In the prose poems that comprise Lee Young-Ju’s collection Cold Candies, the physical world is porous and distorted. Similarly, the human body lacks solidity, with body parts morphing to new locations or disappearing altogether. The self is both present and absent. The poet is full of words and at a loss. Yet, while Jae Kim’s English translations of Lee’s poems revel in and reveal a disjointed landscape, Cold Candies coalesces around shared imagery and structural symmetry to create poetry that is firm in its foundations.
While Cold Candies draws poems from four books published by Lee, the collection is divided into six sections that appear to be gathered by resonance rather than chronology. In this ordering, Lee’s poems approach the self in different guises, at times attempting to climb inside the poet’s own body with the hope of answering questions about how an individual life grows from the subatomic and atomic into a solid-seeming body, made up largely of water and need.
Water is everywhere in Cold Candies—where damp and rot pervade and, as exemplified by “In the Summer,” flooding abounds:
I know a flooded floor. I’m falling. And again, I’m falling. The notebooks are drenched and ruined. . . Inside the notebooks are floors, which make them sink. Even though no house is truly mine, I splash around and sleep. The pillow bobs away.
Lee rarely uses water for purification or absolution. Rather, the formlessness of water allows her to grapple with the transitory nature of being. “We’re not impermeable,” she writes in “The Story of a School Closure,” a poem that includes a newt rotting in a display case, along with the typical school desks, hallways, and doors. Here, the poet melts like the newt, becomes rotten water, and floats “away between the living and the inorganic”—highlighting how indistinct the line can be between life and matter. Many poems in Cold Candies travel similar thematic ground, digging into the spirit-self and finding the body an imperfect carrier. Having evolved from water, we all eventually turn back “into the same set of atoms as all the other water in the world.”
The fragmentation of the body within Lee’s poems serves as another avenue for the author to explore the self and its confines. From the broken dolls in “Blank Notes” and “Motel Bellagio” to the poet’s rearranged body in “Roommate, Woman,” the physical self feels surreal and more changeable than an anatomy class would allow. Physical intimacy, as seen in “Lover,” can both gather the body and reconstruct it:
The night we’re rained on, we towel off together. Clear water flows away, and our joined shoulder are spoiling. We’re soaking wet, but we have a new arrangement. My proteins are broken.
Female intimacy—whether mother, grandmother, sister, or aunt—can also cause rearrangements of the physical and spiritual, as in “Arson,” where an unnamed companion:
. . . extends her already melting hand and feels for the inside of my heart. What are these wet things doing here? She speaks like a liquid. Like she drips. The melted wax, is it fire or water? She litters while rummaging inside me. What she litters glows in the middle of the night.
Translator Jae Kim notes that in Korean, the word for sister can connote an actual sibling or close acquaintance or be used to address an older woman. The many sisters who populate individual poems in Cold Candies take up key narrative and symbolic roles that offer Lee myriad ways to express the fluidity and temporality of the feminine self and body.
The act of expression, of writing, is equally fluid and temporal in Cold Candies. While a number of Lee’s poem titles directly relate to writing and words, other poems feature songs, diary entries, and prayers that call to the spirit-self or that disappear or are erased. “How might our expressions encounter and remember each other,” Lee inquires in “Anniversary,” a poem that opens with Lee’s search for her vanished self and closes with the “now-nowhere part of me” crawling, worm-like, toward another, cleaner soul. Unfortunate deaths, including suicides, weigh on the psyche of the poet, who struggles with how to pass along memories and meaning, especially in the final section of Cold Candies. “What do we write in the manual for the dead who want to live,” she wonders at the close of “Book Club at Night.”
With so much unsettled and unformed in Cold Candies, Lee utilizes structural repetition to provide stability for readers. Oftentimes, Lee’s poems create spirals—with an image or idea being introduced and then circled around before narrowing to a center point. “If You Are Carnivorous” employs this structural method, opening with a grieving sister who is cooking. Despite her restaurant being closed, meat thaws in storage. Lee then moves toward the intangible, suggesting “time ripens in storage,” as both the sister and poet contemplate “flimsy flimsy flesh,” particularly hands washed in warm water. Even as the sister and poet grow ripe and gelatinous, the poem rounds back to the closed restaurant and storage room, offering a slim line of light in how Sister “kept on” despite having broken wings. Lee’s frequent, energetic leaps of imagination, a hallmark of Cold Candies, become easier to navigate when framed by this coiled structure.
Cold Candies is a dense collection of prose poems, and its imagery and thematic concerns navigate dark terrain. Accidents await and ghosts wander. Things burn and melt, or flood and rot. It is easy to feel as if you’ve stepped into a Dalí painting, with impossible, melting landscapes. Or a Picasso, with mutable faces and bodies. While Lee Young-Ju’s Cold Candies gathers the broken and unsettled, the collection somehow manages to avoid all despondency, through its intense mental questing and through its insistence, seen in the final sentence of the collection, that we come “walking out of our thoughts to be loved.”
About the Reviewer
Lisa Higgs is the recipient of a 2022 Minnesota State Arts Board grant providing creative support for Minnesota artists. Her third chapbook, Earthen Bound, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in February 2019. Her poetry has been published in ZYZZYVA, Folio, Rhino, Sugar House Review, and WaterStone Review, among others, and her poem “Wild Honey Has the Scent of Freedom” was awarded 2nd Prize in the 2017 Basil Bunting International Poetry Prize. Her reviews and interviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation, Kenyon Review Online, and the Adroit Journal.