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from the April 2016 issue

Kim Yideum’s “Cheer Up, Femme Fatale” & Oh Sae-young’s “Night-Sky Checkerboard”

Reviewed by John W. W. Zeiser

The old to the new: recent Korean poetry in translation.

While reading these two collections, I couldn’t get LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” out of my head. Like James Murphy’s “kids coming up from behind,” Kim Yideum is a brash, no holds barred poet, unafraid of sensitive topics, though with a poet’s healthy self-doubt. Oh Sae-young, on the other hand, is an older poet whose generation came of age during the depredations of Korean partition and matured under the fractured and uneven  “Miracle on the Han River.” Oh writes from the cusp of the tremendous changes that swept South Korea, while Kim is the inheritor of those changes, writing from within its hegemony. Where Oh seeks wide-angle perspective, Kim inspects the individual and the marginal, reflective of the politics of our neoliberal age. Read together, their collections—Kim’s Cheer Up, Femme Fatale and Oh’s Night-Sky Checkerboard—give readers an interesting and varied perspective on the trajectory of recent Korean poetry.

One can trace Kim’s Korean poetic lineage (as her translator Jiyoon Lee helpfully does in the afterword) to the pathbreaking feminist poet Kim Hyesoon and the wildly avant garde Yi Sang. Lee notes that Kim is also a voracious reader of world literature and the influence of Vladimir Mayakovsky, who appears by name several times, can be felt throughout.

The first two sections, which comprise selections from A Stain in the Shape of a Star (2005) and Cheer Up, Femme Fatale (2007), feel like Kim testing out the boundaries of her poetics. She experiments with form and tone, with numerous prose poems and numbered sequences. These are not studies exactly, but they give the impression of a poet in search of a style. There are a number of gems mixed in—“Past the Garden of Ghost Poets,” “Curtain,” and “A Poopstick of Oonmoon,” to name a few—but it is clear that The Unspeakable Lover (2011) is the unification of the experimental, surreal, lyric, and critical.

The wry lewdness of Catullus, though never his mean-spiritedness, is also present in Kim. Like Catullus, Kim is a witty observer and critic of the poet’s life and this comes to the fore in The Unspeakable Lover. For example, in “Undead Poets Society,” Kim wonders of her fellow travelers, “Are their reputations diminishing by the day/ as they stay up late in their tiny studios in Shinchon/ taking care of toddlers?” She concludes by romanticizing the poetic life of generations past while simultaneously knocking them, and herself, down:

I can’t write eulogies when nobody’s dead.
We’ll have surgeries and enjoy our longevity.
There’s only love, no more love affairs.
The important point is that it’s all pointless.
Silently and swiftly
poetry makes nothing happen.

What a wonderfully flat, contradictory conclusion. Questioning the vitality of poetry when one’s life is not at stake, she then concludes it doesn’t mean much either way. Like a rapper who has made it to the top, Kim’s view is now trained particularly on the world of her profession, namely writing. This self-awareness is interesting and compelling, as in “I Didn’t Write This Poem”:

You are like a cracker drenched in syrup,
a still-soft cake stuck in its pan.
I can’t pull you out.
I can only read the book I’ve made out of you.

She’s a poet’s poet, documenting what it means to be a literary figure, what it means to give up control of a poem. More explicitly in “Seven Years Since My Literary Debut,” she complains, “I wanted to be banished to the dead zone of poetry/ and peck at my poems endlessly./ That’s how things used to be.”

Her eye roves much further than her own career, of course. She addresses individual experience, sex and sexuality, and aspects of Korean culture and history not easily broached. These are strengths of hers, but her take on the life of a poet, which she approaches with humor and self-deprecation, is reason enough to seek out Cheer Up, Femme Fatale.

Meanwhile, in Night-Sky Checkerboard, Oh Sae-young is more epigrammatic and less strident than Kim. As his translator Brother Anthony points out, Oh has, over the course of his career, moved from Modernism to ontology to his current “harmonious fusion of the lyrical with the ideological.” This fusion is performed in short bursts; it’s small poetry in the best sense. The poems are bites of moments that set the mind wondering.

What does this fusion look like then? “A Spy” provides a representative example. Oh places us in “Winter wonderland/ A woodpecker, body hidden in the beat” that is foreshadowing a change in season. Yet he doesn’t takes us where we’d expect with such bucolics. Instead the bird

sends a secret coded message
following the table of random digits.
“Secure base, over.”
Lying in wait beyond the hills, spring
urgently transmits the order to its subordinate forces

Time to advance.

This is indicative of his ability to merge the subject matter of nature with the diction of human activity, often the kinds of activity that denote negativity: the martial, industrial, or coercive.

The collection hammers this home again and again, and due to each poem’s brevity, creates a hypnotic quality where nature and human activity are reintegrated. Oh’s writing rejects the Enlightenment sensibility that the two are in any way separate. One is always predicated on the other, inextricably tied, something the poems enact by their movement between modes of thought and vocabulary, which makes for a highly enjoyable and cohesive collection.

Kim and Oh could not be further apart, tonally or formally. Kim is very of the moment, of a milieu that’s completely modern (in the temporal sense). Contradictory and self-aware, she engages our critical thinking, and is concerned particularly with the body and the marginal. Oh operates from a perspective shaped by the collision of modernity and tradition. By juxtaposing the often brutal edifices of modern life—chimneys, pollution, factory farming, the IMF—with the fast-fading rhythms of a different world, he wonders if what Kim and her generation are assuming control of, what his generation is leaving behind, is enough. Yet the poets do meet in their sensitivity and concern for what’s around them. Oh writes “Being alive always means meeting some other,/ being struck, broken, united, divided, being upset,/ that’s what life is.” This could not better reflect both the state of affairs and Kim’s own view on her world. 

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