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'Organs of Little Importance' explores the curious ephemera that fill our minds

Penguin Books

Jungian psychology is having a moment, owing to the self-published The Shadow Work Journal that rode a TikTok-powered wave to become a surprise publishing behemoth.

The slim workbook, authored by a 24-year-old, outsold every other book on Amazon a few weeks ago and sent Google searches of "shadow work" soaring. Both the book and the notion of the shadow are inspired by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, whose view of the mind was that our conscious selves —our egos — are but a sliver of who we are, and that the vast forces of the unconscious are where to find our souls — our truest, most potent selves. Problem is, the unconscious is by its very nature not conscious, which means understanding ourselves requires interrogating the seemingly insignificant detritus of our minds. Hundreds of thousands of young readers have bought into Jungian shadow work because of the journal, but the notion of such work is a hundred years old.

Mind detritus becomes the stuff of great art in the hands of poet Adrienne Chung. "How curious our lives which line the sidewalk leading back," Chung notes, as she wrestles with her own shadows — and plumbs her unconscious — in her National Poetry Series-winning debut collection, Organs of Little Importance.

Borrowing its title from a Charles Darwin line, Organs is a panoramic exploration of the curious ephemera that fill our minds — the obsessions, memories and peccadilloes that never quite fade. "Why am I still scared of demons and loud noises, of my reflection in the mirror?," she wonders. "Why am I every age at once, each part of my body frozen in a different time?" Chung's own experience with a Jungian analyst is central to her poem "Ohne Titel," and establishes themes threaded throughout — the elasticity of time, and the way dreams, as Jung found, can be of "cinematic importance."

If this all sounds too "woo woo," the 22-poems selected by Solmaz Sharif, will be instantly relatable for any fellow elder millennials, followers of Jung or not. The scenes of learning how to work the VHS player when she was three, the heavy pink blush of the 1980s, and watching the OJ Simpson trial from her classroom dislodged long-shelved memories of mine. And Chung's identity formation is rendered with clarity: a childhood watching endless hours of Disney princesses, a Chinese mother who dutifully donned duty-free makeup products, spotting a boy "whose shirt read 'Drink Wisconsibly.'"

Standouts in the collection include the expansive "Blindness Pattern," which plays with the symbolism and vibrancy of color, "The Stenographer" and its evocative feelings of midlife remove, and the propulsive stanzas of "The Dungeon Master." It is the trippy journey of the 15-sonnet-sequence Dungeon Master, sweeping and specific at once, that demonstrates a poet in complete command of her craft. She captured the many obsessions of her unconscious mind like butterflies in a net, unexpectedly awakening my own. For example, I share her bemusement that George W. Bush became a hobbyist painter, and had the exact same realization as Chung after watching a scene in True Detective season one, a moment she turns poetic:

In writing of love, psychology, philosophy — even mathematics — Chung sprinkles in such observations, both highly personal and surprisingly universal. What a treat to spend an afternoon immersed in her world, to better understand her loneliness, to laugh as she indicts "one swipe and you're out" dating culture and feel the pangs of nostalgia for lost time as it rushes forward. Or does time actually rush forward? Matthew McConaughey and Nietzsche would have some thoughts.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu
Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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