Puns are the highest and lowest form of wordplay. At worst, they're schlocky uncle jokes that remind you why you only see that part of the family once a year. But in their most exalted form, puns restore physicality to language, reminding us that words have many senses, facets, and valences. They're charged stones we can pick up off the page or remove from our mouths and throw at people.
Hannah Sanghee Park's first book of poems, The Same-Different (LSU Press), winner of the 2014 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, makes invigorating use of this most maligned literary device. Her poems send the mind racing down the rabbit holes Park digs for it.
The first line of the first poem, "Bang," revels in the nesting-doll thrill of the word "river:"
Just what they said about the river:
rift and ever.
It's a play on the old metaphysic "You can't step into the same river twice." Park both abridges and expands upon Heraclitus by locating his lesson within the word itself—the ever-rifting aspect of "river" hides out loud, in its phonemes.
Using this same interruptive verbal logic—we later discover that the word "bang" has been hiding its spirit in plain sight, too—Park steers the rest of the poem toward a theory of desire and detachment:
It may have been holy as scripture
as scribes capture
meaning all that was there and only
(one and lonely)
is all that is left, and wholly
The sky bleached to cleanly
to have left the world,
to what is left of it—
Could you have anything left to covet?
Covertly met: coverlet. Clover, bet. Come over et—
Et what? Follow the dash back to the title. The word "bang" suggests sex and perhaps a new beginning, sure, but its much louder suggestion is of an end, a death—and it's not clear which of the two options is more appealing to this narrator. Like "river" in the first line, the word self-destructs.
Park uses this technique all over the book: really smart deconstruction in the sheep's clothing of wordplay. Aside from offering a refreshingly physical reading experience, the formal combo also addresses a problem that has been nagging the poetry community for years.
In 2009, Norton put out a big anthology called American Hybrid, edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John. In their introductions, the editors claim that contemporary American poets have been tasked to blend traditional influences (lyric poems à la Robert Frost) with avant-garde impulses (linguistic experiments initiated by Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman in the 1970s), and then they presented a bunch of poets who did just that.
The general critique of the anthology was that it was an ambivalent mess of ungratifying ambition. By trying to serve two masters, its poems wound up with only half an ass in either lap.
Park reconciles this supposed conflict of influences by treating it thematically. By making the deconstruction of language and of love its chief, interlocking preoccupations, The Same-Different unfurls from cryptic missives into a full-throated, long-form scream. But Park also brings the discursive, experimental(-ish) techniques to heel by framing them inside traditional lyric forms. The two schools interrogate and communicate with each other, serving up deeply edifying poems that happen to contain discernible arguments about the nature of poetry and language.
It's one thing to have written an astounding first book, but Park—a native of Tacoma, educated at UW, and heir to the linguistically centered lyric aesthetic honed by Seattle's benevolent poet-wizards Heather McHugh and Richard Kenney—also appears to have figured it out.
She's the first real-good American Hybrid.