Rough, and Savage by Sun Yung Shin

Coffee House press, 2012
124 pp., Paperback

Reviewed by Natalie Catasús

Sun Yung Shin’s latest poetry collection, Rough, and Savage is a compelling act of shape-shifting. Shin slides in and out of different voices and poetic forms, grappling with the complexities surrounding issues of identity, nationality, colonization, history, and lineage.

At times Shin opts for lined verse, and elsewhere the prose poem. Occasionally she chooses a sprawling form that brings the white space of the page to the foreground and challenges the reader to confront the sense of fragmentation that pervades the collection, such as in her “Redaction” poems about South and North Korea. The reader knows not whether to follow the text horizontally or vertically, and the sense of a disintegrating coherence is felt strongly. We are given words like a cluster of islands on the page: “kingdom,” “Japan,” “US-backed,” “demonized,” “propaganda,“ and “core ideological objective.” Her scattering of these politically charged terms carries with it a sense of disarray, a randomness that suggests that the boundaries set by political forces and language itself are easily dismantled.

This fragmentation is perhaps at the heart of the work. Rough, and Savage is fascinated with the occupation of Korea and the cultural erasure that accompanies it. Shin includes images of Catholic rituals, Korean comfort women, nuclear devices, and boundaries to echo the ways imperialist powers have occupied and fractured Korean culture and politics. Shin, who was adopted by a Roman-Catholic American family, has stated her view of the family as a construction, a view which is evident through her poetic treatment of the intimate issues adoption, pregnancy, and surrogacy. She writes:


My baby, my body, my belly, my royal jelly!

Who is this obscura, this dark chamber. Why should I be denied the flesh?


“The depth of field is basically infinite.”

 Our images have been inverted—I could love indefinitely like this—


F-stop. delivery. stop. stork. stop. shower. stop. clean. stop. banish filth. stop.

If a daughter chewed on this sewing needle could she make a dress out of her face?

Here we once again hear the tone of occupation, this time of the female body by a doctor. The image of a face or body sewn, an image that courses throughout the collection, powerfully questions identity and the materials we use to construct it. In Rough, and Savage, identity is especially complicated by a broken national government, cultural erasure and the impositions of occupying forces, and the additional complexity surrounding parenthood and adoption into a new culture. “The Sibling Library,” the second to last poem in the collection, approaches the issue of lineage and adoption. Shin writes:

a multiple, the same child written over and over
rewritten and scattered
And through the bindery
And through the bakery
And through the mortar and pestle and buried jar
And through my own sperm or egg
There. Own.

There is a sense of the randomness of biological lineage, or, perhaps, the arbitrariness that pervades the decisions we make about which aspects of our biological or national histories to sew into our identities. Rough, and Savage is a challenging and riveting exploration of such intimate yet universal issues as these, delicately executed and beautifully written.

Natalie Catasús is the Art Director and Webmaster for Eleven Eleven.