This morning I finished Korean poet Kim Yideum’s Cheer Up, Femme Fatale a book so vibrant and glittering and genius a book so full of brilliance that I shook when I read it I literally shook something kept happening to my skin to the blood under my skin something raw and true. This book screamed me out of a long non-writing slumber it opened my hoar-frosted winter closets just you wait oh oh it is so fucking amazing. Translated by Ji Yoon Lee and Don Mee Choi and Johannes Göransson a delicate biting raw breathtaking translation as in my breath was punched out of my body as in I bit my thumbnails off as I read as in so raw I had to keep moving around my house with the pages in my hand I had to keep moving like a shark to take it in I had to keep moving in order not to die inside the book.
There are moments in this book that are punishing and exact. In the poem “A Poopstick of Oonmoon,” Kim Yideum writes:
I have become too large for this world into which I was banished. I cannot go back out the door through which I entered, like Eve wearing layers of clothes. I am gagging on an apple, the size of a fist. I shouldn’t have made that mistake on the 19th day after my first period The snow that looks like cooled rice is flurrying now. This smell of rice is driving me insane. That shaved head is maddeningly repulsive. And that woman, that woman.
“[T]hat woman, that woman.” What were you thinking when you signed on to read this book? Did you think you could walk away being your same self in your same body? In the same country? Did you think your old blood would still be clumped inside your heart? There is a warning here and danger and wild chaos. Your mother is “clumped like tangled hair in a drainpipe” in this book. Grandpa is there too “all happy and goofy” but he is never safe no one is safe here. The Animal Gods are in attendance too barbaric shape-shifters in a “booger-sized zoo.” This is no book of altered Cult of Disney princesses. This book is a bathtub ready to swallow you up and spit you out as bones. This book is a cage and a key. You should be alarmed. You should be agonizing to hold this book in your hands. And what of Korea is there for us to learn from this book? The history the pain the exquisite beauty the bravery. Brava bravo to the three translators for opening this country for me for allowing me to grasp a larger world to understand more fully. These poems have not stopped burning in me since I started reading them.
Like “#4 The Practice Room on College Street and Rainwater” from the poem “Seoul Performance”:
Hurry, get into the scene! You’re not you anymore, you’ve become a woman with a broken heart. He left you, and you’re standing on the bridge over Han River. What are you going to do? Tear up a little more. Please be sad. The director gets lost in the character. In the dark seats of the auditorium, actors jump in to play the audience. There is no synopsis, no rehearsals, everything just happens. When the studio lighting gets too intense, I slowly get up. I drag my trunk with a broken lock, stop for a drink at the street vendor’s tent in broad daylight, then take the subway. This time, the character who’ll die has moved to Seoul to be an actress. O scene, please be over soon. I overact, squeezing out some more tears
Or in “Past the Garden of Ghost Poets,” the Yideum writes, “To be innocent is to be full of contradictions.” And just when you think you can breathe again you find “And every year the period of red urine lasted as long as the annual tomato festival” in “And He Saw That It Was Good.”
I read books all the time to review sometimes writers send me books sometimes friends do sometimes I buy them and for so long most of them have been exactly the same – little girl voices little girl stories writers trying to be brave and inventive and new and none of the books I read this year affected me as did Cheer Up, Femme Fatale. I found no solace or danger in any of them they all sounded the same cookie poetry doll poetry flat clotted cream poetry. Kim Yideum is shaking me up. It is fantastic to know that feminist writers are pushing beyond their borders that they are letting the blood jet fly it excites me to be able to read poetry that is full of fury and diamonds and teeth and many of these books have been published by Action Books a press that has pried open my brain to let the beauty and terror and mystery of translation fly in and take residence thankfully forever.
This is what poetry can do. It’s supposed to leave its mark on you. Don’t you dare look away.