of unspecified geography, attending poetry lectures, chatting and joking about their writing techniques (“You have a brainstorming book? How cheesy!”), and pushing the boundaries of creativity and interpersonal relationships. This collection hums along in meta mode from the very cover, itself a gorgeous concrete poem instantiating the pillar. By the second poem, we are engaging with Kafka, both his novels and with supposedly biographical details of his childhood. Kafka serves as a bridge to the theme of novels and storytelling, and within the poems we find speculation about narrative craft, the depiction of characters and how to portray their deaths.
The casual traversing of boundaries (between living beings, between fiction and reality, between discreet books) is also most suggestive when its cosmological musings take on a scientific note, dropping facts—“Even in heaven 44.5 C is fatal for wasps”—that instills in us the urgent sense that we would do well to study up on this volume before we die and must make use of its contents like a rational person’s handbook for the afterlife. Moon’s gnostic God recalls that of César Vallejo (“On the day I was born / God was sick”), and commits a single sin while bustling about doing laundry. A husband sits at the table, chucking a spoon in exasperation, calling God a quack. Angels too “sometimes have to fill in for the devil,” and even on good days, their work involves rolling the hearts of the dead into gray blobs like eraser dust.
The translations are absolutely butter-smooth, with a great mix of the slang-infused colloquial (a baby’s head is described as “stupid big”) and elegiac eloquence. Hedgie Choi is clearly committed to the craft of translation, and anyone interested in diving into the lavish decisions and strenuous labor (“you take a comma out, you put a comma back in”) in more detail may do so through Kyle Williams’s interview with Choi (Full Stop, May 12, 2021).
The Korean poetry world has long been a place of some of the most interesting, compelling, practiced voices, and Moon’s volume in its masterful translation by Choi is a stand-out even in great company. I would highly recommend this thrilling, absorbing collection, both for hardcore poetry lovers and for fiction-centric book clubs. They will likely find that its mix of prose storytelling and highly suggestive poetic language provides ample room for discussion with abundant footholds for those new to climbing to heaven to gain new perspectives on the cosmos and on our daily lives below it and in it.