Joanna Lee reviews Unexpected Vanilla by Lee Hyemi, translated by Soje (previously So J. Lee), Tilted Axis, 2020
Lee Hyemi’s second collection, Unexpected Vanilla (Tilted Axis Press), holds images and substances in flux. In this lush, sensual translation by Soje, the collection’s ‘special appetite for impermanent things’ comes to the fore, operating on an unstable, sticky, dream-like logic.
In Lee’s dense images, states are constantly changing: ‘the word embrace melts and melds upon contact’, ‘your fingerprints melt underwater’, ‘Lips melt with the thought of promises’. These moments of change – the point where ‘certain nights smudge like charcoal’ or ‘ashen snowflakes rush into fading sleep’ – feel bittersweet in their ephemerality. It is impossible to draw boundaries in this landscape of dissolution, and so fixed ideas of order melt into surrealist softness.
Within this unstable space, ambiguities flourish. Definitions become hazy as ‘that’s either the ceiling of a person or the floor of an afternoon’, and the limits of the speaker soften, too: ‘we evaporate, soaking our hands in a flower bowl’. Exhalations become entangled, merging with sensual, languid ease: ‘if you weave the rays of respiration, | joining your breath with the speaker’s’, ‘your breaths tangled when a leaf sprouted from every orifice’.
In their essay ‘Not Exactly a Sister’, Soje wrote about the complexities of translating the word ‘Unni’ – a term used by a younger sister to address her older sister, but that in its many contexts comes to mean much more than ‘sister’: ‘Unni is not only familial but friendly and close’. The sapphic connotations of the word are further explored in their translation of ‘The Cupboard with Strawberry Jam’: ‘Unni, we must be one person, cunningly divergent.’ The subtleties in their translation lead the audience away from the presumption of heterosexuality. Later in the poem, ‘We laid a chewy seed in every pore, growing recklessly private and gradually tender.’ – the private softness here is ‘reckless’, radical.
The erotic continues to bloom – often unexpectedly – throughout. Plants take on the visceral nature of flesh as ‘my hot seed’ gives way to ‘unripened buds’ which ‘fester’. The language around people and plants becomes muddied as both bud, bloom, and rot alike. In ‘Banan’, ‘soft stems sprout from an abandoned grave’ as ‘blotted fingers dig into the body’s deepest corners’ and ‘this gentle handshake rises into the missing fruit-flesh’. The elision of ‘fruit-flesh’ dissolves these boundaries further.
In a Words Without Borders interview with Soje, Lee Hyemi spoke of her desire to subvert the violence of hegemonic structures: ‘The pivot of all “isms” is men, or power – while poetry and the language of minorities attempt to overcome the violence of those isms.’ The incessant fluidity of Lee Hyemi’s images in Soje’s careful, sensitive translation, sees Unexpected Vanilla explicitly dissolving these oppressive, fixed structures – ‘blurring the boundaries of the world’.
– Joanna Lee
Joanna Lee is a London-based writer and critic. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, The White Review, and The Poetry Review. She is a Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critic, and works in publishing: formerly at Faber & Faber and currently at Curtis Brown.