Transcending Metaphor: Jenifer Sang Eun Park’s Autobiography of Horse

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From its first words, I knew that Jenifer Sang Eun Park’s debut collection, Autobiography of Horse: A Poem, would be taking me on a ride like none other. Here is a book that is a single hybrid work composed of historical anecdotes, monologue, dialog, lists, diagrams, photographs, collage, and prose, embedded seamlessly into the writer’s relationship with myriad things we associate with horses. The “horse” in the title, and as it is used throughout the book, holds many levels of meaning, including: the concept of horses as a class; the particular horse she associates with herself; and a deep obsession with her idea of an idyllic horse. The book seduces the reader with the impression of having transgressed into a private diary. I was immediately struck by how rarely a poet impresses with something so novel, so extraordinary. To call it unique is an understatement.

Autobiography of Horse is packed with horrific tales of how horses have been subjugated and abused throughout history, beginning with an account of a twelfth-century royal practice in which,

a king is inaugurated through the slaughter and ceremonial consumption of a mare. The appointed mare must be as white as a bleached skull.

As the ceremony unfolds, it becomes ever more appalling, with the mare “cut into pieces and boiled in a large cauldron,” and the king bathing in its broth while being “served chunks of the mare’s flesh.”

Atrocities are recounted, one after another. Park has done her research; her expertise on the desecration of horses throughout history is thorough. Equally offensive is the myth-making that accompanies these desecrations—how the ritual agony inflicted on horses comes to be viewed by its human architects as a spiritual transaction, wherein the horse’s spirit is transferred to a human. These acts of hubris are not only historical phenomena. Consider the “Omak Suicide Race,” an annual rodeo event still taking place each August in Omak, Washington, in which some of the horses will die each year of overexertion, collisions, or drowning; or how horse meat, eaten raw, “is still considered a delicacy in Jeju, an island located in the Korean Strait.” Of course we know that horses die in popular horse racing events and that some humans eat horse meat, the same way people unthinkingly bet on horses or know that humans eat pig-meat. The twist is in the meaning, however, as we are told that meat “isn’t the only use of the Jeju horse:”

its soul is extracted and manufactured into creams and oils. A 50ml container of Jeju Horse oil sells for $47.90.

By the time you learn that “Ancient Patagonian Indians extract the stomach of a mare to hold a baby,” you start to understand Park’s obsession as “the beginning of a story gone awry.” As the stories pile on, it becomes clear that horrible acts upon “horse” have become symbolically transferred to the speaker’s body and psyche; they have become potential metaphor for all travesties inflicted upon all living beings, an offering for the widest possible of interpretations and identifications. But by using the concrete, by sticking to horse tales, Park transcends metaphor. Actually, we may need to make up a new word for what she is doing here. Her words bespeak prophet, martyr, oracle.

Of the process she says,

I ate the horse years ago and it still hasn’t left my body. A serving of horse is 28g of protein, 6g of fat, 5 mg of iron, 55 mg of sodium, 65 mg of cholesterol, and a total of 175 calories.

She further constructs a fundamental treatise regarding what happens to the human self in the process of obsession:

There are countless ways an obsession infects the consciousness of an individual, but immediate attention should be paid to the initial implosion. Though variations also exist within these parameters, the onset of a critical obsession is evident in a momentous implosion that viscerally conflicts with the self. This implosion primarily affects the individual’s emotional-motor skills, present tense cognition, and reality-perception.

That statement obviously belongs in the curriculum for training psychologists. Park’s speaker suffers as “horse” suffers. She goes to great length to describe equine self-mutilation: a horse’s performance of repetitive actions or movements, such as head-nodding, or flank-biting, when distressed. Horses have been documented to make suicide attempts. She likens it to the speaker’s teeth grinding, noting that a “committee would call it bruxism.” “The committee,” appears from time to time throughout the manifesto to take the psychological temperature of the speaker. We start to understand that she has taken on a burden that has engulfed her, causes her unpleasant symptoms, and challenges her sanity. Further, we are told that “There was no human to share it with.”

