A Lyrical Fragrance: We, Day by Day by Jin Eun-young

  • onJune 20, 2018
  • Vol.40 Summer 2018
  • byJennifer Kwon Dobbs
We, Day by Day
Tr. Daniel Parker &YoungShil Ji

Poet-philosopher JinEun-young’s collection We, Day by Day returns again and again to fragrance, perhaps in allusion to the great modernist writer Yi Sang whose poem “The Cliff” ends with:


I enter the invisible grave forgetful of the
flower. True, I lie down. Ah, ah. Fragrance is
the flower—the flower, invisible, unseen.
(trans. Jaihiun J. Kim)


Jin’s learned yet accessible poetry commits to a sensuous image that takes on a force of its own and, departing from lost or obscured antecedents, blossoms as a startling dream.

The brief poem “The Dot” plots existence as intersecting Cartesian coordinates figured as a blemish on a face:


The dot on the bridge of your nose,
like the talon of a white owl soaring into white sky
gripping a sheepskin pouch full of mint leaves.


Among the senses, taste and smell in European philosophy are considered “lower register” and closest to the body while at the same time, according to US poet-critic Susan Stewart in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, “they continually play on the absent situation of writing and the conceit of the speaker’s presence in a scene to which a reader has no access.” In Jin’s poetry, this scene is the poet’s interior life. Instead of merely locating and describing some flashpoint of lived experience, her imagery leaves behind its origins. The reader’s attention is heightened as it tracks “a white owl soaring into the white sky” dragging an infusion of mint. Compelled to follow the perfumed vector of the pouch across the whiteness of the page, the reader enters unseen territory, perhaps past the margins. Her lyricism does not seek to transcend in vertical fashion the horizontal plane of the material world. Instead, it identifies new coordinates of encounter only available in a poem.

Crossing this terrain, a train runs through the poems beginning with “A Gypsy’s Time” and arriving later in the collection with “In the Small Glass Jar with a Yellow Lid.” The gypsy who “hated lessons” becomes the grandmother who is a seer “like the Cumaean Sybil”; both are archetypes moving with time’s intergenerational freight of household items, stench, and giggling children. Their vision expanded by liquor recalls the convention of a drinking song’s rearranged senses and provides context for the conceit of water in Jin’s more meditative poems about a poet’s daily struggles with time’s alienating and reductive force.

Addressing a beloved who is sometimes the poet, as in the poem “To Me,” Jin abandons sight for “the scent of sulfur” to become “an inventor of shuddering”:


This poet gets as wet as a shaken bowl of water.
This person always returns in ruin.
Let your face express water
that will fill the broken bathtub.

Failed poets.
Failed revolutions.
smoke reeks from pink plastic.

Fail again fail better.
Fireworks in water.


The poet submerges “fireworks in water” or obscures “the telos of revolution” among the clouds to reaffirm her commitment to her literary and political interests, while refusing the dryness of a certain agenda, an endpoint on a pre-planned route. In “Friend,” she asks, “Can machinery and freedom mingle like the fragrance of lilacs and roses?” and realizes that existence can be located within a relationship, not only in the individual persona. A collective existence can also be at stake in the lyric poem.

In “Literary Life,” the “us” referred to in “Bureaucrats rush us to decide” are the Korean writers whose vitality is tested by capitalist time feeding “novelists healthy as Balzac / spotted cows fed on mother cows.” Alongside “the temporary workers’ orange banners,” the writers are forced to make an impossible choice between spoiled meat and “dry words” proposed by the US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement (signed in 2007). Are such brutal conditions necessary for the development of a great artist? In the poems closing her collection, Jin answers by returning to the materials crucial to her poetry—archetype, form, and subject—that have changed over the course of her traversals. Addressing a “you” who gives cold, darkness, money, a knife, damp bedclothes, and nothing, the poet catalogs her choices of what she makes of each one but removes herself in the presence of water and nothingness (“The Beginning of a Certain Song”). She distills the language to “Dead stars” and “Time of spores” to let enigma in.

I admire this poet’s cosmopolitan rigor that accomplishes “a moment when all is painted on a higher plane” in the Korean language with a lightness in the vein of Italo Calvino but one that is wholly her own (“A Painting”). With a knife in hand, Jin subtracts weight, scraping away sources that would leash her images to reality’s mouth. Yet she does not flee from this day-to-day struggle and escape into abstraction. She is committed to showing her fingers gripping the blade’s handle and her extended wrists. In this way, she is a poet of embodied dreams laboring alongside others whose dedicated hands have also crafted a liberating vision. But for Jin, who is an astonishing master of fragrance, that lingering moment she creates after the image has departed is when an original mystery begins. 


by Jennifer Kwon Dobbs
Author, Paper Pavilion (2007) & Interrogation Room (2018)