SHARKPACK Poetry Review

An imprint of FATHOMBOOKS.

Youna Kwak and ‘The Living Substance’

Without minimizing the joy and magic that poetry enacts in place, there is the further possibility that poetry can do more than entertain (inter tenere: the power to hold among), and in that intense moment of engagement transfigure the very trappings of the mind. Indeed, there is a dimension to the craft of poetry that deals only with an apprehension beyond the intellect (certainly beyond ‘entertainment’): something like the ‘Negative Capability’ that Keats defined as ‘the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects.’ This is the great receptiveness by which an artist may transmute his or her own socially- and linguistically-constructed bounds and enter into dialogue with all that exists beyond ‘fact & reason.’

For the poet, a natural curiosity about this dimension of existence is engaged by the connectedness of such receptivity with a curiosity about language; a tinkerer’s minute mechanical sensibility is conjoined with the metaphysician’s meditativeness. This sort of curiosity is neatly described and mused upon by Michel Foucault, and though the poet and the philosopher are conflated in the presentation of this excerpt, the ideas accord in earnest:

It was curiosity—the only kind of curiosity, in any case, that is worth acting upon with a degree of obstinacy: not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself.  After all, what would be the value of the passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not, in one way or another and to the extent possible, in the knower’s straying afield of himself?  There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all.  People will say, perhaps, that these games with oneself would be better left backstage; or, at best, that they might properly form part of those preliminary exercises that are forgotten once they have served their purpose.  But, then, what is philosophy today—philosophical activity, I mean—if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself?  In what does it consist, if not in the endeavor to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known? . . .  The ‘essay’—which should be understood as the assay or test by which, in the game of truth, one undergoes changes, and not as the simplistic appropriation of others for the purpose of communication—is the living substance of philosophy.

The oppositional motives Foucault gives for curiosity in the first sentence insinuates several things that are interesting to consider: first, that the Self is a thing vulnerable to assimilation, whose ‘proper’ form in society contains a matrix kin to imprisonment; second, that this Self is transmutable; third, that the form of this Self is shaped in part by knowledge, which is to say, knowledge has an organically active component—a living substance­.

However much the phrase ‘to get free of oneself’ might imply an utter formlessness from which no further comment or perspective is possible, Foucault’s language suggests rather that this business of getting free of oneself is more about getting free of stuck forms, or—to use a printer’s metaphor—a matter of loosening the quoins and dropping stiffness from the chase. It is, after all, language which ultimately binds thought to its forms. To take the metaphor further: to rearrange the chase is to change the imprint (or to preclude an imprint at all, the loose type being pi’d!). Following, ‘to get free of oneself’ involves an experiential journey-in-thought, a moving from point A to point B that transcends all priorly designated itineraries—beyond the static well of ‘knowledgeableness’ is a moving, living stream that, if followed, expands the potential of language, knowledge, and Self infinitely. This chasing oneself out-of-form, this commitment to grab onto and be led by curiosity’s dusky hand, following her even out of the language matrix one has built a world around, to head into the unknown—ever to repeat this cycle of change—is the journey of the poet whose work becomes inseparable from that of the philosopher—indeed, the mystic.

The difficulty in our age is that so much is ‘known,’ so much knowledge is available at one’s fingertips, so much travel is possible without sacrifice—how and where does one find the unknown? How does one follow curiosity outside of a matrix of itself, an endless Net-search that leaps link to link to page to page to boredom, and again? Without prescribing a path to pathlessness, we may take a probative look at the work of one who is well on her journey: the poet Youna Kwak, about whom Joanna Klink has written ‘With a gorgeous ear, a lexicon of sheer physical force, and a brazen way of moving through poetic terrain so that her speakers are tested to the utmost, she is an ecstatic poet. She is also a religious poet whose sensuality and urgency refuse to be tempered by irony.’ And, peering into the poems Klink chose as a sampler for the Boston Review in 2008, one sees in Kwak no tempering at all, but an earnest work that asks everything difficult of itself first, giving all the beauty of that difficult work to the reader. Here is a breathless excerpt from Kwak’s “Appalachia Your Soldier Returning”:

My flesh too much entered, what can accord
Between flesh and eyes, where is the starshape
Gust of the sun, where is my eye to tell
What I have done, what have I done,
Where is the flesh that completes

My limb, gnomic, my evergreen gnomic, where are you
Gone, are you in flesh where there is none?
Why shall I not weep, why
Not weep if I cannot see,
Tell me that this is
The life after all, tell me
This is the life that is, tell me how life
Can be without limb, without eyes, tell me
My wail is too deep
To be heard in the bowels of the ocean, too deep
To be buried in the garden’s plucked quiet, too deep,
Not finished with me, did not
Finish me, will

No miracle come, will my eyes not
Return, will my eyes
Not return [. . .]

