Sun Yung Shin, Unbearable Splendor
Publisher: Coffee House Press
2016, 111 pages, paperback, $16

POETRY AS ESSAY. These three words on the back cover, along with praise from the likes of Bhanu Kapil and Jenny Boully, piqued my interest from the get-go. My expectations were high, yet quickly surpassed: Unbearable Splendor is one of the best books I’ve read in years.

In this intricately textured collection, Sun Yung Shin, born in Korea, explores her experience as an adoptee, and the lingering effects it has had on her identity—feeling borrowed, waiting to be returned—through lyric passages that are both abstract and emotionally resonant. Shin doesn’t construct a traditional essayistic persona, but we learn about her life through her interrogation of other subjects, such as black holes and the uncanny valley.

Shin is adept at sound play and often uses etymology to piece together an emotional understanding. She explores the word guest (“Old English gaest, giest [Anglian gest] ‘guest; enemy; stranger’”) to reflect on her place in her American home (“My enemy, my house…”) with her adoptive family (“Brother, bastard…”), where she will never feel welcome. “It is home and tomb. Womb and vail. Wall and wail.” She explores the history of Korea, and of her name, and speculates about the information from her previous life that she will never be able to access.

It is in a section called “The Other Asterion” that I get a sense of the broader moves the collection is making. For example, the essays at first work in reverse, moving from the narrator’s current state of mind (“a frozen collapsing object”) to her early years as an adoptee (“something in your blood is bad”), back to her birth (“the baby exhibits abnormal breathing… paper soaked in milk…), back to the Big Bang (“this violent freeing of energy hurtled a billion pieces of light with a thick protective halo of space around each of them”). Time then propels forward again, and we get a brief history of the world in lyric: “Gods invented, feared, and prayed to. Sacrifices of all kinds. Animals roped and yoked. Virginity named and fetishized. Priestesses. The first kings and queens.” The history ends on: “Mazes and labyrinths. The first prison. Prisoners.” Shin’s ability to shift directions and perspectives quickly, to zoom in and out to the micro and macro, is hypnotizing. It allows us to read trance-like, to give ourselves over to the emotional experience.

It also becomes clear here that this persona sees herself from all angles. As human likeness, as swallowed and swallower. As stranger, both guest and hostile visitor. As prison guard. In this essay, she tends to prisoners where she defines the prison as the universe; soon it is also the orphanage where she spent her formative years; then she is the guard to the minotaur in the labyrinth, whose parents’ absence weighs heavily, and her identity merges with his.

We learn bits of the narrative but the specifics of her life aren’t exactly the point; these essays are impressionistic, more concerned with the driving forces than with relaying facts.

Unbearable Splendor is essay and poem and fiction and diagram and memoir. It encompasses themes of parental abandonment (“Overturning. To turn down. To trample on.”), of alienation, of sexual assault, of finding answers through language (“Adoptee is a word that sounds unfinished”). She examines, expands, refines her identity. She is both herself and minotaur, bull and man, star, cyborg, bear but not god. She shifts from “I” to “we” casually. She makes it clear that these angles depend on who’s looking, but that they also express her experience as “the woman who split away,” as a woman who has become clones of herself.

Sun Yung Shin’s explorations are honest and unrestrained and show an enormous amount of skill. In spite of the gravity of the issues at hand, Unbearable Splendor comes from a writer at play, and she never lets us forget how much pleasure there is to be found in language.

— Danielle Zaccagnino

Sun Yung Shin is the author of poetry collections Rough, and Savage and Skirt Full of Black, which won an Asian American Literary Award. She coedited the anthology Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption, and is the author of Cooper’s Lesson, a bilingual Korean/English illustrated book for children. She’s received grants and fellowships from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Bush Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and elsewhere. She lives in Minneapolis.