Mental Commitment Robots by Sueyeun Juliette Lee and collages by Brenda Iijima
(Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, Brooklyn, 2007)
With a startling ivory and fuchsia cardstock cover, this new chapbook by Sueyeun Juliette Lee is a cerebral medley of prose poems and images. Fresh from Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs in Brooklyn, New York, Mental Commitment Robots includes collages by publisher Brenda Iijima, whose editorial vision for “diversity and interconnection—social, cultural, environmental and aesthetic” characterize her fine saddle-stitched series. Iijima’s cover is a collage of light microscopy images (protozoa and neurons), a nomenclature index, graph paper, and ink-on-text designs reminiscent of British artist Tom Phillips’s The Humument. The back cover is a pastiche of oil rigs, algae, a dog, a fish, furniture, a plant, and a little robot drawn on a cut-out index. The overall effect is eclectic, brainy, and stylish: The last page reveals a hammerhead shark, a hand-drawn eye, and another little text robot.
Lee (no relation to me, by the way, except in poetic sisterhood) sings rhapsodic, fractured inscapes across a scientific spectrum of musical rhythms, subterranean noise, and marine transparencies. The first prose poem sequence, “Once more,” is innocently surreal and capricious: “. . . The bus is an aqueduct, a portal for song. I can cry no more sorry anemones when I hear a violin . . . .” The lyric moment is continually deferred -- in playful humoresques -- by the pragmatic or empirical. Although the poems occasionally sing of dramas, sentimentalism never takes root. In fact, the tension between our material world and a rich inner life -- albeit one that questions authentic presences -- results in a phenomenology of emotion pixilated by the technology of simulation, the ceaseless production of data, and the estranging perceptions of affective neuroscience. Indeed, as an aggregate of cells functions like a machine or organism, Lee’s fascinating prose poems engage a cognitive science of emotion.
In the second prose poem sequence entitled, “I am a hammerhead shark. I make no sound,” the reader encounters “cartilaginoid joints that give under semantic duress,” “a pair of milky eyes that refuse to triangulate,” “a stereoscopic ocean floor,” and an imperative: “Pursue me across numerous divides, over chasms of understatement now clothed in a subtextual, ‘common sense’ racination.” Lee deftly weaves the linguistic, the affective, and the scientific into multifaceted readings. Two-column tables appear at intervals with a photograph, video, or ambient noise: “sounds of water | image of shark in sea.” Like labels with transparent images, or words with unheard sounds -- the word detached from its signified, in turn disconnected from its referent -- Lee’s poems engage simulation and surface. Perhaps “sharkness” is a form of literary experiment where the sign points to a semantic rift rather than a referent: “Sharkness describes a silent skepticism, a roving appetite that sniffs out alterations in the temperature depth beneath a variable surface.” In this mysterious chasm, newness enters the world through the crevices of language: “Sharkness is destiny, is a perfect repetition, the imitation that broke though.”
The following excerpt illustrates Lee’s signature move from the conventional or “textbook” -- instructions on how to resuscitate a shark, for instance -- to metapoetical play:
To resuscitate a shark, to slide two fingers across a serrated organ for “breath,” is to wake up inside a starkly blue-lit room where the text written across torn cotton pages wafts in a circular fan’s efforts. “This is not a page.” “Only you are here.” “You are only here.”
Lee’s poems recall Leslie Scalapino’s aeolotropic series, that they were at the beach, where crystalline poems fracture perception and experience while reflecting one another’s tones, rhythms, and observations. In Lee’s sequence, “The big deal with shopping is composed for the heart,” consumerism and its hypnotic influence upon individual affects -- our emotions -- question what is authentic or genuine in our relationships: “The economy is a robotic circulation of love . . . .” Permutations of data and the robotics of human interactions in an anonymous global populace resonate with the Althusserian notion of interpellation, where subjects internalize hegemonic values through the commerce of art and technology. Human emotions, then, are an outcome of cultural production. With the glow of circuitry in a socio-economic machine, the following prose poem flows between the interpellated subliminal (You will buy that which you did not have), the capricious Romantic (That love can be a many tentacled thing), and metapoetical self-awareness:
You will buy that which you did not have. That love can be a many tentacled thing, but maintains a relational resonance suggests a tectonic circuitry. The shadow of two figures holds hands in a terraced mall. The imaginary in this instance is a ray of (artificial) light. Our unconsciousness has built it, a shibboleth cut from snow.
In Lee’s last sequence, “A dog is only angry because it is angry or afraid,” the reader encounters a series of prescient images in the aesthetic strain of “mental commitment robots” titling the collection:
I can tell the future in the sunrise and the colors of this stream. West emerged as a colorless conclusion, then, an event horizon after which the highway takes over, hair-like data-strips that dissolve across the tongue. The prints in the ground I track for hours lead me to the place I was taught to call home.
A sense of double-consciousness arises with the awareness of poetic constructs internalized as one’s own, or the fact that they are “taught.” How, then, does a poet actually sing? How does newness enter the world, and what is authentically new? Lee responds with questions pointing to language and violence as a site for the poetic body, or vice versa: “When you cut into the blood, when the chain breaks across the muffled throat, isn’t that a new song? Isn’t that something to sing?” Similarly, in her anecdotal prose fragment where “the young daughter struggles to assert her sense of her unique destiny,” the speaker’s “break with her family is simultaneous with an off-shore explosion that jettisons hundreds of millions of dollars worth of robotics into the sea.” So a revolution in poetic language, to borrow from Julia Kristeva’s concept, starts with the rupture at birth: “Submarine dogs converge in a hungry swarm. A baby is born in a dark, damp room meant to simulate a forest.” The search for an authentic voice -- rather than robotic ventriloquism -- commences with the establishment of the speaker’s autonomy. A poet finds her footholds in innovative language, experiments with a montage of discourses, and ultimately, bleeds poetry itself as song.
Karen An-Hwei Lee is the author of Ardor (Tupelo Press, 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande Books, 2004). She lives and teaches on the West Coast, where she is a novice harpist.