korean poetry

The World’s Lightest Motorcycle by Yi Won, Translated from Korean by E. J. Koh and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello

World's Lightest Motorcycle

By Greg Bem

Originally debuted in 1992 and then published in 1996 and 2007 in Korean, Yi Won’s The World’s Lightest Motorcycle is now available in English thanks to the efforts of E. J. Koh and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, under initial guidance by Korean American poet Don Mee Choi. The book is a phenomenal accomplishment of keeping the Yi Won, a “computer poet,” current in the third decade of the new century.

The book presents Yi Won’s work in both the original Korean and the English translation, offering readers the opportunity to explore the form and format of the work between time and space. The poet’s works combine verse and prose in the same sequence, each piece rarely taking up more than a single page. There are two sections to the book: “When They Ruled the Earth” and “The World’s Lightest Motorcycle,” both which use a techno-surrealist base to explore identity, transformation, and, most prominently, the movement of the human figure in various situations and circumstances. These themes collect and coalesce to merge the literary and the digital into similar consequence.

Yi Won follows in the footsteps of the great feminists of Korean poetry, namely Kim Hyesoon, whose work has seen widespread attention and examination across translations across the last few decades. It is fantastic to see Yi Won’s work emerge alongside that of Kim Hyesoon, particularly as someone who has been both influenced by Kim Hyesoon and as someone who is gratifyingly similar in femininity and horror. As I have written about previously, Hyesoon established a mesmerizing and chaotic poetics capable of taking nearly all preconceived notions of the human body and deconstructing them in the context of the fluidity of life. We see this approach to poetry abruptly in Yi Won’s “A Night at the Gas Station”:

The man rips off the woman’s left torso, lifts the host and pumps gas. With his other hand, he strokes her neck and hair. (page 53)

Appendages emerging out of bodies, natural and human-made objects standing in place of humanity, and the mutation of perception alongside bizarre identities are all distinctly visible in Yi Won’s work, as influenced by Kim Hyesoon and others. And yet with The World’s Lightest Motorcycle, what we have is less blunt, more subtle, and more representative of presence than established or fixed image. As I read Yi Won for the first time, I was blown away the surrealism was so connected to a world of vast new connections, networks, and conceptualizations by way of technology. As early in the book as the first poem, “PC,” Yi Won comments on the presence of our dependence upon (and living through) computer hardware—so much so that it even dictates our human existence:

I lost my feet and my breath at the corner of the road I couldn’t reach to the end. I press the ‘me’ from that moment to print out those years. Some parts are faded or erased.

(page 3)

Yi Won’s comments on the blending and blurring of bodily form both human and computer is a delightful (if shocking) early peek into a cyborgish future of accessories and mobile devices, but there are darker, more foreboding subtexts that can be found within the wit as well. In “Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick,” a poem discussed thoroughly in the book’s translator’s notes, Yi Won’s everyday world is staggered and interrupted; the brief prose poem describes the life of a female protagonist, a life filled with interruption and disruption. Represented powerfully by the translators with English grammar, we have a world that is undergoing transformation and it’s encountered by the reader through visual and verbal tension:

she, stays still, stares at the shadow, tick, tick, the shadow disappears, she, continues to stare at the door, pours water in a cup, the world sloshes, there’s an empty road inside the sloshing sound

(page 11)

As with other surrealist Korean poetry, everyday objects are incredible symbols reflective of adversity and crisis. Yi Won’s work is no exception, namely as we watch movement describes by the speaker of these poems. Movement is relative to the speaker’s interactions, as well as perceptions. By far the greatest conduit of perception in this volume is “the mirror,” a dusty symbol that amazingly avoids cliché as it’s revisited in the digital age. In “A Bright Room,” Yi Won’s mirror is repetitive, ever present, fixed as an object at once hyper and abstract. I could not help but be reminded of the television show “Black Mirror” as I read the lines “In the mirror there’s a place that can’t get any darker / In this place the blinking stars keep rolling around” (page 47).

Even later, the mirror returns in the book’s second section, where it serves as both an object representing infinity and expansion as well as an object representing hollowness and stasis. “The mirror is endless,” Yi Won writes at the beginning in “My Face Runs.” Later she closes the poem: “My face is frozen in the mirror because it’s running too fast” (page 95). With similarities to Icarus, the speaker is both charged by and paralyzed from the potential movement seen in this complex object. How telling of the world that surrounds us!

The translators share that Yi Won was influenced by a plethora of visual artists, including painters Edward Hopper and Francis Bacon, and photographer Robert Frank. Links to vast worlds constructed by and explored with elements of the visual are heavily present in this book across its pages, and in combination with the themes of abstraction and identity mentioned above they present a scenery that is at once connected in its nature and disconnected in the poet’s experience. Perhaps the attempt to explore and understand can be traced to the incredible movement of the characters of the poems (when they aren’t busy staring at themselves in the mirror). Exquisitely the poem “Nike—Edge” shows us this movement directly:

Wow-wow-wow! In the heavy downpour, children run to the square. This world is inside of an egg. Torrential rainfall. It pours downward at such an alarming rate that it becomes a wall of rain, yet in a matter of seconds is dismantled. The concrete floor is impervious to the collapsing world.

(page 79)

If the world is collapsing, be it by way of history and technology, Yi Won offers a resounding response. It is within the practices of measured examination that this volume offers stability and foundation throughout the horror. Process and reality is, as translators Koh and Cancio-Bello have demonstrated, rough and choppy, but within the chaos is an elegance, persistence, and awe.

You can find the book here: https://www.zephyrpress.org/product-page/the-world-s-lightest-motorcycle

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.

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Hysteria by Kim Yideum

hys

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.