Unexpected Vanilla

About the Collection

Lee Hyemi’s poetry is characterized by fluidity and wetness, with subjects moving about and soaking in each other through curious means. The titular “vanilla”—indeed meant as the antonym of “kinky”—is unexpected for Lee, who subverts the vanilla norm without denying its pleasures. 

In the preface to Unexpected Vanilla, Lee writes: “There is always an exchange of fluids / at the critical moment when a relationship deepens. / Holding the fish jar in which alphabet letters swim / I step into the world of the second person.” This exchange of liquids often involves sex, but intercourse can be nonsexual: drinking tea or alcohol, going to the beach, sitting in the same tub, crying, feeling your lover’s sweat on your palm, and so forth. In this way, Lee explores a wide variety of relationships, attractions, and sensations. Her erotically charged, surrealist sensibility can be traced back to the paintings of Leonor Fini, a bisexual Argentinian artist whom she admires. 

Lee details various intimacies in her “world of the second person,” which still feels clandestine but safe from the threat of exposure. And because Korean is a pro-drop language, the subjects of her poems can be ambiguously gendered. The task of the queer translator, then, is to feel out the subtleties with respect, as one does in life, and not presume heterosexuality. Just as Lee spoke out during #문단_내_성폭력 (the hashtag movement that began calling out sexual violence within South Korean literary circles in October 2016) and the more recent global #MeToo movement, her poems recreate and hold space for agency and queerness in female sexuality. 

About the Poet

Lee Hyemi (b. 1988) is the author of Ultraviolet (Changbi Publishers, 2011) and Unexpected Vanilla (Moonji Publications, 2016). In 2006, she became the youngest winner of the JoongAng Literary Newcomer’s Prize after novelist Choi In-ho won in 1963. Her mother, Jeong Yonghwa, is also a poet with four published collections. Lee is currently a PhD student in Korean literature at Korea University and enjoys deep-sea diving.

Book Review

  • “After reading this collection, it occurred to me that the title Unexpected Vanilla passes through all the poems included in this collection. The sweet, strong fragrance and unexpected sensation might strike the back of your head or pierce your heart. This collection is really comprised of poems that merges such sensations and feelings… While Lee’s second collection is closely connected with her first, it’s filled with poetic language that presents her feelings even more fearlessly and dynamically. Once you encounter Lee Hyemi’s language, you will see vanilla—what seems soft and sweet—differently.” – Literary critic Heo Hui 
  • Sensuality, much less explicit discussion of sex, is relatively rare in Korean literature. This may contribute to the modest reception that Unexpected Vanilla has had in Korea, but Lee will appeal to readers interested in surrealism, especially as portrayed through a queer feminist lens. Uplifting a young, contemporary voice like Lee’s would help represent experiences that are marginalized even within Korea. 
  • So J. Lee’s translations of Unexpected Vanilla have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, Asymptote, and Words Without Borders.

Table of Contents

Part 1

  • Summer, When Loquat Trees Light Up
  • Arriving Lights
  • The World of Breaths
  • Diver
  • Banan
  • Cenote
  • Polar Night
  • The Cupboard with Strawberry Jam
  • A Poppy’s Summer
  • The Knocking Droplets
  • Elbow
  • Personal Rain
  • The Taste of Flour
  • Ardently
  • Sleeping Waters

Part 2

  • Unexpected Vanilla
  • No Panties
  • Foreplay with the Horla
  • Inside the Tower
  • Half the Blood
  • A Standstill Order
  • Under Your Hand
  • Unrecorded Days
  • The Loss of a Son
  • Trace
  • The Taste of Wings
  • Just as Magnolias Don’t Know Their Own Limits
  • Under the Fluttering Flag
  • Summer, When I Dreamt of Vines
  • The Departing Tree
  • Maritime Forest

Part 3

  • Star and Bottle
  • Untouchable
  • Flower Antlers
  • Moment’s Hand
  • The Days of Humidity
  • Behind the Downpour
  • Night, like a Print
  • Pulvis
  • The Sense of Snowflakes
  • I Saw Your Wife
  • Odalisque on Thursday
  • Unfaithful Star
  • Evening, When My Pet Plant Opens Its Eyes
  • Flower Basin
  • A Boil on My Hand
  • Receiving the Runny Red Gem

Part 4

  • The Night Behind the Window
  • Castor Aralia
  • Sprinkler
  • Lalala, Cherries
  • Under Two Layers of Currents
  • A Fish Tank Holding a Sea Robin
  • Crossing the Black Page of Sleep
  • Femdom
  • Sprouting Bones
  • The Use of Green
  • Erasable Seeds
  • The Neighborhood
  • Albino
  • Someone from the Western Riverside
  • Watery Footprints