Chaos and Courage: Poems of Kim Yideum, Kim Haengsook & Kim Min Jeong
- onJuly 20, 2017
- Vol.36 Summer 2017
- byHeather Lang
- Poems of Kim Yideum, Kim Haengsook & Kim Min Jeong
Tr. Don Mee Choi 201788pp.
Here’s a book that’s fascinating from the onset. Simply titled Poems of Kim Yideum, Kim Haengsook & Kim Min Jeong, there’s no representative metaphorical label, no guiding vision for the reader, no attempt to mince together the work of these three Korean poets. This straightforward title is fitting of a slender anthology of Miraepa, or Future-Wave, poetry, which is, according to Jake Levine, “widely believed to be an incongruous movement.” In the book’s introduction, Levine provides a brief history of the sociopolitical factors leading up to Future-Wave, including the Seoul Olympics, rise of K-pop, and IMF bailout. Levine also parses out the problematic nature of viewing art as an act of capturing or responding; “from this point of view poetry is an artifact for gaining historical knowledge, not a force of historical change.” This scholar writes of how Korean women’s poetry has “always been pushed to the margins.” Because it “is written outside the historical lens of male ‘authenticity,’ it best embodies the chaos of contemporary life,” which this stunning, and raucous, collection demonstrates superbly.
The first section of poems is by Kim Yideum as translated from the Korean by Jiyoon Lee, Johannes Göransson, and Don Mee Choi. In the first line of the poem “The May of Goya and Me,” for instance, the poet dissociates from herself, or at least her name, writing: “Kim Yideum and Francisco Goya talk about The Second / of May, they stitch themselves together and pour water / into their ears, Mother whines and cries, ‘Help me’ / inside my ear.” Kim Yideum is a master of compression. In these few lines alone, through the juxtapositions created via the inclusion of Goya, the late deaf Spanish painter, numerous motifs are explored including blurred lines between cause and effect, points of view, East and West, self versus another, past versus present, and agency and lack thereof. Later in this same poem, the poet writes, “All these things are completely unrelated. Do you want / me to yoke them together?” This allows the work, and the reader, to draw conclusions without ever actually settling into them.
Kim Min Jeong’s poetry, as translated by Jiyoon Lee and Jake Levine, also brims with captivating chaos. The section begins with a poem titled “Finale,” and the piece itself begins with what would be an end, a death: “As the belt tightened around my neck / I merely stared / so he up left.” The poem closes with an exclamatory greeting: “Say hello to the new me!” The level of disorder almost normalizes it, which feels like a coping mechanism, perhaps for contemporary life.
In Kim Min Jeong’s “Butterfly Addict,” the speaker recalls, “I saw a girl carrying a milk cow over her shoulder. / Someone who also wants to drink milk. I can relate.” The nonchalant voice doesn’t acknowledge the absurdness of the situation. The scene seems to defy good sense—and the law of gravity—but, through her imagery and tone, the poet skillfully stabilizes chaos, for brief moments. Somewhat like a snow globe, we readers may peek at the pandemonium within our world.
The closing section, by Kim Haengsook, as translated by Jiyoon Lee and Jake Levine, offers a climax of extremes. The title of “The (Dis)appearing Path” acknowledges the opposites as one, and the piece opens, “I am walking the same path in different places.” We encounter the word “path” enough times to become numb, and to accept it as a placeholder for anything: “like a car, the path angrily honks,” for example.
In “A Crying Child,” the speaker, who also cries and cries, states, “If the children won’t calm me down, I will . . . the / children . . . they could drown.” The contemplative phrasing, as if through sniffling, seems both violent threat and genuine concern. The imagery anchors us in the eerie similarities between life and death as the children “sing / underwater. Mother . . . mother . . . mother . . . they mouth / like breathing fish.” Water is essential. It’s also dangerous. Kim Haengsook’s poetry capsizes us repeatedly, and we tumble through moments held together by this poet’s mastery in cohesive motifs.
Poems of Kim Yideum, Kim Haengsook & Kim Min Jeong embraces the indefinability of Future-Wave. Through literary translations by Don Mee Choi, Johannes Göransson, Jiyoon Lee, and Jake Levine, the lines of these three fierce Korean poets are readily accessible to the English-reading world, some of which is weary of nationalist vectors at home and increasingly open to previously marginalized voices abroad. These three Miraepa poets are breaking down borders.
by Heather Lang
Poet, Literary Translator
TLR World Literature Editor