REVIEW: THE WET HEX – SUN YUNG SHIN (COFFEE HOUSE PRESS)


The wreck of human invention tastes of space

Most borders are invitation of affliction

Most borders make orphans

Mines wind down under a layer of earth like clocks and roots

– From “Mines and Museums, or, the DMZ Is a Nature Preserve”


Award-winning editor and poet Sun Yung Shin is at her best in The Wet Hex, a collection that draws on everything from DNA test results to classical mythology as Shin unpacks the connection between her Korean heritage and centuries of colonialism. The author makes use of more than a dozen distinct forms, including Abecedarian, found poetry and mirror forms, putting her technical abilities on full display. The third section, an illustrated collaboration with Jinny Yu, further highlights the mythological through a reimagining of a traditional Korean tale.

While reading The Wet Hex for the first time, I was frequently reminded of Mai Der Vang’s Yellow Rain, another collection which makes expert use of found poetry and intertextuality. Shin alludes to and/or quotes passages from various canonical texts in Western Literature, including Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Melville’s Moby Dick, as well as lesser read texts like Christopher Columbus’ personal journals. “Castaways in Paradise,” for example, puts sections of the Metamorphoses in direct conversation with Columbus’ journals. At the heart of the poem is an image of the author’s passport, effectively bridging mythos and history to highlight a long and violent legacy of colonialism and its impact on colonized peoples.

Similarly, “Whiteness: A Spell Thrown” includes a brief passage from Moby Dick. Much of the text is faded, making a play on erasure poetry and emphasizing selected words by keeping them bold on the page. Shin uses this strategy to illustrate the various ways in which Whiteness attempts to establish itself as dominant, pure and sacred. The effect is profound, as the words Shin chooses to prioritize stress how White supremacist ideologies are reinforced and internalized, both in the way the narrator expounds on the superiority of Whiteness and in the way readers of Melville consume the language of White supremacy.

Of course, these allusions are but one of the many techniques Shin utilizes throughout the collection. The Wet Hex is, at its core, a fractured narrative of becoming. The author juxtaposes selections from Western literature with numerous poems about Korean identity and the immigrant experience in America. She invokes etymology in her exploration of how language impacts our understanding of culture, and of the self. “An Orphan Receives Her Commercial DNA Test Results from Two Companies: An Abecedarian” retools the English alphabet to comment on the literal embodiment of colonization in her blood.

The third section is, for me, the most intriguing. Shin begins the section with an epitaph that contextualizes the story of Baridegi, a daughter who, after being abandoned, returns to save her father and become the foremother of those who escort the dead into heaven. This section pairs illustrations with short numbered poem-chapters, following the narrative of Baridegi from birth through her work in the Underworld. Positioning this story at the center of the collection strengthens Shin’s critique of violence and misogyny in the West, as the narrative features a female protagonist with remarkable autonomy, strength and loyalty. One of the most beautiful images involves Baridegi grinding coarse salt into fine granules that capture the light of the moon, then carrying that light throughout her years in the Underworld, only to pour it into the soil when leaves the Kingdom of the Underworld for good.

The Wet Hex is a complex collection, one that is difficult to quote or excerpt because every turn of phrase is precise and essential in context. Shin is a rich and talented storyteller, a remarkable lyricist and a highly informed historian who excels at combining her various expertise into a unique, cohesive and impossibly layered collection.

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