A Poetics of Light
1. I announce with a cry: Oh, to speak the light
As light speaks into us, what do we say back into it. I have been on a nearly decade-long journey in my consideration of light, how it deepens and calls our collective and individual names. I am in awe of how light persists across vast and solemn distances to contain a fixed message of beginnings—for in the most dim starlight, we can read of elemental origins and a lost home. The body dissipates, but its story persists in the streaming light that remains.
My interest in light began with my investigations into national identities and familial origins; a member of the global Korean diaspora, I have keenly wanted to better understand the lost space of my parent’s home. My research into Korea was defined by the materials available to me here, many of which were only accessible digitally. The light stream of CIA reports, news releases, and ridiculous rhetorical propaganda flourishes all poured into me from my monitor’s screen and I was changed. Korea, too, has changed from the messages that I received, and yet the message is perhaps what remains most firmly in me.
Since then, my consideration became quite literally centered on light: I exposed my body to the longest daylight I could during the summer solstice of Norway. I buried myself in the stormy dim starlight of Iceland in winter, moved meditatively under the green digital sheet of the aurora at the very tip of the west fjord’s northern end. I wrote my desires on mulberry paper and set them on fire to speak myself to the sky, seeking to honor how it transmits the day. I studied solar physics, meditated on Sir Isaac Newton’s Opticks, considered Ansel Adams’s primers for developing photo negatives, endlessly sat with Gaston Bachelard’s candlelights, clouds, trees, and fires. I wrote chapbooks (A Primary Mother and Aerial Concave Without Cloud) and books examining the monstrosity of the dying sunlight (Solar Maximum) and meditating on distance, dim starlight, and loss (No Comet, That Serpent in the Sky Means Noise). I felt I needed to work with light as a medium and began creating video art.
A Poetics of Light asks us to recall the small glittering mote adrift in the deep cosmic breath that we all are. A Poetics of Light requires patience, duration of attention, a willingness to engage the subtleties of transformation beyond its blinding spasms so we can observe its quieter concatenations.
I find that my desire to embody and live a Poetics of Light is even more urgent since I transitioned from an academic career to working as a Program Director for a social justice organization. As a facilitator leading community conversations on race and class oppressions in order to build the social justice movement in Colorado, I am increasingly desperate to speak the light with fluency and ease.
This ugly era will end. And how are we being human and alive in its midst. What lights are you leaning into and casting out; what is your body’s heat murmuring with every breath you draw in, draw down, release. We are many things, but for me, the human body is foremost an engine, converting the elements into the fire of imagination, intention, and will. Can we fully grasp the spiritual wick housed within us? We are not just tallows made of clay.
A Poetics of Light is another way of describing a Poetics of Life. I deeply witnessed the human light go out in my grandmother; she gasped her last, and her heart slowed into silence beneath my listening hand. I held the ashes of my dead friend, considered how she became a quiet conflagration that escaped us all—first as a horizontal pillar of fire, then pale smoke, then even paler char. To speak the light, gently holding its myriad messages in our body, is one way of finding satisfaction and release.
In this series of posts, I hope to share with you just a bit of what I have begun to uncover; the way these matters inform my poetic practice and life, and how I have been transformed—endlessly so. I could never have guessed all those years ago at the life I would be leading now—how an intellectual curiosity infiltrated me all the way through. How my poetry truly became a vehicle for spiritual transmission and personal change. I have many people to thank who have guided me, some unknowingly, in these investigations. Their names are already written on the infinite, brilliant page.
2. Call down the light and be healed; salp’uri, poetry, trauma, release
My poetic practice has been enriched by my investigations into salp’uri, an ancient Korean dance form for which I have no training. It is through this form that I feel I have moved most stridently into a practice of a Poetics of Light. I hesitate to call this form “Korean,” when its practice antedates the nation-state now known in the U.S. as Korea. A solo dance, this form features a practitioner—often dressed in white—who moves meditatively with a long, white sash. Known as a dance of exorcism, for me this dance is one of healing.
My former husband, a Korean immigrant and kouksundo practitioner, shared with me the origin story of the dance form, which he discovered in one of his kouksundo texts. In short, two suns once rose in the sky. It was a calamity. The king called a philosopher to court to find a cure. The philosopher composed a poem, then danced the first salp’uri, and the extra sun came down, healing the land.
As a poet and as someone seeking to speak the light, this story had incredible resonance for me. How can the vehicle of the human body address the calamity of an excess in daylight? The answer was there. With the aid of a poem, with the instrument of a long white sheet to translate intentions—bringing them both into the body and up into the air.
The salp’uri origin story spoke deeply into me in the midst of deep loss. We often speak of calamities as dark times and blackness. How can sunlight be a disaster? If you have ever experienced a trauma, perhaps you will understand when I say that in the wake of cascading disasters, I found myself at permanent noon. Without shadow. In a terrible, relentless brightness—a stillness without relief. Without a shadow, did I still have a body. I felt myself dissipating in the intensity of an enduring emotional pain.
When I embarked to Norway for the summer solstice several years ago, I brought with me a gown sewn by my mother and covered in my former husband’s calligraphy. The poem on the skirts of my gown was the same that the philosopher composed to heal the land. I was seeking release from calamity—the dissolution of my marriage, the sudden death of my friend in childbirth, my decision to terminate an unwanted child.
I sought to speak the light. I moved, I wrote a poem—which I set on fire on the fjord on that longest day—and I found release.
3. Gently, with and without confidence
I don’t know what I am doing, but I am doing it with and without confidence.
I don’t know how to describe what I want to share, but I share it vehemently in the ways I can.
I don’t know what the next steps are, but I am taking them.
You are the only you I address.
You are likewise a pillar of flame.
My words and intentions stream forth from this dissipating body.
Do you receive and speak with them.
Is this a type of love, of life.
What are we saying together in this white space of light.
What rises, what settles, what moves onwards from us at all times.
To speak the light as a human body means having vision and perhaps losing it.
My eyes are weak, and so this light is especially poignant to me.
I keep telling myself this is art, but really it’s always just a way to live.
4. What follows
I’m going to do my best to be clear in my next posts. But all of this is always an investigation, an unfolding. I’ll share some thoughts on light and landscape in a meditation on James Turrell, Michele Kishita, and Claude Monet’s work. I’ll try to write about what Gaston Bachelard’s elemental poetics have meant to me, and I’ll think on darkness through some of Joshua Ware’s visual art. Some other things may seep in, and I’ll likely have some departures, too.
I’d love to hear from you, too, about what a Poetics of Light might mean for you. You can write me at [email protected]. I may not have time to respond, but I am paying attention. And maybe that’s the most important part.
Korean American poet Sueyeun Juliette Lee grew up in Virginia. She earned a BA from the University of Virginia and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and studied for a PhD at Temple University. Lee is the author of That Gorgeous Feeling (2008), Underground National (2010), Solar Maximum (2015),...