The sublime.

In one of my seminars last week, we watched Crossroads — not the Britney movie; a 1970s experimental documentary made entirely of footage of atomic bomb explosions. The professor asked us if we were familiar with the concept of the sublime in aesthetics and gave a rudimentary explanation, saying that most simply, it’s beauty so great in magnitude that it defies intellectualization, it exceeds language. You can’t communicate it, replicate it, imitate it. Then she said offhandedly, as though to a stranger in passing, “Imagine how frustrating that must be, to not be able to put your reaction into words!” And moved on.

Two things about this struck me. First, I was interested in how she managed to so aptly describe how I feel about everything we discuss in each of my seminars every single week through an explanation of the sublime. Secondly, I was moved by how unbelievably tragic this simplistic description of the sublime sounded. If the sublime can’t be intellectualized or put into words, then in a sense, an individual can never experience the sublime independently and then share that experience with others — except through art, I suppose. Maybe that’s why some visionary artists are so compelled to create images — maybe they feel like they need to find a way to communicate their experience. Maybe they’re just trying to diffuse the inherent tragedy of the sublime.

I think I deeply sympathize with that need.

December 2010


III. Water

once there was another life and not on the other side of the world but almost there was a city and through that city ran water so still none knew its depths with certainty but when sticky days dissolved into clammy nights a silence settled creeping in slowly from that water, a silence so earthly that none could call it anything but sincere and the only sounds were the soft splashes of thousands of baby crests against sleeping boats, so constant that the white noise faded into the diegesis of the night

for each night there was another narrative in the stony streets and unmarked alleys alongside the still waters, a story of abrasive praise from voices singing and bodies dancing unbridled and so bold as to interrupt the cool flow that came so naturally to the city in the dark bringing dreams into the unknown depths where on the surface rests the muddled reflection of self so fleeting and removed

and not so far away in any sense of the word lay another world within this world where nights along the city’s river brought the crooning of sidewalk troubadours who stood below lights of the blue violet and moon variety on smoother pathways worn from loving footsteps walked from all walks of life, where arts of every kind from high and low flooded over the majestic parapet and seeped into the ghastly river and in the darkness there are the echoes of lingering symphonic strings letting loose last measures and of breezes passing pages of paperbacks and of film reels rolling and of scuffed wheels surfing spray painted surfaces and of a whisper bidding good night sweet prince

below the bridge into the unknown drift away the echoes into a fog that will burn off when the sun returns and as the minutes fall the last figures fade in the darkest of all the hours but there is no fear of isolation for in evening you found your face in the face of every stranger and you couldn’t help but turn away

and elsewhere runs another river before your feet and above you see the paved streets on which pass body after body in a gray rain too dismal to belong to any but the city itself which consists of six story buildings and the arches of that most gothic structure you read so much about where in each beam and stone and pane of glass is the touch of the hundreds of souls who poured life into this house for all the people who came thereafter seeking the serenity that dwells below the aged eaves

around the bend in the river those arches exist only in the abstract and along the far bank strolls couple after couple entwining their nerve-filled fingers and you can only imagine that sweet warmth and the spinal shivers and the unseen accordance behind the looks they exchange which betray a serenity of their own, but when you turn about there stands a countenance of camaraderie marked by lines from smiles and sleepless nights defined by endless streams of wine and revelation and from that familiar visage gazes a part of your own self and there beside the lively water you rise and take the gifted grace extended to you from the palm of a kindred hand.

Fixed Identities

You know, I like to think that I’m not the kind of person who sees every problem in the world as something rooted in race, sex, class, or gender. I also like to think that I’m not so ignorant as to think these things aren’t legitimate problems; along with money and power, they’re certainly the root of most conflicts. It bothers me when people say that people who identify problems as the result of racism, sexism, gender bias, etc., just “see what they want to see.” Aren’t such critics not seeing what they don’t want to see? To an extent, they’re part of the bigger problem.

A large portion of my friends from high school and college belong in a pretty homogenous group that can be characterized as white, heteronormative, and middle-class. While I’m sure many people assign to them many of the stereotypes that come along with these characteristics, a lot of them simply aren’t aware of the extent of the inherent difficulties that come with being a person of color, a non-heteronormative person, or a woman in the world we live in. This isn’t to say white heteronormative middle-class people are closed-minded; this is only to say that they haven’t had the experiences other people have had, and it’s quite likely that no one has taken the time to help them understand the nature of these experiences.

People tend to look at me, speak briefly with me, then make a lot of snap judgements summarized in words like “Asian” and “nerd,” and perhaps “feminist” or “hipster.” I really hate this, and I think people tend to think I’m being obnoxious when I say so. Some people roll their eyes when they realize that I don’t “subscribe to labels,” and some get irritated that I don’t “embrace” who I am. That absolutely is not what I am doing, though. One of the greatest revelations for me was when I realized that people are allowed to exist between fixed identities. I don’t have to attach myself to the word “nerd” and all the connotations that come with it. Not all of them even apply. Same with the other words. Even “Asian” – as an adopted child with white parents in a nearly entirely white town, I’ve always looked Korean without having the cultural tendencies of someone who grows up in Korea or among other Korean people. Am I person of color? In appearance, definitely. Do I feel like a person of color? Only when I’m treated differently because I look like a person of color.

