Buzzed Books #24 by Amy Watkins

Collage of Seoul by Jae Newman

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I should tell you upfront that Jae Newman is my friend. I don’t want you to read the glowing review I’m about to write about his first poetry collection, Collage of Seoul (Cascade Books, 2015) and later feel you were tricked by a biased reader. This is going to be a glowing review because Collage of Seoul is the kind of poetry that I love: narrative but not literal, introspective but not indulgent, intimate but still mysterious.

In the first poem, “Loran,” we meet the poet-speaker, an adoptee who says that this is not a story about finding himself, but rather about finding his way to a place of confidence and faith:

        Charting without genes, without you,

        I find it hard to trust the maps and stars

        of other men. If I follow anything,

        may it be the sound I cannot hear […]

This sort of travel imagery is repeated throughout the book until it becomes a sort of deeply personal symbolism. The poems are incredibly intimate, as the poet-speaker wrestles with questions of faith, both spiritual/religious faith and faith in love, faith in himself.

The book’s first two sections recount vivid dreams about the speaker’s birth and adoptive mothers. He seems on edge, as though he could fall apart, but there are flashes of humor, and we begin to catch glimpses of the love of his life:

        […] my heaven is always only

        an inch away from the world.

        It is the distance my fingers travel

        when I touch your spine,

        the center of the universe,

        reciting those archaic words, I love you.

Although he uses the same imagery to write about his wife, she grounds him, gives him a place of safety to begin mapping his universe. When his daughters appear near the middle of the book, it’s as if he has discovered a new continent:

        […] We could plant a tree,

        I say. Where?

        she asks. Pointing all around me

        and then towards her heart

        everything is limitless again […]

There’s a really delicate and lovely symmetry to the book: the mothers, the children, the lovers matching up like the folds of an origami sculpture. In the second half, the poet-speaker exchanges some of what he’s imagined for new knowledge. He finally travels to Korea and meets his birth mother. Those poems are some of the most concrete and beautiful in the collection, ending with his mother boarding a subway and the poet-speaker reaching for his wife’s hand, an image that by now embodies all the certainty he’s longed for.

I admit that the story arc sounds conventional–a man finds purpose and peace through the love of a good woman–but in Collage of Seoul, all the risk that love implies is as vivid and real as the homecoming the book earns:

        […] For the labors we have fought for,

        for our love that has grown upward,

        facing the sun,

            I can see tiny orange slivers on the nightstand, sitting still,

        waiting for me,

        while she runs her orange-soaked hands through my graying hair.

 _______

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Amy Watkins (Episode 124) grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, a situation that’s produced generations of Southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl, and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. Her chapbook, Milk & Water, was published in 2014 by Yellow Flag Press.

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