[BANG BANG is our week-long look back at 20!!, or "Twenty-bang-bang," or 2011, with contributions from all over aiming to cover all sorts of enthusiasms from film to music to words and beyond.]
by Akiva Gottlieb
The movie I most wanted to evangelize for all year—at least before Margaret started kicking down doors—was usually synopsized in embarrassing fashion. Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, in prose courtesy of IMDb: “A sixty-something woman, faced with the discovery of a heinous family crime and in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, finds strength and purpose when she enrolls in a poetry class.” Yes, every word of this heartwarming short story is technically accurate, but the implied causality is almost willfully misleading. In actuality, her discovery of the heinous crime is sublimated, her awareness of her Alzheimer’s is either denied or forgotten, and if she finds strength and purpose when enrolling in a poetry class, it’s not the result of anything she learns there.
The perverse irony of this unpredictable, quietly devastating film is Lee’s framing of his protagonist’s terminal illness as less of an impediment than an enabler—it causes her to forget, but just as crucially gives her license to walk away from trauma. Poetry’s most resonant mysteries pivot upon the impossibility of knowing the difference between a selective memory and a faulty one.
Lee’s film is an object lesson in everyday escapism, and if he never indicts the movies as our favorite emotional management tool, he probably expects we’d repress that knowledge anyway. Poetry draws a precise visual map of those other places we hide from what we don’t want to know—behind locked doors, under the covers, in the shower, in a karaoke bar, in a poem—and the negotiations we’re willing to make with ourselves and others to keep an ugly truth from coming to light. This is not a chronicle of disease and triumph, or finding one’s voice, but a testimonial to compartments and evasions. Poetry’s poetry lessons allegorize the process of emotional disengagement as a method of scaling back, limiting one’s scope, concentrating. To repress one memory might just be way of focusing more intensely on another. A debilitating illness is a tragedy, but Poetry discovers a state of grace—or at least a deferral of inevitabilities—in being lost for words.
Akiva Gottlieb writes about film for The Nation, but does not write poetry. He lives in Michigan.