I have the relatively unique experiences of a heteronormative middle-class Korean female who grew up in a white family in a white town, and so, when someone tries to put me in a box with their definitions of me, I never fit, and I don’t like to pretend to. Of course, this happens most often with strangers, which I understand. I also understand that assigning names and descriptions to things is something comforting to people, especially when it’s something they don’t know or understand. Based on my experiences, I feel like I have a pretty easy time of seeing both sides. I can see how alienated and degraded people who exist outside the white, heteronormative, middle-class box can feel, but I can also see how the people in that box might not understand the complexity of the causes of that alienation and degradation. I also think a lot of people aren’t always tolerant or patient with the people in that box.

On the whole, it’s pretty damn frustrating. Existing between fixed identities is difficult enough. Experiencing the alienation and degradation associated with being a female person of color is difficult and experiencing the feelings that come with being from the white middle-class is difficult too. Oftentimes, people don’t make any of this easier. There are people preaching universal equality but they express disdain for the people who don’t understand, and there are people who don’t understand and think that those who deviate from the majority in one or more ways are making mountains out of molehills. Furthermore, I try to remember that these metaphorical boxes are fluid and ever-changing, that no one fits quite entirely inside and to some extent, everyone is somewhere in between. Just, some people drift into the box more than others.

And so, this is where I am. To be honest, it’s an exhausting, uncomfortable, and difficult place to be. I frequently find myself growing weary and impatient, and I border intolerant at times because it’s so hard not to. I try to balance my views and be open to learning as much as I can about what each group experiences and says, and what else is there to do? All I can do is balance, learn, and hope to introduce and welcome people to where I am in all this, where they fit too — between identities, in this little space between.

II. Milkshake

it means something to walk down the bustling street in a trench coat drinking a milkshake when it’s freezing and clear and I’m not quite sure what that something is but to be in that condition is special not precious or unique but special in that not everyone can walk down the street with a chocolate milkshake in January

and nobody looks but everyone is jealous of the trench coat that can walk alone and drink his body chilly instead of heating his hands and heart but they don’t know that in his chest rests only an empty shell of fragile salty caramel that can break at any given moment and so is surrounded by a strong igloo constructed for self-preservation purposes

maybe he is the type that wishes he could be built as a tiny cup overflowing with all the life he can’t retain but in the grand picture that the red capped man has seen in the soft eye of a newborn and the glaring reflection of spectacles resting on a wrinkled nose there is a warning of the wool coats and window lights

for the skyscrapers cast shadows that blend together and it is impossible to distinguish where one shadow ends and another begins for they flow together like miserable memories of a threadbare coat and thin soled shoes so sadly worn over years of pounding pavement where the only lights come from small offices in high rises severe and cold, and each window stands for a multitude of thick woven coats and heavy boots shrouding skeletons so much more melancholy than the man below in the red cap who holds a broom and sweeps the streets with determined motions, a man not born to do such work but who does it with all his heart

when you trade the light cotton for wool and street shadows for unwavering window lights you don’t look out that window at the red caps on the streets at the patched jackets that slide through the shadows and that is a sad thing in itself for all the red caps and patched jackets can look up at the lights and sigh with all the pain of the dark valley and the joys in moments of light

in the street for an eternal moment stands the uncertain trench coat seeing in a revelation that you can’t hold your milkshake and also chill your igloo and you can’t stand atop the building and below where the lights shine too.

I. Tree

today is still today until tomorrow and the sky is gray this ink is pink and all I feel are chills down my severed spine leaving me immobile below the bare branches breaking at intervals to free themselves from the slowly dying trunk of a rotten tree masquerading as a stronghold and guardian of children’s not so little treasures

an arrowhead and two weathered stones and a fragile cornhusk dolly so large in heart lie in a damp hole hidden from all but the girl and boy roaming the woods primeval along the stream of icy life so painful and alive and painfully killing everything alive that dares to try and survive

the breeze is light and gives soft kisses to tips of noses and hands held tight, aging little youths a thousand years or more with each passing second and gnaws at their insides like the ruthless death pawing at the inside of trees waiting for the time when nothing can stand alone any longer and all crutches have vanished and in this moment of weakness someone else finds strength through unnatural evil of the worst kind and schadenfreude set deep in the soul rotting it away like the ruthless death pawing at the inside of trees

and so goes death and so goes life and so goes miserable joy and sweet sorrow of the highest kinds and so sinks the remorse and melancholy contained in the sky so gray and the pink ink and my straight spine which bends and flexes as I move through midnight woods and beyond.

No. 16

so high were we, lofted and floating
a hard foam stagnant raft
anchored above the unconscious

side by side huddled, protected from rain
grounded, present, certainty of presence
peaceful and content with no static electric

no pedestal false, no precious fixation
only unspoken lyrics between beats
establishing a retreat safe for exchanges

dulcet sounds lower, cue a flow of ideas
organically dissolving the disconnect
leaving a pool of reciprocal receptivity

agape folded with philia, whipped text
into subtext, keeps the language light
the implied essence slightly hidden

too soon begins your slow descent
shaky limbs, intent separation, again
placing space between body and mind

remaining buoyed, I see you recede below
the evanescence of this haven we created
still high, I stay afloat til the surface breaks

and then I fall.