Aerial Concave Without Cloud – 113 pages – $16.95 – Nightboat Books, New York, NY

ANGELINE KEK WRITES — Grief is a lonely process as much as it is all-encompassing. Like all pain, it takes away, gives back wisdom, and breaks people open. Aerial Concave Without Cloud (2022) by Sueyeun Juliette Lee peruses a poet’s journey to research light prompted by the passing of their mother. As they venture to the far-flung corners of Norway and Iceland to study the aurora borealis, the speaker confronts their family’s origin as orphan immigrants of the Korean war. The deeper they dive into research, the more they find that human grief and light converge.

Light is so abundant and close to life that it might seem redundant to mull over its origin. But for a moment, think about the light that is left behind, the light that never gets to reach the ground. How lonely it must feel to watch as the rest saunters on. Lee writes that “the least light or part / which may be stopp’d alone without the rest / do suffer (any thing alone / I call a ray.” Loneliness is a wholly sentient experience, while isolation is a universal concept.

Light is the first immigrant of the universe. As put by Lee, “To speak with light is to encounter the trace of the originating mother body through its lost child. An orphan being, the light reaching us is jettisoned without turning its head back home … and we look back through its narration into a body that is no longer there.” Lee finds solace in light’s ability to embrace the orphanage condition instead of being pulled by the past. As light strays from its solar course to the corners of the cosmos, there is only one direction: forward.

As the speaker pulls on the orphanage nature of light, they find their own grief opening up. “My intuition told me that by confronting this originating, orphan phenomenon fully — those aspects in me that were steeped in abandonment could be relinquished and freed.” Although the derivation of the speaker’s abandonment-centered grief is not revealed, context clues are provided through pictures of a woman donning a white traditional Korean hanbok, holding a white sash as it flutters in flames. “A dance of healing traditionally performed by the community shaman (무당), it discharges personal, familial, environmental, and social illness into the atmosphere through the fluttering sash’s permutations in the air.”

Image extracted from page 89 of Aerial Concave Without Cloud.

The speaker’s aggrieved reflections on “the orphan” being the national symbol of North Korea reveals a strain of ancestral trauma. “My father, my mother, the various people I loved—they have had written into their spirits this unrequitable break. Reft from ancestors, family, homelands, and languages, these orphans populate my spirit.” The heritage of war is one of loneliness, of being forsaken. Surely, that sort of grief seeps through generations.

As a ray of light departs from its home to set forward without hesitance, therein lies the beauty of detachment, a concept the human body so stubbornly rejects. “The body cries: a mother– / Sky summons otherwise, to lose all and fathom … The approximate lesson: no hold. None. / And as one forgets, walk.” The thirst for attachment, to feel tethered, and the desire to grip harder is a testament to the human experience. Attachment is a double-edged knife: an attestation to the heavenliness of being alive, and the insuperable grief that comes with all endings.


Angeline Kek is a book reviewer and contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. As a recent graduate from LMU, she majored in English with a concentration in poetry and creative writing. She is interested in poetry and writings that are honest against all instincts.

Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.

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