To Venture Outward: Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s “Korea”

by Brian Reed

Image Credit: Michlle Jia. Image via Flickr.

In her 2011 review essay "Emergent Cartographies and the Directions of Asian American Literary Studies," Tina Y. Chen observes that a "concern about space" has long been fundamental to "Asian American literary and cultural studies," manifesting variously as "an attentiveness to 'home,' 'belonging,' and to the importance of specific historical and geographic sites in the ongoing formation of Asian American cultures and practices, along with a focus on discovering and establishing the multiple locations producing and complicating the imagined geography of Asian America" (886). Chen maintains, however, that in the new millennium Asian Americanists have become even more preoccupied than heretofore by "the metaphors and narrative strategies" used "to talk about space," which has enabled them variously to "reexamine the relationship between social terrains and discursive practices." One metaphor in particular they have targeted for critique is that the "center," whether understood as "geographic, social, or paradigmatic." They have called for attention to the "cartographies" that only become visible when one approaches Asian American literature ec-centrically, without prejudging what constitutes a centered position for viewing, speaking, or knowing (866).

In this essay, I will be discussing an Asian American poet, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, and a poem, titled "Korea," that belongs to the same historical moment as Chen's essay and deserves to be read alongside it. Lee, too, takes up the problem of geography, how particular areas of the globe can seize the literary imagination, even force themselves on us as central to our past, present, and future. What Chen sees happening in the field of Asian American studies in general, Lee undertakes in miniature, on a personal level. She also clarifies how and why literature, especially poetry, deserves prominence as Asian Americanists continue to engage in what Chen calls "critical geographies," the rhetorical analysis of terms and concepts such as "regions, areas, hemispheres, rotating axes, borderlands, the 'local,' [and] the oceanic" (886).

Lee's poem "Korea" appears alphabetically between "Knuckle Tattoos" and "Korean Cinema" in a book titled Encyclopedia Vol. 2 F-K, which was published in 2010 and edited by Tisa Bryant, Miranda Mellis, and Kate Schatz. A note near the book's beginning explains that

Encyclopoedia Vol. 2 F-K is the second volume of the Encyclopedia Project. The 209 entries in Vol. 2, submitted by 152 contributors, reinvigorate the encyclopedia form with short fiction, critical essays, interviews, fairy tales, drawings, photographs, charts, lists, plays, and more. Cross-references create conversations among entries throughout this volume, as well as its predecessor, Vol. 1 A-E. (n.p.)

A year later, Lee's "Korea" appeared under a slightly longer title, "Korea, What Is," in her second collection of poetry, Underground National, but its original publication in Encyclopedia Vol. 2 F-K reveals something crucial about this poem's purpose: it was conceived as a poetic intervention into the genre of the reference work. Lee imagines a reader who wants to learn basic facts and information about Korea, and she provides that curious reader with the sort of text that she would want to find in the reference section of a library, namely, the tale of a Korean American woman finding herself by becoming a poet.

Lee's "Korea" begins with a satellite photo of the Korean peninsula taken at night. Afterwards come prose paragraphs, short factual catalogs, and brief passages of free verse. One will find, too, first-person recollection; staccato lyrical passages; and unattributed quotations. Many sentences are incomplete. Its proximate model may be the poetry and literary criticism of Susan Howe, especially as represented in books such as The Birth-mark (1993), Pierce-Arrow (1999), and The Midnight (2003). There one will also encounter altered found text, borrowed images, and snippets of original verse, all arranged paratactically so as to pursue in a free-associative fashion particular themes and questions. The most important precedent for "Korea," however, is surely Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee (1982). Like Cha—an author she has studied and written about—Lee is searching out, reshaping, and supplementing historical and pedagogical documents in an effort to think through her position as a diasporic subject, someone for whom "Korea" does and does not signify home.[1]

One could in fact characterize "Korea" as a greatly abbreviated updating of Dictée. It distills and concentrates Lee's reading of and responses to a series of found texts concerning modern Korean history and politics, especially ones treating warfare, violence, and colonialism. Although its language is so compressed that the poem can initially resist interpretation, a few minutes with Google will quickly fill in many of the gaps and make it much easier to follow Lee's swiftly roving thoughts. For instance, all one has to enter `is "North Korea dark" to learn that the map that kicks off the poem is a sattelite image that is part of the "standard US Department of Defense briefings on North Korea," and that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld prominently featured it in a news briefing on 23 December 2002, when he claimed that "If you look at a picture from the sky of the Korean Peninsula at night, South Korea is filled with lights and energy and vitality and a booming economy; North Korea is dark."[2] In other words, Lee begins her unusual encyclopedia entry by quite literally showing her readers a starkly divided part of the world, moreover a geographical region subject to intensive surveillance by a bellicose global superpower. This image only exists, after all, courtesy of a US Air Force spy satellite.

