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Literature & Fiction - Poetry

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Present Tense Complex

ISBN: 9781733602044
Binding: Paperback
Author: Suphil Lee Park
Pages: 80
Trim: 6 x 9 inches
Published: 05/01/2022

I've always found it hard to agree with many who like to say the most important qualities of a poem are essentially sonic. I believe I feel this way especially because I'm Korean AND a bilingual writer. By which I mean, I have that hard-headed bias as a native reader and writer of the Korean language that has evolved from centuries of such complicated history; unlike the Japanese who have fully integrated Chinese characters into their own language, we invented our own unique alphabet while still carrying over most of the words that consist of Chinese characters from the last century. For example, the sun in Korean is 해. Other words in Korean, such as "year" and "harm," even some phrases like "will do," "do this," "should I do this?" spell and sound exactly the same (except some subtle differences in intonation when it's used as a phrase); the meaning of the word, therefore, depends entirely on the context. But we also have another word for the sun in Korean, 태양, which consists of Chinese characters "太" (big) and "陽" (yang); and each of these Chinese characters also have multiple different definitions. While 해 is an exact equivalent for 태양 when it means the sun, a skillful Korean reader who's also knowledgeable in Chinese characters will be first sprinting through a web of linguistic possibilities and connotations at his/her recognition of this simple word. In other words, I was born into a language that necessitates listening not to the words themselves but for the history and potential of each word and how words come together to form a wildly complex relationship. So my obsession with words lies not in how they sound (the sonic elements are notes and beats that provide prerequisite background music) but in the chemistry they spark up on the page.

This linguistic inclination of mine matured into an important aesthetic later when I started writing in English. While spoken English was slippery and hard to grasp at the time, the language on the page felt to me something like clay, especially in poetry--malleable, volatile, and textile, as the words put and close the distance that we call lines between them. Depending on that distance, they could become entirely disparate things, contained in the exact same word. In that sense, writing in this language has been like painting to me. A simple juxtaposition can bring out an unexpected hue in a simple red; some shapes, you can only discern in hindsight, at a distance. An egg "on my spoon" differs drastically from "a woman's" egg. I've always loved the idea of every word as an attempt and failure to contain the uncontainable, and how that only expands the horizon of each poem, with every word, even a rudimentary one like "egg," adding layers and nuances when put in a different context, and depending on which line it's placed in. This is why many poems in the book make use of antanaclasis and explore the contextual and textual relationship of words. "Flight" in the title of a poem might be calling for the "hollow" in its last line, while the bird is not to understand its hollow bones or the hollowness that grief instills in a human heart. "Shoulders" might refer to the edges of a road where a narrator stands, only to find herself later on those of her father's. In that sense, I almost feel every poem is a brief journey for its words to align themselves. Present Tense Complex, from its very title with each word on a separate line to the end where I present all the possible combinations of what the three-word title could mean in Korean, is that journey in and of itself.


Suphil Lee Park is a bilingual writer who was born and grew up in South Korea. Her name 수필 리 박 consists of Chinese characters, 秀筆 李 朴, each of which means "outstanding," "writing brush," "plum tree," and "silver magnolia." A recent finalist for the Montreal International Poetry Prize, she graduated from New York University with a BA in English and from the University of Texas at Austin with an MFA in Poetry (New Writers Project). Her poems appear in Global Poetry Anthology, Ploughshares, and the Massachusetts Review, among many others. She also writes fiction and nonfiction, some of which appear in J Journal, Storm Cellar, and the Iowa Review.


"The poems in this fearless debut, which entangle themes of identity, family, gender, and landscape, are gorgeous, elliptical, and delightfully strange. 'Her softening grip of reality. / As if capsized, hull forced into the cold / current, she was out of the blue beautiful. // No more cranes akimbo in the midst of poems / now barren of flowers as hardcore porn. // Still you keep an eye out for the foreshadowing / of their white wings against the floral gore.' Suphil Lee Park's transmissions are equal parts lush and violent. Present Tense Complex bridges the beautiful and the grotesque to access a new view of human loneliness." - Claudia Rankine

"At times nearly imperiled by the intensity of its music, Present Tense Complex sings a world into being that is both sinister and full of eruptive beauties, that is utterly strange and our own. In these marvelous poems, words are tactile; they percuss and leave ripples as well as cajole and beguile. Not the usual news-crawl or doilies of conventional feeling, readers, this is poetry. What a gift." - Dean Young