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[ENGLISH] Every Sentence is a Story: Cold Candies by Lee Young-ju

by J. Howard Rosier March 10, 2022

Cold Candies

  • Black Ocean
  • 2021

Lee Young Ju

Lee Young Ju has published the poetry collections The 108th Man, Cold Candy, and Sister. Her poetry weaves freely between reality and fantasy, past and present, and the inside and outside.

Cold Candies might conjure the urge to shake one’s self free from Lee Young-ju’s unforgettable images, which through their profound and determined concreteness lock readers up like cement when they aren’t snagging their attention like holed sweaters or sticking in the mind like barbs. You see the conundrum. It isn’t easy to construct sentences, or stanzas, that evoke images clearly, much less over and over to produce a cohesive whole. But this is exactly what Lee does, almost effortlessly, over the course of this short volume, which was translated from the Korean by Jae Kim. Awe isn’t the right word—more like measured admiration for an auteur who has identified her art and stuck with it. 


A major part of this art is association. “Mama’s Marmalade,” Cold Candies’ opening poem, amalgamates the image of a body, sick with decay but ripe with beauty cream, to fruit preserves’ sweet fruit and savory bitterness. Of course, “preserve” also means to maintain something in its original state. (“You want to make yourself layer by layer, / into a person who doesn’t rot.”) The way Lee orders her lines is disorienting, alternating between an “I” and “you” until an occasional observation fills in the atmosphere. However, it also feels real, despite its idiosyncrasy, which is due to Lee’s penchant for using the prose poem form to construct something larger thematically out of a series of micronarratives.



“A Romantic Seat” begins this way:



He’s sitting on a sofa. Crossing his long, beautiful legs. I’m silently looking. I’m standing. Is this the basement? He’s been sitting so long he’s become the basement. Darkness warms me. I’ve had the thought before, that darkness was round. I have to stand up to shatter the roundness. I’m standing in a corner. Can my hands determine the shape of the interior?


When taken apart, these increments are complete sentences that contain precise narrative actions: the man on the sofa, silent save the motion of his legs crossing, which the poem’s speaker is looking at from across the room, and so on. Each piece has a unique function—long shot or close-up, internal or external exposition, setting or mood—that, when put together, coax the reader forward. The terseness and emphasis on sight recalls the imagist project promoted by Ezra Pound and H.D. In his translator’s note, Jae Kim describes an accident in which Lee was hit by a cyclist, partially blinding her. As a result, she took to turning her head to see out of her good eye, and this gesture of taking in image after image, and the subsequent compiling of information to reach understanding, is apparent throughout. 


The vast majority of poems in Cold Candies work the same way as “Marmalade” and “Seat”—that is, dense sheets of text with a distinctive sense of motion. But several of the poems contain stanzas. These work in a similar way, but the difference is essentially scaffolding. Or rather, the compression of Lee’s images is equally distributed before each break, where the increments of the lines are held in place by the stanzas, which are their own autonomous structures. When they are put together, though, it’s to dazzling effect, such as the poem “Dinnertime,” which contains a five-four, five-five-two-one structure that deftly narrates the acceptance, the holding onto, and eventual slipping away of a dying relative, or “Motel Bellagio,” which unlike the vast majority of Lee’s poems, contains a line break between stanzas two and three that isn’t a complete sentence. Yet even this is governed by isolated images—that of someone eating canned mackerel in a hotel room amid “a doll’s pupil open[ing]” and “an old boy covered in scales” entering the space. 


Going through these pages, one gets the sense that it is Lee who is imposing her logic onto the poem, and not the other way around. There is something satisfying about the consistency of syntax and tone, though it does present a double-edged sword. Deliberate choices, such as line breaks, stanzas, word placement, and poem length jump out at the reader when Lee decides to break the mold. Yet not fully taking advantage of the formal possibilities of different poetic shapes raises the question of whether or not the content is too monotonous. Something as simple as the enjambments at the end of the aptly titled “Bunker” carries an extreme weight due to its novelty, but perhaps reaches for more than it’s capable of justifying:



[. . .] Wind rises from mud, and there are songs walking to the grave: the song that waits, the song that sleeps, the song whose tears have dried, the song that embraces, the song that rubs its knees, 

and 

the dead.



J. Howard Rosier

Lecturer, New Arts Journalism Department

School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)

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