Google will also reveal that most of the subsequent borrowed material in "Korea" has been taken from an article by Robert Kaplan titled "When North Korea Falls" that appeared in the Atlantic in October 2006. Lee periodically interjects into her poem isolated sentences and phrases such as: "gnarly chaos," "the ultimate fog of war," "but this strategy would fail," and "these brainwashed Asians . . . will stand and fight." These interjections all seem to have been lifted from moments when Kaplan is making or reporting generalizations about the citizens of North Korea. They come across as an unthinking mass, wholly controlled by what he (and the US military) call KFR, the "Kim Family Regime."

Curiously, Lee neither straightforwardly endorses nor criticizes Kaplan despite his patent Orientalism. For example, in "Korea" the quotation from Kaplan about "brainwashed Asians" is immediately preceded by the statement "17 years of age, universal," a telegraphic reference to the practice of universal male conscription in North Korea, and the "brainwashed Asians" comment is followed by mentions of "A sound recording of Aegukka," the national anthem of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and "Streamed images of jubilee," the large-scale celebratory spectacles that constitute the regime's public face. Kaplan's tone may be offensive, yet Lee cannot deny that the North Korean state is heavily militarized and that its population is subject to around-the-clock nationalist propaganda. Living in America, writing in English, struggling to piece together remotely an understanding of a nation to which she does and does not belong, she is limited to sources she can neither trust nor do without.

She does not hesitate, however, to make changes to these sources when she decides that it suits her purposes. Mid-way through, for example, she includes a lightly revised version of the definition of "Korea" that appears in the 2010 version of the third edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English. Here is the original definition:

A region in East Asia forming a peninsula between the Sea of Japan (East Sea) and the Yellow Sea, now divided between the countries of North Korea and South Korea. Ruled from the 14th century by the Yi dynasty but more recently dominated by the Chinese and Japanese, in turn. Annexed by Japan in 1910. Following the Japanese surrender at the end of World World II, it was partitioned along the 38th parallel. (977-78)

Now here is the reworked version that appears in Lee's "Korea":

A region in eastern Asia forming a peninsula between the East Sea and the Yellow Sea, now divided. Ruled from the 14th century by the Yi dynasty but more recently dominated by the Chinese and Japanese in turn. Annexed by Japan in 1910. Following the Japanese surrender at the end of the Second World War, it was partitioned along the 38th parallel. (351)

Every difference between the transcription and the source is revealing. First, Lee eliminates the words Korea and Korean. Everything in the poem is about Korea, every last word, from the title onwards: why keep pointing out the obvious? Second, she refrains from mentioning "the countries of North Korea and South Korea," whether by their informal geographical names or their more formal ones, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea. While she acknowledges the fact of a divided Korea, she is trying to concentrate on a Korean national identity that is historically prior to and more fundamental than the 1945 split of the peninsula between Soviet and American zones of occupation. Third, she deletes the term Sea of Japan—which comes close to attributing ownership of the body of water to Korea's former colonizer—and highlights East Sea, a translation of Donghae, which tells us where the sea is located from a Korean point of view. Finally, she replaces "East Asia" with "eastern Asia." Lower-case E "eastern Asia" simply gestures toward a portion of the Asian continent. In contrast, capital-E "East Asia" would locate Korea within a specific regional grouping that includes its erstwhile imperial overlords China and Japan. At every turn, Lee here wants to emphasize Korea's autonomy and distinctiveness.

The reworked quotations in "Korea" are woven into the rest of the poem via verbal echoes and repetition. Immediately after the above definition, there is an abrupt switch to quoted speech. The idea of Korea being "annexed by Japan in 1910," expressed first in an impersonal manner, is now abruptly given teeth, via a terse first-person anecdote: "Impressed my grandmother could speak Japanese, I asked her to teach me a phrase. 'Do not touch me!'" (351). One senses in the grandmother's response the emotion that Koreans call han (한), a combination of hatred, bitterness, and a sense that a profound injustice remains unavenged.  Knowledgeable readers also probably think of the wianbu (위안부), Korean women tricked or forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during the 1930s and 40s. Words such as "dominated" and "annexed," when appearing in reference works, are half-truths, denotatively correct but pared of the horrific particulars that add up to individual and collective trauma.

