Mystery and Befuddlement in Jae Newman’s Collage of Seoul

Mystery and Befuddlement in Jae Newman’s Collage of Seoul

November 28, 2017

Review by Benjamin Myers
From Cascade Books, 2015.

I am not wont to quote memes (people who are wont to use “wont” usually don’t cite Facebook as a source), but a while back several of my “friends” (and a few of my friends) posted the following, or some variation thereof: “The fact that no one understands you doesn’t make you a poet.” I know. It seemed a little passive aggressive to me, too. Yet, the point is well taken.

There is a crucial distinction between mystery and mere befuddlement. All great poetry invites us into mystery, to some degree. A great poem gestures through the physical world toward the ineffable. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke explains to the would-be artist that we must

have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called ‘visions,’ the whole so-called ‘spirit-world,’ death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.[1]

Poetry, in Rilke’s conception, contributes to what we have lately been calling “the re-enchantment” of the world. Poetry gives us back mystery, it puts us in the frame of mind in which we may believe. When a poet cultivates mystery, we readers feel as if there is something that we don’t quite know, and we are not only okay with not knowing but are, in fact, in some sense encouraged or inspired by the limits of our knowledge. We are delighted to know that there is more to know than what we know.

When a poet achieves only befuddlement, on the other hand, we are left feeling as if there is something we really ought to know in order to “get” the poem but which we are simply missing. Like mystery, befuddlement may point us toward our own limitations, but not in a way that re-enchants the world; rather, it just makes us feel frustrated and lousy. Like Jacob and Esau, mystery and befuddlement come forth from the same womb and yet are worlds apart.

Jae Newman’s Collage of Seoul is a work of mystery. Rilke continues his point about the ineffable by adding that “fear of the inexplicable has not alone impoverished the existence of the individual; the relationship between one human being and another has also been cramped by it, as though it had been lifted out of the riverbed of endless possibilities and set down in a fallow spot on the bank, to which nothing happens.”[2] Newman’s work sets out to restore depth and shadow to our most basic relationships. In the poem, “Windsock” Newman tells us “love must be both particle and wave,” connecting the mystery of human connection to what physicists tell us about the mysterious nature of light. Newman’s book is about the mystery of relationship, the ineffability of love.

Collage of Seoul focuses on the Korean-born poet’s adoption, as an infant, and on the family he starts with his wife after being raised in America. Perhaps I should say, rather, that it focuses on such experiences by the “narrator” or the “voice of the poems,” as I don’t know Newman’s story first hand, but the poems seem to invite us to read them as memoir, so I will dispense with any new critical pretentions to the “impersonality of the poet.” The poems movingly address married life, fatherhood, and a sense of lost origins. These are poems about the mystery of intimacy, and, while I said they invite us to read them as memoir, they are not “confessional.” They do not give too much away. They cultivate mystery.

True to his book’s title, Newman gives us more collage than narrative. There is a discernable “storyline.” Starting his own family, the poet returns to Korea in search of his birth parents. But that narrative is kept in the background. The book’s first poem, “Apartment Near Airport,” begins with a series of images suggesting both mystery and intimacy:

                        Soft words folded into envelopes of prayer.
                        The dogs hear it first.

                        Not my prayer, but the sound
                        of shadows in the neighboring trees.

The book begins with words we do not hear, words meant only for God. From the start, we know these poems will be both personal and private. Part of the mystery here is the deep mystery of another’s life and heart. Then, the shadow of the plane in the trees gestures toward the mysterious presence of God, and, as the poet wrestles with God, “there’s comfort in the fading echo,” he says, “the tail of the plane vanishing / into layers of mysterious clouds.” From the beginning it is clear that this book will work not through flat statement but through hint and echo, making use of what Stephen Burt has called the “elliptical” nature of contemporary lyric to suggest the deep mysteries of God, love, and family.

Newman uses particular but enigmatic imagery to re-enchant the quotidian. Take for example one of the book’s best poems, “Doors among Trees.” The poem’s first line, “Lost on your childhood trail,” lands somewhere between Wordsworth’s Prelude and the first lines of the Divine Comedy. Newman uses the second person pronoun throughout to create a sense of intimacy, here tied to the mystery of childhood and prototypical walks in the woods. Then comes the strange image at the heart of the poem: “we came upon hundreds of doors leaning against trees / scattered in an Alleghany abstract of strange colors[.]” The doors suggest possibility or alternate paths to the “childhood trail,” images of what might have been or what might be. It is hard not to think of the “woods between worlds” of Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. The sudden appearance of doors among the trees captures well our experience of the numinous. The poem connects the poet’s family story, his quest for roots, to the larger human quest “in search of something holy / something hidden.”

Of course, the poet’s birth parents are a source of mystery—he repeatedly imagines them into being before meeting them—but so too are the births of his own children. Collage of Seoul joins Brent Newsom’s Love’s Labors and Gregory Pardlo’s Digest among the best recent books of poetry about fatherhood. For Newman, fatherhood is a great mystery, the deep mystery of how two become one to become three. In “River,” Newman not only writes about this mystery but also manages to write from within the mystery:

                        Here, in this bed, I am the eastern bank
                        and my wife is the west. Here,
                        my daughter is the river who flows backwards
                        against time, who undoes knots she never knew of[.]

In the poetics of mystery, metaphor frees itself from the gravity of mere analogy. It gestures but with an open hand. Elsewhere in the book, Newman makes artful use of line breaks, as in “Artifacts,” in which the poet says to his daughter, “you begin the long road north / to be nothing / like your mother or father[.]” Like doors in the woods, the lines point toward passages into different worlds, as we parse them in all the available ways. Newman makes use of line as well as of blank space and interrupted syntax throughout the book to push the poems away from easy explicability. Reading these poems we are, generally, not befuddled but neither are we falsely comfortable.

We sometimes class poems as either “difficult” or “accessible,” but I am not sure those are the best categories for thinking about poetry. Instead of accessibility, which might suggest that the poem should be, in some way “easy,” I prefer to think in terms of “hospitality,” a term I picked up from Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual. Does the poem invite the reader in or push the reader away? A mysterious poem may still be hospitable to the reader, inviting us into mystery rather than throwing up a wall of secret gnosis to keep us out. In the final words of the book’s finest poem, “Parable,” Newman tells of a conversation with his older daughter after the birth of her sister:

                                                        We could plant a tree,

                        I say. Where?
                        she asks. Pointing all around me
                        and then towards her heart
                        everything is limitless again:
                        Here or here or here.

Collage of Seoul reminds us of the limitless mystery of love. Newman’s poems are mysterious and hospitable, even when they insist on the privacy of the poet.


[1] Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet. trans. M.D. Herter Norton. (NY: W.W. Norton, 1954): p., 51.

[2] ibid.

Benjamin Myers is a former poet laureate of Oklahoma and is the author of two books of poetry: Lapse Americana (New York Quarterly Books, 2013) and Elegy for Trains (Village Books Press, 2010). His poems have appeared in The Yale ReviewImage, Measure, Ninth Letter, and many other journals, and his prose may be read in First Things, Books and Culture, The Imaginative Conservative, and World Literature Today. He teaches at Oklahoma Baptist University, where he is the Crouch-Mathis Professor of Literature.


(Photo by Alexandre Chambon on Unsplash)

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