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.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Poems-Argentina-David-Francis/dp/1950462404
Patricia Carragon’s debut novel, Angel Fire, is from Alien Buddha Press and her latest book from Poets Wear Prada is Meowku. Patricia hosts Brownstone Poets and is the editor-in-chief of its annual anthology. She is an executive editor for Home Planet News Online. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. For more information about Ms. Carragon and her reading series, www.brownstonepoets.blogspot.com and at
You can find the book here: ALL OUR FARE-THEE-WELLS by Robert Cooperman – Finishing Line Press
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
By Neil Leadbeater
Inculpatory evidence has, in its title, a legal reference frame which underscores the gravity of the subject-matter. Tabios presents the evidence. It is up to us, the readers, to draw our own conclusions.
The cover photograph of the author wearing her mask is a sombre reminder of just how contagious this virus is. Traditionally, masks were worn by actors as a means of transferring the wearer into a different character. More recently, they are considered to be a form of deception, a facade that obscures the truth. With regard to the present global pandemic we view them as a necessary part of everyday living. The covering over the nose and mouth is not without a cruel irony for we are short of breath due to polluting and dangerous pathogens and we are muted in expressing the truth because certain sections of society are fuelling us with misinformation, the so-called “fake news” that endangers us all. Wearing masks, we all lose a little of our facial identity and, to those who are hard of hearing, and who rely on lip-reading, our means of communication.
Four poets and translators have collaborated on this volume of ten poems by Eileen R. Tabios. John Bloomberg-Rissman has written an afterword and commentary on them, Natthaya Thamdee translated them into Thai and Susan M. Schultz provided useful feedback subjecting one of the poems to her Oulipian N+7 process in which a writer takes a poem already in existence and substitutes each of the poem’s substantive nouns with the noun appearing seven nouns away in the dictionary. This added a surreal touch to what many of us feel is a surreal situation. Some notes about issues that arose in the course of translating the poems into Thai are included at the end.
John Bloomberg-Rissman gives a chilling factual account of events (from November 2019 to June 2020) relating to the spread of Covid 19, the nature of the virus, and the attempts that are being made to curb its spread. His essay focusses on the complete denial, by certain sections of the population, that there is any need to take any precautionary measures, such as the wearing of masks and social distancing, at all. The account then widens to incorporate other global issues that are equally serious, if not more so. He lets the keepers of the Doomsday Clock sum it up: “Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers – nuclear war and climate change – that are compounded by a threat of multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond.” Will we never learn? It seems that a proportion of the human race is hard-wired to self-destruction.
The ten poems in this volume employ a range of different styles appropriate to their subject matter. Two poems, for example, are written in the reverse hay(na)ku form (a sequence of tercets comprising lines of three words, two words and one word each) and there is also a poem written in couplets, and a list poem. In others, there is some experimentation with the way the lines are presented on the page, the size of the typeface and, in one poem, one or two words are typographically represented by a strikethrough to give an additional meaning to the text. Several poems are dated by month and year of composition. Interestingly enough, the year 2020 is adjusted to 2563 in the Thai translation to accommodate the Buddhist calendar which is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar.
In the opening poem we are reminded, among other things, of the power of the word and how a single word, (corona), when it suddenly acquires a new meaning can change our perception of it forever, and that poetry has the power to foretell, to warn, of things to come.
The subject matter in this volume goes wider than Covid 19: ‘Regret’ focusses on the environment, ‘Triggered’ on hunger, ‘Not My First Mask’ on xenophobia and racism and ‘What I Normally Would Not Buy’ on panic buying, consumerism and survival. This is not just physical survival but also survival from domestic abuse.
Tabios uses food in this collection as a metaphor for survival. Food, in its various forms, appears in at least seven of the ten poems. We cannot survive without it. Witness the panic buying that took place as soon as news of the outbreak spread. Maslow was right when he included it within his hierarchy of basic human needs (although he seems to have overlooked toilet paper altogether).
Deception is another theme that weaves its way through this collection: things are not necessarily what they look like or what they seem to be. In ‘Sudden Asian Prepper’ Tabios uses references from hair colouring and make-up to illustrate her point about the deeper issues of deception, not just those that are follicle or skin-deep, but ones to do with race, misinformation and denial.
dye for turning
for double-lidding eyes,
Eyelid tape and other similar products are hugely popular in places like Korea where having “double eyelids” is considered to be ridiculously desirable.
Despite the gravity of the subject matter there is dark humour at work in some of these poems. Take ‘Faith in the Time of the Coronavirus,’ for example, which opens with these lines:
The President proclaims
-nay, guarantees! –
BETTER DAYS AHEAD!
WE SHALL BOUNCE BACK
HIGHER THAN BEFORE!
I respond faithfully
with an item I’ve never experienced:
a box of 100 MREs*
My tastebuds cringe –
[*Meals Ready to Eat].