Lee returns to another aspect of the dictionary definition of Korea a few paragraphs later. She introduces a meditation on the etymology of the word peninsula: "Paene insula. Of almosts. . . . Paene, suffering what constitutionally re-emerges, suffering predicated on absence [sensations]. If I could see all the way through to the horizon, maybe. Paene of distances, paene of nearsight" (352).[3] Peninsula comes from the Latin paene insula, "almost an island." Lee tries reversing the phrase, testing the idea that Korea is an island of almosts, a place where one is never wholly cut off from nor coinjoined with others. A South Korean, for instance, can stand at the DMZ and see North Korea, almost reach it, but cannot set foot there, cannot readily confirm whether relatives on that side of the border might still be alive. Alternatively, she can remain at home, in Seoul, on the Han River, and try to ignore the North, be "near-sighted," yet how could she ever shut out completely the daily drumbeat of news, the reality that Choson Inmingun, the Korean People's Army, have troops massed a mere thirty five miles away. One can almost but never fully withdraw from the ongoing state-of-war, the reality that the Korean War that began in 1950 technically never ended, since no peace treaty has ever been negotiated. In "Korea" the poem and Korea the "region in eastern Asia forming a peninsula," the word almost, paene, twists via the uncanny logic of the pun into the word pain, "suffering predicated on absence."

Why does Lee persist in trying to write about Korea if it is a place of such pain? She is acutely aware of her separation from it. One voice warns her, "There is no going back . . . You don't belong there, it is not yours," and she is condemned to "spectat[ing] from the other side of the globe," where all she can do is construct a copy-Korea "in miniature," in her writing. She even ponders at one point what it would be like to forget the country where she lived as a girl, its "swelter of hot sun, crowds, fish." "I imagine not remembering." As she reads and comments on various texts, however, a recurrent image emerges: a "kite," her "link to the sky, pinned up into wafting blueness." By the poem's end, this kite has become a vehicle for flight: "I mean to take off in those fabric pinions, the clam shells and postcards we had stitched together to make a home. Par Avion structures I designated there." Notice the crucial slippage here. Lee starts with a classic immigrant tableau—I live here but my real home is there, the country on the other side of the sea—and then complicates it, suggesting that for someone like her "home" is neither the nation of residence nor the country of origin but instead a "Par Avion construct," a replacement for the land of her ancestors, a purely textual and fanciful creation.

Writing about Korea, drawing words and images connected to it into her poetry, she is, in fact, building her own home, an immaterial one capable of accompanying her as she travels. The poem ends with the poet having flown to her desired destination but unable to share what she discovers in this brave new world: "What is the nature of this landing, what is the color of that plane." She even questions her escape: "who are you to venture outward." She answers by recalling her struggles en route—"staggering in the gale"—and concludes with the word "tempered." Like steel in a forge, she has been annealed and remade, "tempered," made ready to bear a sharp edge. Where does she, as a poet, come down, where does she locate herself? On neither side of the Pacific. She fights through to open possibility, a veteran reader and writer now prepared to "venture outward" through history's storms to unforeseen locations.

In twenty-first-century American poetry, one will find numerous examples of authors experimenting with formal and rhetorical attributes associated with reference works. What distinguishes Sueyeun Juliette Lee's "Korea"—what made me nearly jump out of my seat when I first read it—is her abiilty to dramatize her struggle, as a diasporic writer, to make her own place in the world both using and abusing the global flows of information that characterize the contemporary digital media ecology. Searching for hard data about her presumptive but irrecoverably lost home, she takes off on a media-flight that, somewhere along the way, morphs from an obsessive activity into a "Par Avion construct," a "Korea" in quotation marks, where she may at last belong. She locates herself, precariously, in her own poetry.



Works Cited

Kaplan, Robert. "When North Korea Falls." Atlantic Monthly, October 2006, (accessed May 23, 2015).

Lee, Sueyeun Juliette. "Korea." Encyclopedia vol. 2 F-K, ed. Tisa Bryant, Miranda Mellis, and Kate Schatz. Atlanta: Encyclomedia, 2010. 351-52.

———. Underground National. New York: Factory School, 2010.

Tina Y. Chen, "Emergent Cartographies and the Directions of Asian American Literary Studies." American Literary History 23.4 (Winter 2011): 885-898.

[1] For Lee's research in Cha's archive at the University of California, Berkeley, see (accessed March 24, 2015). For Lee's published comments on Cha, see Sueyeun Juliette Lee,  rev. of Racial Things, Racial Forms: Objecthood in Avant-Garde Asian American Poetry by Joseph Jonghyun Jeon, MELUS 38.4 (Winter 2013): 256.

[2] See (accessed March 23, 2015).

[3] The brackets in this quotation appear in the original.

Brian Reed's picture
Professor of English

Brian Reed is Chair of English and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of three books--Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006), Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012), and Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)--and the co-editor of two essay collections, Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (2003) and Modern American Poetry: Points of Access (2013). A new book, A Mine of Intersections: Writing the History of Contemporary American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2016.