What people want from travel is usually less Condé Nast, more total immersion: to be opened up, body, heart, soul, and mind, and deposited headlong into something exotic and life-changing. Cue Carina Yun’s Charlotte Mew Award-winning chapbook On Loving a Saudi Girl. We are deposited in Istanbul, its souks, mosques, marble bathhouses, the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, the Hagia Sophia, and “goats… sliced and left bleeding on the street.” For background music, “love songs enter the bosom, muezzin/ sings lullabies over the Blue Mosque.” In the heart of all this appears a woman “encased like a Matryoshka doll—/ The color of soot” whose “irises warmed deeply into mine.” The contrast between the “soot” of the veil and the intoxicating color of the eyes is emblematic of a recurring counterpoint between love/ beauty and veils/ secrecy/ loss that gives the book both tension and spiritual depth. Layer upon layer of lyric poems weave a narrative that not only entrances but keeps the reader going back to re-experience previous poems in the light of the one just read. I felt as if I was there, haunted by a mythic presence with “celadon eyes” whose relationship with the poet is both intimate and otherworldly.
It’s easy, while reading these poems, to forget the world outside the book, so engrossing are both her inner and outer worlds. Yun’s poem “Elementary Education” alternates erotic passages with academic excerpts on Turkish history the poet is writing for a class; the effect is cumulative and leaves us intensely in the present yet simultaneously somewhere else. Similarly, in “The Sunken Cistern,” we are both “five hundred feet underneath the foxhole,” where “Medusa’s headstone fractures in the canal” and “across the Roman columns,” where “a mistress undresses and lies in my bathtub.” The two places are incongruously brought together:
Her viridian irises close.
My mouth fills with damp sand.
Which is a sign of the relationship: mythical, sensual, hyper-real on the one hand; crashing painfully into grim realities on the other. Guilt and social stigma appear in the image of her “filthy hands” which she washes, followed sometimes by prayer, a need for absolution. She asks “What is life if I am wrong to love?”
In the end, the discovery of “her ring/ Tied to a baby’s spoon” is a poignant omen for the loss of her lover to “a Turkish boy’s marriage proposal” and so much more. Millay and Dickinson inspire an inner strength in the poet, also interspersed between lines like ballast, a way to keep afloat amid the intensity of emotions and the haunting questions, memories, and grief. The use of the words Saudi “girl” and Turkish “boy” tells us the poet’s feeling that these are young people, a sense that her lover, otherwise a siren or Medusa in some references, is also like the poet innocently expressing her genuine love and desire. The ring and baby spoon are ties that create a contradiction for her; one wonders how the Saudi girl will fare in the future, with her marriage in imminent conflict with her heart and its need for a woman.
Yun’s own homecoming to San Francisco ends with another sort of love and grief: that for her father, who dies not long after she returns. We again are plunged into another world, this time Chinatown, and she gives us just the right mix of details to put us there, just as exotic in its way as Istanbul. As “two women yell prices/ of dried shriveled squid and tofu skin,” she walks through Stockton Street tunnel into another world where her father is dying. Her mother “feeds him with a silver spoon,” (reminiscent of the earlier “baby’s spoon”) dripping “tears into a bowl of oatmeal.” The poems for her father are especially moving, all the more poignant for their honesty, how love survived even the time he “wraps his fingers/ around my mother’s neck like he’s trying/ to slaughter a duck.” In the end she chooses to remember the love, and that is how her hands absolve the “filth,” by writing these rich and transcendent poems. The effect is both haunting and uplifting—and bodes well for a debut chapbook.