First reading of Hannah Sanghee Park's 'And a Lie' (2)
From the first stanza of her poem “And A Lie,” Park sets in motion a pattern of fissure and fusion. She splits words into their fundamental sound units and rearranges them. The confidence of the initial “the,” a definite article whose purpose is to point to a singular thing, becomes “then,” an adverb anticipating change, then transforms to “anathema,” and finally to “anthem.” Anathema and anthem evoke loathing and loving, condemnation and celebration. However, Park joins them in the same phrase as if to illustrate how they complement each other, or can slip into one another, or can even perhaps be indistinguishable. Her words, though sonically similar, contrast starkly in meaning. In this way, the poem seems to gesture at false binaries, the gap between intended and received meanings. This juxtaposition of phonic proximity and denotative distance makes me think of mishearings and the disparate outcomes that can hinge on a brief moment of misunderstanding. I get the impression from the sparseness and precision of her language that the stakes are high; this isn’t mere soundplay — identity, truth, and the relationship between self and other lie at the heart of her project.
The structure of Park’s poem contains fourteen lines and ends with a rhyming couplet. However, it reminds me more of a fugue than a sonnet; the first stanza introduces all the basic phonemic notes of her melodic theme. From then on, clever transpositions and elaborations add depth and complexity to these individual elements. For example, the phonemes “ask” and “-ing” return in the second stanza with the line, “seeking too tasking.” The “asking” that was “askance” in the first line — an inquiry issued obliquely, with mistrust or suspicion — is seemingly deemed “too tasking” and is abandoned by the sixth line. In the context of a poker game, a tell is an unconscious behavior that betrays a player’s bluff. From the line “and the tell all told,” it seems that Park has detected the truth, yet has turned away from it. A willed ignorance wins over: “No eyes were kept peeled.” The passive structure of this phrase further underscores a relinquishment of effort and will. Truth-seeking requires an earnest attention to see past easy absolutes, to see the grayness of truth. Instead, the truth was kept “on hold,” in limbo, suspended, denied discovery. Park herself seems to be in limbo in this poem. All the verbs she uses are either in the past tense or suggest her passivity. If she is indeed the “I” of the poem, she seems to be waiting, reeling after a trauma, attempting to reconstitute her shattered world.
The conjunction in Park’s title seems to signal that there is always a hidden, other side to the story if only we choose to seek it out. The images in “And A Lie” hint at obstructed vision: “And the wool was pulled / over as cover / no eyes were kept peeled. / my iris I missed.” Since Park does not identify the agent of deception, we can entertain the possibility that this blindness is self-inflicted. The iris is the part of the eye that controls how much light reaches the retina. Gazing directly at the truth in all its harsh and harrowing light requires a certain mercilessness towards the self. We can either choose truth, and evolve to greater self-knowledge, or we can choose stagnation. The line “pulled / over as cover” seems to suggest that blindness can be used intentionally as a tactic for protection or self-preservation in the face of an undesirable truth. I wonder if regret underlies this enjambment. There are two additional instances of enjambment later in the poem: “I missed / the truth, now mistrust / all things seen.” The pain of disillusionment and its resulting ambivalence seem to lie in this moment of hesitation, in the gap between lines.
A precarity between confident inclusion and confused isolation seem to lie at the core of the poem. Park’s phonemic shape-shifting makes me think of the shapeshifter in myths and fairy tales, whose purpose is to delay or perplex the protagonist. The shapeshifter generates conflict or tension in the story, but ultimately mirrors the protagonist’s subconscious need for transformation. Park’s poem seems to say that there is no purity of truth and falsehood, self and other, but rather, one always contains shades of the other.
Park’s poem comes from the first section of her collection entitled “The Same-Different.” Both the form and content of the poem echo the theme of mutability, the instability of identity, or the elusiveness of truth. Who gets to name sameness? Define difference? The poem seems replete with demands placed on Park’s person: she is asked, told, called, culled — pressured into a role she seems reluctant to accept. In the ninth line, seemingly following in the tradition of the sonnet structure, Park makes an affective turn from presenting the deception to describing its consequences. The “I” enters the poem in the fourth stanza, and is followed by a verb that is more nonaction than action. She “missed” the truth and is now coerced into sounding a “distress signal.” Does she “miss” the period of delusion that has now given way to a painful clarity?
Park ends the poem with a loaded term: damsel. Did she choose to be the “damsel” in distress or is this role imposed on her? Does the poem allude to a break-up? Is Park haunted by heartbreak, trapped in an echo chamber of her own thoughts and memories? It is possible that no beloved exists — the sonnet may be a mournful hymn to herself, her own disenchantment. The consonance of the end rhyme jars with the discord of the sentiment. The final line leaves us without a resolution. We remain troubled, questioning, a mistrust of all things seen urging us towards a more attentive listening.
And a Lie
The asking was askance.
And the tell all told.
So then, in tandem,
Anathema, and anthem.
The truth was on hold,
Seeking too tasking.
And the wool was pulled
Over as cover.
No eyes were kept peeled.
My iris I missed
The truth, now mistrust
All things seen, and this
Distrust, the sounded distress signal
Called and called and culled from your damsel.
Amaris Cuchanski is a graduate of the Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. She works in feminist and race theory, contemporary fiction, poetry, and television. She has been a Teaching Assistant for ModPo, a massive open online course on modern and contemporary U.S. poetry, since 2012.