There is, in these lines, a strained (but not forced) inquiry, a felt anguish in the progression as the speaker struggles against his own desire to locate himself in the beyond, in death, in the natural order. The question is what drives this piece, the question which begets only further questioning, an opening which the inquirer falls into as willingly as unwillingly. The desire to self-reflect (‘where is my eye to tell/ What I have done’) and likewise to find an understanding for what accords ‘[B]etween flesh and eyes,’ between the physical self and the the world without, conflate mysteriously in a phrase like ‘My limb, gnomic, my evergreen gnomic.’ Tree and body meld, but not to the satisfaction of the intellect, which demands: ‘where are you/Gone.’ Here is the cry of a Self that seems to live in that headless gaze of Apollo, a being whose borders might always be bursting, whose wail might very well source from something so remote that it is ‘too deep/To be heard in the bowels of the ocean, too deep/To be buried in the garden’s plucked quiet, too deep’—contiguous with a depth that is even more profound than the depths perceived in nature. A depth which is to preserve in nature and in Self an unimpeachable mystery that pervades both.

For the speaker in “Appalachia Your Solider Returning,” the borders of Self are breached, the ‘flesh too much entered’—there is no stable edge on which to hang completion. ‘Not finished with me, did not/Finish me,’ he says, obfuscating pronouns to preserve the hidden root of the poem’s inquiry, that force which has thrown the speaker into being incomplete(ly). The struggles of the poet’s inquiry lead to an inspired deadlock, something of a yet-unveiled revelation: ‘In accordance with the trees [. . .] their/Arrogated scent that did not break me, would not/Break for me, waft and willow, lodgepine, whistle, now/I am free./No house will console me, no/White pine house,/No new sprung nubs, no scent of spring arriving, no golden drip/Of honey sting upon the lip, no beaded color burst of loving, no wilderness, no to everything.’ In being neither broken himself nor able to take apart that body of the natural world, the speaker comes to discover a sense of freedom that can exist without either consolation or full understanding.

In saying ‘no to everything,’ the speaker commits himself to the plunge he has already taken, that expansive inquiry and desire which not even the beauty and abundance of nature can fully resolve to human senses. He opens himself to that very thing which Dickinson intimates, I think, in that famous charged conjunctive adverb, her ‘finished knowing—Then—’: an experience crafted beyond human conception, a ‘house of eyes’ built from the very multeity of the natural world. That is: the speaker finds a sentient home in the earth, one with open doors to allow for the permeability of the inchoate, one whose perspectives take on structure while allowing the infinite. In the poem’s movement toward those final lines, Kwak displays a wisdom concentrated by neither wit nor intelligence, but by sheer force of an alert, creative receptivity—more powerful than either:

Appalachia, your son returning. Open your doors,
Open the earth, open your doors. Build me a house of eyes.

Against all the pathos previously evoked by the speaker’s dread of loss—loss of eyes particularly—the poem produces a turn in which the speaker succumbs entirely to the loss of himself qua himself, and thus places himself into a family structure with that which he now calls ‘Appalachia’—a sudden proper noun tendered to the other which has thus far been shrouded in organic multeity. The christening power of the poet and an entirely new plane of experience is initiated—a plane unknown, perhaps unknowable.

Returning to Foucault’s claim that the essay ‘should be understood as the assay or test by which, in the game of truth, one undergoes changes, and not as the simplistic appropriation of others for the purpose of communication—[it] is the living substance of philosophy,’ poem and poetry might just as well be substituted for ‘essay’ and ‘philosophy’. Certainly Kwak’s work seems to reach its ends via an endeavored reckoning with forces larger than herself (as well as the unmanageable forces of herself), and communication of her experience occurs only as a consequence to the fact that her journeying has partially taken place in the vessel of language. It is clear from the content of the poem that not all the journeying has occurred on the page, but that the larger part has come through a living being, through a self that has lived and experienced beauty and suffering at her core. How else could she say—and not say—all that she does? The living substance of the poem is in ‘what accords/Between eyes and tree, the hard yellow buds, flesh of my palm/Where too much has entered’—it is the unstoppable overflow of feeling as managed by a being not only masterfully attuned to the fabric of language, but mystically attuned to the silence beyond one’s own voice.

3 responses to “Youna Kwak and ‘The Living Substance’”

  1. Wow. This is great. That’s what this blog is doing, its written by artists who are also philosophers. Also LOVE the new design, really readable.

  2. Thanks for that, and glad you like the new layout . . . I love it myself. Thanks to Youna and to Stephanie also, who is the priestess of this place: so much original and probing thought here.

  3. What fun, Sappy Rose!

    Wanted to know what you made of: “Are you in flesh where there is none?”

    Loved: Curio’s dusky hand / ability to pass through the city walls (Pass Without Trace).


    “Communication .. occurs only as a consequence to the fact that .. journeying has ..taken place in the vessel of language.”

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