The Holes and Cyborgs in Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor

Grace Shuyi Liew
Unbearable Splendor
by Sun Yung Shin
Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2016.
119 pages. $16. (paperback)

In Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor, the hybrid body is not malformed but extra-formed. It is a “creature of excess,” superpowered and supernatural. It carries holes and heals over them only to bear new holes. It is “a thing that has extended its power,” though not in the sense of being worn out, but in that it is broken free of restrictions. Shin constructs a world raging with myths and familial dreams that drip with longing, comingling under the wrath of colonial dominance, “that peninsula-wide trauma that resulted in tens of thousands of children being made available for adoption to the west” (36). And who but an adoptee cyborg whose Korean legacy bores holes through her body could ask: “Can the whole world see me all at once?” Shin’s project is, in this sense, a tightly wound collection of verses, prose, graphs, mythologies, and images, that depict the myriad ways “the whole world” might “see” this hybridized, state-ripped body who is perpetually trying to fathom the losses that give it shape.

The hybrid collection opens with valleys and holes. Holes that expand, contract, and transmute, at times symbolizing a fragmented, underconstructed self (“I was a hole and I brought it, myself, to mi guk “beautiful country,” America, the United States” (1)), at times symbolizing an overconstructed self:

I spent sixteen years living with American parents

They are inside me now; they are my guests.

They are my holes, like babies, like stones (9).

The hole of the speaker, “like a shadow that changed at will,” learned to morph in order to survive, until eventually it gains a level of self-conscious discernment: not all holes are equal. “One must learn to carry the right holes on one’s journey” (8). And as if the speaker is one who collects holes on the journey of the book, the “I” eventually evolves into a collective “we,” a chorus of all who bear holes and all who are holes:

We have always wanted a manhole cover for a face — we have always wondered what is below the manhole — what keeps the city from flooding? (78)

The transition from a solitary “I” to a collective plural voice signifies a shift of recognition. That the stateless and nameless adoptee is not only no longer solitary — she is part of a whole, even if that whole consists of those defined by an identity of lack. This shift between “I” and “we” is not linear. As the pages turn, the liquid-soft speaker congeals then melts, gains and loses holes. Recognizing a collective identity enables her to rise out of her ever-transforming state, if only to boast, “I’m more real than you are because I know I’m not real,” before melting back into her pool of “we,” on the search again. Next to an eerie black-and-white photocopy of her family registry record, Shin writes: “We are a colony of one” (49).

The author of two previous collections, Rough, and Savage, and Skirt Full of Black, as well as the editor of the anthology A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, Shin has an imaginative prowess that holds space for grim realities and power structures that often risk being overlooked. One of Shin’s talents in this collection lies in her ability to infuse the basest of realities with an ephemeral sheen. The world of Unbearable Splendor gives us newborns that recognize the scent of their mothers’ amniotic fluid. A war-ravaged state that legalizes child abandonment to governmental institutions. Hospitals overrun with children. Clones want to be beautiful and Antigone is an “envoy of ghosts” (65). A mother’s dreams double as premonitions that predict the kind of person the unborn child will be — prompting a speaker to wonder about the dreams borne by the mother of South Korea’s military dictator’s daughter-successor during her pregnancy (37).

These constant reminders of surreal wonderment do their work like little ice picks, chipping away at the grand event of colonized hurt. The results are small, perceptible feelings you could almost hold in your hand. The newborn’s adept scent recognition is invoked in order to tell the reader: “For at least the first two months of life, a baby prefers the unmistakable scent of her own mother to any other odor.” Only in the adoptee’s case, the baby’s identity as a newborn is short-lived. Instead of being imbued with the possibility of life, she is rendered “an object, easily laundered and transferred. Relocated and reassigned. Physically safe perhaps, and fed and sheltered, but without one’s first materials and self and home: one’s mother, one’s ur-body” (36).

In an interview with MN Artists, Shin talks about how in her earlier days as a poet, she was captivated by the banal language of advertising, the kind that decorated the back of a shampoo bottle. This draw toward a language that is commonplace but uncommonly deployed shows up in the collection. Punctuated by dictionary definitions, epigraphs, etymologies, and quotes from clinical texts, Unbearable Splendor carries syntaxes that are palpably foreign when contrasted against the first-person speaker-hero who is on her journey of recouping and collecting her sense of self. This contrast is fertile location for Shin to shift between modes of thought. Dictionary definitions are rendered ominously:

The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say about memory … some memories are shaped by language, others by imagery. Much of our moral and social life depends on the peculiar ways in which we are embedded in time. Memory goes wrong in mundane and minor, or in dramatic and disastrous ways (41).

Words derive meaning not just from that which they are imbued, but also from the sonic qualities they carry, the way “adoptee is a word that sounds unfinished,” the “or” of the word orphan reminding the speaker of “the possibility of alternatives” (52). The word “offspring” is beloved because it sounds like “to spring from a trap to spring from jail” (78). The copy for an ad searching for surrogate candidates depicts a laundry list of “benefits of being a surrogate,” promising “an incredible sense of fulfillment,” but Shin’s speaker calls its bluff, calls it for what it is: “I see my father every time I look in the mirror but I wouldn’t recognize him on the street” (102).

Because Unbearable Splendor is a world of multiplicity, alternate readings are possible, even necessary. The collection carries one story of a Korean adoptee. Alternately: a mechanized cyborg on its journey toward organic consciousness. Sentience. How does a supercomputer finally pass the Turing test?

The positive me is testing the negative me, always asking me questions and trying to trick me into believing it is human, or that I am human, or that we are both machines (70).

In the final essay of the collection, Shin writes: “I am failing the human test and passing the machine test.” Perhaps resolution for the book’s transnational adoptee cyborg is not so much a sense of recognition as much as it is a reverence of all that she is not.

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