“Someone staying up all night with open eyes looks at the eggplant-colored ceiling. A person lives above them, supine, asleep. This person stares with open eyes at the eggplant-colored person living above them.” (from “What the Hallway Prepared,” 81) 

Black Ocean’s Moon Country Poetry Series centers the English translations of mid-career and emerging Korean poets’ work. In one of the latest releases from this prolific publishing house, the four-part collection Pillar of Books from Korean poet Moon Bo Young, we are greeted with a disruptive blend of experimentation and risk captured alongside reflection and captivation. This book includes but is beyond confession; explores but expands upon lyricism; and emerges through trials of surrealist imagining arriving at a unsettling but cathartic space. Pillar of Books is as accessible as it is mysterious, and its qualities of fluidity and passage linger uniquely, a culmination of many breaths. 

Pillar of Books is a fantastic poetry release and an even more fantastic translation release. The book opens with translator Hedgie Choi providing an honest preface to the translation process, one not without flaws and frustrations, exemplary of the many hurdles of labors of translation. It is a testimony filled with wit and sarcasm, and also innumerable truths: “here I am at the end of Pillar of Books and I still really like Moon Bo Young’s poems. That’s kind of exceptional.” (11). While we are not gifted the original Korean, we can imagine its ghostly presence on Hedgie Choi’s desk, as she analyzes and deconstructs each poem, each stanza, each fragment. We are gifted with the translator’s details and experiences, which push this book into a sense of reality, of humanity, of frailty, that most books lack. 

Like many contemporary Korean writers, Bo Young’s poems are often strange thought-pieces that feel larger than life. Bo Young develops her images intensely and quickly. At the cost of context and explication, we have a realm where things merely are. They merely are absurd, and they merely are different, and they merely are filled with emotional extreme. The opening poem, “Down Jacket God,” begins: “God wears a massive down jacket. Humans are the countless duck feathers trapped inside, the poet writes.” (17) In this line, we are also introduced to a central character (or collective) traceable across the text: “the poet.” The presence of the poet, be it Bo Young or anyone else, is both representative of quirk and ridicule, while also poking around the conventional core of poetry. Who is writing the work? Whose ideas are shared? Does this even matter? What if we comment on it? The subtext across Pillar is profound and not without its own sense of challenge. 

Two poems later, “Wall,” Bo Young brings forward another strange convention: the breakdown of logic and the opposition of an object by its absurd other: “Everything that suffers from walls becomes a house. Everything addicted to walls becomes a wall. Just as everything that’s born a wall and lives as a wall dies a wall, walls repeat and walls appear at random.” (21). Bo Young’s tone, “super-funny and super-serious” as Choi writes (13), emerges and establishes itself quickly. Her meandering is countered by a presence of the factual and the ultimate. Bo Young brings other familiar objects into the book by way of displacement and circular rhetoric, often with hilarious (if not sardonic) results: “It’s always / 1PM or 3PM / in the library and / like 1PM or 3PM / the library is insincere.” (55). The concept of the library finds its own special place in Pillar, with the book’s title (and title poem) reframing the sacred community center into an absurd, otherworldly, topple-able structure. Bo Young’s mild grammatical thrills are positioned just beyond the image, where the slight twist of a line can make all the difference: “I want to drink water and / there’s this fallen kid. / I want to drink water but / there’s this fallen kid.” writes Bo Young in “Fallen Kid,” (53) going on to turn the lines on their head across the poem’s cascade. 

Pillars is a large mountain of miscellaneous writing. The book’s central theme may be that it doesn’t have (or need) a central theme; there is an allusion to ars poetica, to meta and to critique. With its four sections, dividing the book into a natural sense of pace and structure, an effect of confusion and longing appears and sustains. But the poet raises many questions with this approach to their collection, questions about what a collection should do and must do in an attempt to feel successful. Conclusively, Pillars twirls through absurdity in an ironic critical logic. To read the book may be exhausting and labyrinthine, but those challenges only contribute to this transformative text. 

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