In numbered lists strewn throughout the book, Park offers many possibilities for the obsession:

5. The mirror needed fixing.
14. My grandma is a horse.
19. I don’t like admitting that I write to be understood.
20. I couldn’t take off the mask.
37. My mentor passed, and when he did, I felt I needed a replacement.
40. The apocalypse is here & it is slow.
48. I needed to watch my dog die.

There is ample room for interpretation in these pages, but viewing the book as a plug for animal rights would be a huge oversimplification. Much is hidden, like a jigsaw puzzle with half of the pieces missing, so you know you won’t see the whole picture, but every piece placed is a clue. Among the most hidden sections, in justified margins, Park writes the word “horse” over and over. In this case it’s more like a spell being cast, as language, when repeated, becomes strange, almost magical. I found myself reading each word, “horse” after “horse,” looking for clues. On pages 28–29, she offers the following introduction,

. . . the example of horse is peculiarly horse eclipsing horse. The following are notes from an extensive examination on the subject posthumously identified as horse:

horse horse horse horse horse horse horse

Here the word horse is repeated seven times per line, single-spaced, for twenty-six lines. Scattered within this segment, I found the words “the,” “story,” “is,” “autonomous” in that order. It often does feel that the story exists independent of the speaker—that there is a force propelling the work that Park is not fully in control of.

If you say or read any word over and over long enough, it is eventually rendered meaningless. Thoughts have the opposite effect. They repeat and repeat and only enlarge in meaning to the thinker. We all know people with obsessive thoughts who are rational about those thoughts. Park muses about the speaker’s obsession,

I know I wasn’t born to be obsessed with the horse. I know I wasn’t born to be a switch-blade in the hand of a child.

And this,

An obsession requires an insurmountable imagination

Words are repeated within prose pieces as well, giving a both a sense of pressured speech, and a child-like desire to taste words, to repeat them.

I realize that no horse knows I’m writing about the horse. We can’t meet in the place of words and pages. This is an inherent problem I find in whatever I decide to write. Words are too mutable to be sturdy bridges. Curiously this lack of constancy is what interests me in writing neigh neigh neigh, or even understand this neigh neigh neigh or even hear this neigh neigh neigh as mimicry of their own neigh neigh neigh.

Recognizing her own dexterity for creativity, Park invents George, who is equal to Park’s speaker in quirkiness, and a girlfriend, Deena, who drink beer at George’s parents home, while their parents are out of town. The story becomes bogged down in Park’s indifference and needs spicing up with equal parts of horse and mutilation. She writes, “George dreams of horses.” She writes, “Deena was the only one who knew George had tried to castrate himself.” Later, there is this:

George is lucky because he dissolved into the outskirts of my imagination. He was just another thing to feed to the horse. He served his purpose well. So well that the residue of George sticks to the soles of my hooves.

At several points in this broken narrative, Park refers back to “the committee.” Clearly this is a device for assessing the speaker’s sanity, while at the same time, scorning the efforts of professionals to offer anything of value to the experience.

The committee is a detective in a white coat. “Do you hear voices telling you what to do? That tell you to hurt yourself?” Your answer can demote or promote you. “I would like to hear voices just to feel less lonely,” I wanted to say, “but sometimes I hear too many hooves, the noise leads me astray.”

Near the close, Park writes,

In each of us is a racehorse. The racehorse in us makes us run.

Perhaps I should have issued a trigger warning earlier. The decision to run head-on into revulsion and absorb it in our own bodies, or to run away from manmade atrocities, is the horrifying choice revealed in Autobiography of Horse. Either way, we are lost.

Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press; curator at The Poetry Café Online; and the poetry reviews editor at River Mouth Review. Her most recent publications include the full-length poetry collection, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition. More from this author →