Solar Maximum by Sueyeun Juliette Lee
Futurepoem Books, 2015, $18
Reviewed by Kristina Marie Darling
Sorrow as Distance and Proximity: On Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s Solar Maximum and Other Recent Experimental Texts
At first, the prose paragraphs that comprise Lee’s text appear to be presented in an orderly framework, their language as logical as their faultless grammar. In such a way, we are led to expect a clear progression between events, a set of causal relationships, an unmistakable narrative arc. Yet Lee inhabits this syntax of well-reasoned exposition while also interrogating it, exploring the “alternative kinetic potentials” residing just beneath this pristine linguistic surface.
“The materials feel good—premium—in your hands,” Lee explains. As the book unfolds, she appropriates the tools of conventional meaning making only to reveal their inherent limitations. We soon realize that the seemingly small distances between each of Lee’s sentences will prove difficult, if not impossible, to traverse. The miniscule gaps between her words, the brief silences between utterances, are revealed as cavernous spaces, rife with echoes, containing within them entire metaphysical worlds.
Lee subtly and skillfully calls our attention the ways we attempt to use language, narrative, and the structures of conventional reason to close what we know are impossible distances, to fill the discomfiting silences between words. Indeed, we soon discover that the seemingly compressed linguistic landscape in Solar Maximum does not imply closeness between narrative events, rhetorical modes, or between the text and its reader. Rather, Lee encourages us to consider the infinite varieties (and varying degrees) of distance that permeate what appears at first to be a densely populated narrative framework.
* * *
For Lee, literal closeness does not foreclose the possibility of a figurative void. Throughout Solar Maximum, the complex and porous relationship between distance and proximity is enacted within the style of the writing itself. Lee’s compact yet persistently ruptured syntax enacts these ill-fated attempts to traverse an ever-widening expanse through the generative capabilities of language. In the opening sentences of the book, for example, Lee writes,
Around the Arctic is an imagined circle, and its resolve depends on our shared imagining. We keep it knit there in a version of stasis with our most basic comprehension: our having to triangulate with harsh extremities from vast distances. That circle might now be shrinking or vast quantities of it set loose to fail. Sunblindness is no longer an epiphenomenon…
Lee’s syntax, though fulfilling the rules of grammar and its implied causal structures, asks the reader to make leap after thought-provoking logical leap. We are borne from “our own imagining” to the inevitable “failures” of science to the omnipresence of “sunblindness” in a fictive population. What’s perhaps most striking about Lee’s prose is her conscious choice to eschew the usual transitions, a decision rendered all the more surprising by the smoothness of her syntax. Though the clauses and sentences in Solar Maximum fit together neatly, plausibly, and convincingly, the gaps in this conceptually arresting narrative framework are constantly widening.
As readers of Solar Maximum, we frequently find ourselves engaged in copious intellectual labor, constructing possible worlds in which Lee’s sequential yet provocatively disparate sentences cohere. We attempt to create a lovely arc that links each luminous fragment of what seems to be a logical puzzle. Only then do we realize that we have implicated ourselves, as our imaginative work is part of the very cultural machinery that Lee is deconstructing.
“Ultimately, those scarlet engines of speculation…lead us into more vigorous wilds,” she explains later in the collection. Lee’s intentionally permeable narrative conveys, more than anything, a desire for meaning, intentionality, and design where there is none to be found. Given the environmental subject matter of much of the book, which frequently considers the effects of global warming on the physical body, Lee has created a perfect matching of form and content. Though our lexicon may be rich, varied, and descriptive, Lee calls our attention to the impossibility of inventing meaning in the case of overt carelessness and reckless disregard.
* * *
Our narrative impulses are revealed as futile, even indulgent, in light of the seismic environmental shifts that Lee describes in Solar Maximum. As befits an eschewing of the expository capacities of language, the types of rhetorical distance within the text begin to refract and multiply. One inevitably notices that though there is a distinct speaker in these linked poems, with clear voice and unmistakable syntax, the “you” to whom she speaks proves less easy to pinpoint, as the meaning of this seemingly simple pronoun is constantly shifting, proliferating, accumulating.
In many ways, this ambiguity of lyric address also suits Lee’s innovative and conceptually arresting elegy for the natural world. In much the same way that the locus of power and agency with respect to much-needed conservation efforts is persistently dissembled, the “you” becomes increasingly difficult to locate in time, space, and relation to the speaker. The individual(s) being addressed are held at varying degrees of remove from the voice we hear in these intricately linked poems.
At times, we are presented with a general “you,” which could be the reader, the narrator herself, or anyone else: “Only you are here…” Indeed, this statement could be read as a reflection on the reader’s interaction with the text, the impossibility of sharing their imaginative labor and interpretive work as it unfolds. Yet the same passage could be read as a dispatch to a distant though carefully imagined other within the narrative. Approached with these ideas in mind, the particularity of address in other passages proves all the more striking: “It isn’t what you asked for, but with it you make do.”
Throughout Solar Maximum, the increasingly nebulous relationship between the “I” and the “you” serves as a powerful reminder of one’s lack of agency as individuals in a larger collective. As an environmental collapse becomes imminent, Lee shows us how the locus of power in this situation is constantly dissembled. As a result, we find that accountability, and the possibility of change, are dislocated, and kept at some degree of remove, through language.
* * *
Through this well-reasoned syntax, and the startling narrative ruptures contained therein, Lee offers an innovative and conceptually arresting variation on the traditional elegy. Lee’s mourning for the natural world, and the agency of the individual, is gracefully enacted in the silences that permeate her gorgeously fractured prose.
Certainly, the contemporary literary landscape is filled with voices shattered by grief. Christina Davis’s An Ethic, for example, offers a syntax broken to pieces by loss: “is hard, and therefore a task, to perpetuate / the gesture of welcome…” Lines like these, by eschewing the grammatical subject, show us absence by subverting received structures for organizing the world around us. Much like Lee’s provocative fragmentation of pure reason, Davis demonstrates through form and technique how grief changes one’s existence in language. Similarly, Joshua Poteat’s The Regret Histories offers prose that gives us the illusion of wholeness: “Foxtail and clover: we unspeak each other…” Within these pristine grammatical constructions we discover a lack of narrative scaffolding, and as a result, a provocative fragmentation of meaning ideally suited to the book’s elegiac subject matter.
Yet Lee offers something entirely new to this ongoing conversation about representing, understanding, and interrogating grief through experiments with form. Lee’s poetry is not simply representational, offering a simple mirroring of style and content. Rather, the techniques of poetry are made to do the work of philosophy. She shows us that loss is embedded within language and grammar, that we mourn the distance we cannot traverse through even our most beautiful narrative flourishes. We speak so as not to sense the ruptures contained within our own explanatory narratives, the absences inscribed before and after each word on the printed page.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books of poetry, most recently DARK HORSE (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, an Edward F. Albee Foundation Fellowship, and multiple residencies at the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems and essays appear in The Gettysburg Review, Agni, New American Writing, The Iowa Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly and Grants Specialist at Black Ocean.