By Greg Bem
Contemporary translations of South Korean poetry reveal a world of many layers and many breakthroughs. The quasi-recent collection Anxiety of Words, which features Seattle-based poet Don Mee Choi’s translations of three late 20th Century female poets serves as a cornerstone for feminist voices coming out of South Korea. Ch’oe Sung-Ja, Kim Hyesoon, and Yi Yon-ju are featured in that text, and their distinct styles are brought together in a text both compelling and informative. As Choi wrote early in the book’s introduction, it’s important to remember that there was “an emergence of a feminist consciousness in [South Korean] women’s poetry beginning in the 1970s.” But that emergence is not limited to one time or place. As with any understanding of feminism, its development is fluid and across generations.
Around 50 years ago, the poets listed above started bringing the world to their works and vice versa, and yet Anxiety of Words was released in 2006. The translations are utterly present within the 21st Century, and feel exciting and exacting, inciting and insightful. In one moment, rage and compassion and a visceral coming-to-terms are thrown into the blender of the poems. In many ways and from many angles the poems carry more energy and inertia than the dominant voices of the Americas and Europe. In many ways, these are the voices of liberation and independence. They reflect the art of breaking free from bondage and abuse. I have written of Hyesoon’s works of body and horror at length in multiple reviews and could write about her and Sung-Ja and Yon-ju extensively. Their works are symbolic and deserve space, and yet what I am curious about today is the next generation of work from South Korea. Let us turn our attention to contemporary South Korean poet and feminist successor Kim Yideum.
The 2010s and 2020s will be generations marked as a shuffling along, a rounding the corner, and a subduing of life amidst infinite crises. Information overload challenging the global populace at every moment is impetus for achieving both satisfaction and numbness. Kim Yideum is a poet whose words reflect this sense of paralysis and challenge. In Hysteria, poets and translators Jake Levine, Soeun Seo, and Hedgie Choi bring a fresh and immediate presentation of Kim’s works through vigorous translations that are as harmonious and consistent as they are defiant and excruciating.
Hysteria is, as one might guess from the title, a book that finds balance between the mundane and the extreme. A throwback to the concept of hysterics and reactionary moods as defined by male doctors in the 19th and 20th Centuries, the book investigates, through a feminist lens, the way the poet and world collide today. It is often harsh, unpleasant, and at odds with truth and beauty. And yet Kim’s poems, poems of hysteria, are, in their trials, puzzles and conversations.
I have this hobby where I go to the back of the bus
and lean on the window and stare out
until I fall into a sleep so deep I don’t breathe.
(from “Aori More Than Aura” on page 2)
The book goes far in exploring the relationship between self and world in the long format. The poetry is divided into three sections: the first feels utterly nihilistic and opiated; the second reflects the anger and fury constantly under the surface; and the third extends to the pettier qualities of the everyday filled with humdrum and melodrama. The arc across the book is exquisite because on the surface there is a sense of failure; however, the arc challenges how neat and polished collections of poetry serve only to reinforce structures and historical power. Kim’s work explores each poem’s interconnectedness and these threads are exposures into an authentic and versatile every day. That truth and that beauty that is covered up is actual and gritty. It is noisy and full of disjunction.
Finding a middle ground is reaching a point of absurdity. It feels, through a quagmire of emotions, impossible to be at one with the atrocities of everyday life and the rhythm and unstoppable reverberations of that life. Kim writes in “Correction” that she is “Writing like someone suffering / something they haven’t lived through / winners of million-dollar prizes, whatever” (page 19). The attitude toward this space is sardonic and demeaning, but also Kim is consistent in elevating an understanding of what it means to be authentic, and how right and wrong that is. This sense of absurdity feels like the works of American poet Rauan Klassnik, who challenges the machine while riding the machine all along.
Kim’s speaker is in no way doing one thing or another; there is never a clear position or stance within the voices of these poems. When taken side-by-side, the poetry as a collection often feels disconnected and, as such, incorrect. And this is where Kim is so profound. Hyesoon poetry, contrasted, is wild and filled with awe-and-wretch-inducing moments, and there is a fantastic sense of the whole as one consistent, blasting chorus across poem-time and poem-space. And for Kim? Kim’s answer is to throw the sense of the fantastic into the gutter.
Even if you cover me with a wrinkled blanket
you’ve got to understand that a buttercup’s character is so fiery
it can’t be buried. Not even by a snowstorm.
I’ll never be weak.
(from “The Flood” on page 58)
In 2019 and 2020, this sensibility, as captured within these poems, feels relevant and insistent. There is enough destruction in the sentiment to feel like Dada feels, or like Grunge feels. To feel as though the world we’re facing, with screen addictions and a fallow/hollow sense of relationship and commitment, is a world to reject. And in the process of rejection there are poems, and what those poems are, as padding or as output, is fascinating and inspiring. But as it feels unsettled, it begs the question: what next? Does there need to be a next? The emotion of rage and wrath Kim elegantly includes suggests that there may be something more loving, more accepting, more inclusive. But that is not in Hysteria. It is not the point of Hysteria. Making space for positivity is something Kim’s future works may consider, or not. I suppose it all depends on how much of the world weighs down upon us, and how trapped or numb we feel about it.
You don’t have anything else?
a woman shopper asks me and
I become a different person
who wonders what it would be like to be someone else.
(from “You Are Suddenly Green” on page 76)
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Hysteria-Kim-Yideum/dp/0900575824
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.