Review: Some Are Always Hungry by Jihyun Yun

Some Are Always Hungry by Jihyun Yun (University of Nebraska Press 2020)

Reviewed by Lane Berger

I think the worst must be finished. / Whether I am right, don’t tell me.

—“The Leaving Season”

In 2020, the year of things we tried to abolish, let us at least rid ourselves of this: ‘The Debut,’ held as a foray; the Debut Artist’s contrition, inevitable. Not since Slow Lightening, My Private Property, or The Collected Stories of Grace Paley have I dog-eared anything like my copy of Some Are Always Hungry, a debut poetry collection in which Jihyun Yun brings the reader—spoonful by shattering spoonful—into awareness of the near-unbearable state of being.

As a whole, Some Are Always Hungry centers on the perpetration of patriarchy in and by the Western world. In particular, Yun’s speakers bear witness to the price of existence as neither male nor Western, but other—inevitable victims of binary conflict like war, famine, rape, and assimilation. The irony that those who birthed and nurtured this world are denied full range of agency in it is not lost on Yun; and the women in her poems frequently revisit what they have done as a result, and who they might yet become.

In “Caught,” “The Leaving Season,” “Menstruation Triptych,” and “Blood Type,” the speakers qualify their sublimation—never saying rape—asking the achingly familiar “was I complicit?”

In “Passage, 1951” and “Savaging,” Yun considers the dehumanizing effects of war—learning to loot dead bodies and trash heaps —as regression into animal. The elder sisters in both poems fear their families will never “un-wild.”

And in “Reversal,” the reader is instructed to leave the slaughtered sow be. “Let her tend to herself. Her unthatched belly calling for return of lost things” so that she might survive and dare to “begin again.”

Despite this and other appearances of magic, dreams, prayer, and myth, Some Are Always Hungry cautions against letting hope stray toward expectation. In “The Tale of Janghwa and Hongryeon,” Janghwa only achieves personal autonomy in death. Like a lake slow-swallowing petals, Yun depicts Janghwa’s thwarted blooming into self-actualized womanhood with paused and fragmented lines that sink down the page. And in “Lilith,” Yun juxtaposes apocalyptic imagery with the idea of sex as benediction to articulate the speaker, Lilith’s, despair when coupling with Adam:

Nights of amniotic dark so thick I can barely see through…you say, You’re mine, you’re mine, litany desperate as the labor of your hips. Dear God of man’s waste, I know I’ll leave this place hungry.

This—the inconstancy of satiation and the inevitability of trauma—is the gospel of Some Are Always Hungry. Through intimacy and astute experimentation with form and language, Yun wields an immutable capacity for revelation:

…I wasn’t ashamed. I burned

you gently in my arms, burned

you all the way home, away

from the laughter, burned you

against my breast to safety.

And daughter, you will not

forget these aches you learned.

If you have a daughter,

you will burn her too.

—from “Homonyms”

If Some Are Always Hungry offers any consolation, it is that this life might be endured. The proof lies in the proximity of Yun’s speakers, reinforced by Yun’s preference for the present tense, active verbs, and lush, sensory detail. At the close, Some Are Always Hungry leaves the reader with the feeling of having been a witness too. Through poetry that is as much a testament as an act of resurrection, Yun helps us to honor the women who brought our world into being, and who will be there at its end.

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