Jane Wong

On the cover of The Poems of Kim Yideum, Kim Haengsook, and Kim Min Jeong—new writing by Korean women poets from Vagabond Press’s Asia Pacific Poetry Series—is a mixed media piece from Fi Jae Lee entitled The Whole World on My Body. A bright pink structure is covered with smaller toy-like adornments, chained to additional limb-like structures. The figure that sprouts from this amalgamation is strange, candy-colored, and overwhelming. As a viewer, I am struck by the boldness of this piece. Here is a body made visible, stuck with various figures, relations, and influences, welcomed or unwelcomed. Indeed, the whole world covers the body. The piece feels a bit like seeing one’s organs exposed. In this moment, before we open the book, we are confronted with the complex interiority of our different selves.

Lee’s cover piece is a fruitful opening for new translations from three prominent Korean women poets: Kim Yideum, Kim Haengsook, and Kim Min Jeong. The interests and approaches of these contemporary poets are as varied as their translators (Don Mee Choi, Johannes Goransson, Jiyoon Lee, and Jake Levine), and yet they are drawn together through their refusal of the male gaze and stereotypical expectations of Asian women. This collection sings of female-made selfhood, of blood and guts, of insidious anger, of crippling absurdity. In a poetic tradition that privileges the Korean male voice, these women writers refuse to be ignored and “pretty-fied.” Indeed, K-pop culture markets the female body as a cute toy, a perfectly lovable object to be admired and moved about at will. From Kim Min Jeong’s poem “Girl-Dot-Com”: “Wearing an itty bitty mini-skirt / With the FRESH icy-hot / Patching her thigh. / Girl. / Or not?” These short, often end-stopped lines emphasize the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer idolizing K-pop beauty. Exposing the absurdity of such objectifying delight, the poem ends with a question about selfhood: “Girl. / Or not?”

Take for instance when Kang Ji Young of the girl group KARA went on the variety show “Radio Star” in 2013. The male hosts demanded that she make coquettish faces for them. When she refused and the host shouted at her, she began to cry. Fans, of course, directed their anger toward her, not the host. There are too many similar cases to recount. The absurdity of K-pop and its mob-like culture is apparent in these poems. The poets ask: what kind of world is this? As this collection reveals, manufactured cuteness and femininity creates crisis. As a book linking these three poets together, resistance grows through allied refusal. Jack Levine, one of the translators, writes in the book’s introduction: “In their own way each author undermines patriarchal authority by displaying the absurd and illogical nature of gender expectations. By making the source of these antagonisms and gender transgressions visible, they make them less powerful, less terrifying.”

To reveal such deformity, the language in these poems is necessarily unconventional and fantastical, creating bold leaps of resistance and survival. In Kim Yideum’s opening poem, “A Grown-up,” she employs associative leaps in her writing to engage her feelings of rupture and subversion: “I felt like / speeding way with an empty basket hanging from my / handle bars – it was that kind of afternoon. I had the / urge to kill somebody for no reason at all.” Here, she emphasizes her urges and feelings without warning or reason. Later, in “When the Germophobic Man Washes Up,” surreal narratives subvert expectations of female perfection:

I start to read a book about maintaining hygiene with a terrifying level
of order and control. The preface is too long. I was going to have another
cup of coffee, but instead I go for a beer, an overflowing beer.

I get naked and let everything hang, sideways, without shame. It’s like I’m
at a nude beach. I hurl the shitty book about sanitary science and preventive medicine across the room. I’m impure, I grow more and more obscene.

As a prose poem, the piece reads like a fable or myth, with an expected linear narrative and “moral.” Yet, quite the opposite happens here. The poem’s subversiveness lies within in its ability to “hurl” the book and refuse textbook conformity. Instead, the speaker “grow[s] more and more obscene,” doing what she pleases, drinking “an overflowing beer.” Notably, the act of writing keeps the speaker shameless. Playing with the metaphor of germophobia: “I write, write, write, the way you wash.”

Furthermore, Yideum’s poems expose the horror of gendered violence, in poems such as “Restoration of Silence.” In this poem, we are left with complete frustration as a result of injustice. Raising awareness about the murder and rape of young women by male soldiers, Yideum underlines the absurdity of upholding silence: “A case without a witness gets swept under the rug, and people say they’ll get what they deserve in the end, the truth will come out. No, it won’t. The truth is heading toward annihilation.” The authority in the speaker’s voice is haunting, reverberating with warnings. Later in the collection, Min Jeong, in “Unmarried and Forty,” also considers matters of complicity in this oppressive system. Again using K-pop imagery: “Girls, when you are wearing sailor costumes and grabbing the arms of randoms in the street, save your sweat beads. However, like pots of kimchi, I wonder if you will ever learn how to get off your backs?”

Kim Haengsook’s work, which also includes prose poems, employs lush and surreal imagery to declare selfhood in this oppressive system. The self pushes against feminine expectations of domesticity and mothering.Throughout her work, there are simultaneous desires for rest, forward movement, and choice. From the poem “Memories Collect When No One is Noticing”: “Every night I close my eyes and feel the world curl. Just like that, the world changes, I mumble to myself. The roadside trees fall, the road rolls up like a tongue.” Here, the world continues to curl around the speaker, looping backwards into itself. Nothing moves forward. And when she opens her eyes, there is a need for action, despite confusion: “now that I open my eyes for the first time in a long time, every day I am bewildered. Just like sleep in your eyes, I feel there is something I need to pick.” This need “to pick” something is palpable throughout the book – to push Korean society into the bright consciousness of its deformity. One can not hide in K-pop glow. Haengsook’s strongest poem, “The Goodbye Ability,” foregrounds this necessary reckoning. After a litany of domestic chores (“I sing for more than 2 hours / and do the laundry for more than 3 hours / and nap for more than 2 hours), she writes: “My eyes and ears get clear, / and my Goodbye Ability peaks, / and I shed my fur, and I am cigarette smoke for 2 minutes. Rising steam for 3 minutes.”

This clarity—to see the world for what it is—is necessary. Steam rises, anger rises, injustice rises. This new collection of Korean women poetry reminds us that the personal is political; voices rise from the organs up. With striking translations and daring new work, The Poems of Kim Yideum, Kim Haengsook, and Kim Min Jeong is revolutionary. To return to Yideum, these poems remind us that subversive action must begin by exposing rotting systems. The moon can no longer be romantic: “I tear the moon’s mask off. / This moon can’t even fake a smile.”

Jane Wong's poems can be found in anthologies and journals such as Best American Poetry 2015, Best New Poets 2012, Pleiades, Third Coast, and others. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the U.S. Fulbright Program, the Fine Arts Work Center, Squaw Valley, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She holds a M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington. She is the author of the book Overpour (Action Books, 2016). Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.