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.
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
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.
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.