‘Kapwa on Covid’ opens with a quotation from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’. So much depends upon that word. If we can stem the virus, if everyone can adhere to social distancing, if there is another wave, if an effective vaccine can be found, if the virus mutates…different trajectories will ensue. There was a framed copy of Kipling’s poem in our home when I was young. I used to read it often and I can still recall the opening line: ‘If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs…’ In it, the speaker advises his son about how to perceive the world and life’s challenges so that he can both learn from his experiences and resolutely overcome barriers. It is something we all need to do in these difficult times.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017), Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019). His work has been translated into several languages.
By Greg Bem
Sweet disappeared man; sweet disappearing river
I sing to you this is all I have.
(from “Two Stanzas in Autumn” on page 18)
Grief looms around each corner. Down each path. Beneath the canopy, beneath the stones, across the lawn to the riverbanks, in the river itself. Grief is huge, and it’s often left out of conversation, left out of the social experience. As an often-solitary experience, grief often feels elevated and urgent in poetry. The opportunity to experience another’s exploration of grief and grieving is daunting and awestriking. In Catherine Owen’s Riven, we have just that: daunt and awe through Owen’s commitments and difficult attention to this crucial process.
Riven (defined within the book as a “a word that echoes river and means rift”) combines the poet’s tangible explorations in her immediate world with explorations of grief. The work’s concept is the ritualization of writing through the Fraser River. The work’s basis is writing through the grief of a lost spouse, who died from drug addiction in 2010. Owen’s work is monumental in that it balances a strong, Cascadian ecopoetics as examined via Fraser River with a challenging, cathartic, and human inquiry into death and loss of another human. Owen’s life and writing, as they shift from poem to poem, across moods and a trajectory of the spiritual and the practical, reflect recovery, understanding, and balance.
The poems connect with the river across time and space. Owen’s proximity to the water within the river reflects a conduit that pushes the boundaries of the temporal within poetry. While each poem feels like a new step, a new pathway, there is the persistence of the river itself:
forever happens while so near behind our window, the dark river rides the / shoreline, draws some of the land in it, then further down / what was sunk into something like commitment / is dry on the banks again [. . . ]
(from “Sundays, in the frozen construction site” on page 33)
The undefinable space of grief aligns poignantly with the river, ceaseless but wavering and textured in our conceptions and perceptions. A lingering sense of the past, a restless haunt, is present in these meditations. It is known but not. It is felt but feels unfamiliar in its newness. Each poem, like each day, provides a fractured vision of the river and of history. A revisitation that surprises. Owen’s writing is elegant though thorough, curious though cautious. Juxtapositions do not feel forced but feel adaptive and founded in growth and learning despite the shadow of pain and discomfort.
The juxtaposition that affected me the most was the imposition of reality. Owen’s push towards the river, toward a constrained, intentional artistic immersion never fully achieved as such, the world continuously occupying and imposing. Owen writes of this as Pamela Manché Pearce wrote similarly in Widowland and Phil Elverum sung on A Crow Looked at Me. Owen’s approach to the presence of the world and the disillusionment within is subtle and gestures towards grief’s relentless challenge. It is not a realm of feeling that can go away, despite distraction and interjection:
So you wait beyond concepts of waiting. I’m telling him – the grief regions are vast. I may call out hello hello I live only here now but the truth is a geography. Saw whinges. Click of trucks. The overexposed heron doesn’t celebrate quickly. Lollop of otter. Fish whipping and eh elusive option that this is not, again, a hook. Falling 1000 feet into your memory.
(from “Conniption: The River” on page 63).
The other end of contrast is the opportunity of the beauty within the world Owen is writing. Loss and presence of human and river are still surrounded by impeccable circumstances, and these sequences of imagery fill Riven with ornamentation and symbols. A fullness results and resounds. The ritual of presence fills the poetry. Line spills to line with Owen’s reiterative world-building. It is a translation of that which daunts and that which awes. It is the sprawl of minutiae based on time of day, angle of reference, and the exquisite biological and geological layers through which the images form and become complex.
In the wake of the passing, another wake.
The water does not return to itself.
There is a gleam, a density.
The sun pivots in the wound
where a white bird retires its flying.
(from “Love should not be written in stone, but in water” on page 71)
Within the construction of the image, we find the construction, subtly, of another layer of grief: that river (that riven) echoing Owen’s loss. The world is bigger than the self. Bigger than the lost spouse. There is an ecological sickness, far larger in scope, more global in the lack of nurturing and stewardship. Owen observes this in the wildlife, in the watercraft, in the pollution, in the built environment. Grief’s other face is the slow decay. It’s the intolerable, fractured steps toward environmental destruction:
Our minds can assimilate all horrors. / Is the problem. / The animals will disappear and those small, strange invertebrates; // the bees will vanish and in the well-oiled waters, fish / will surge their deaths over the sand bags.
(from “Nature Writing 101” on page 13)
It would be difficult to claim Riven a book that feels conclusive or filled with solutions. It may have solutions. It may have conclusions. But it is much larger: it goes to the precipice and knows the precipice. It approaches the chasm and knows the chasm. The investigations, the pauses and pulses—they indicate resolve, they reflect immersion and presence. The difficulty, the discomfort: these are the qualities of grief the reader is exposed to, the ones that are that opportunity we rarely, as social beings in need of healing, have.
You can find the book here: https://ecwpress.com/products/riven
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 www.gregbem.com