Kim Yideum; translated by Ji yoon Lee, Don Mee Choi, and Johannes Göransson
Cheer Up, Femme Fatale
reviewed by Natalie Eilbert
A dead rose once told me, You are so beautiful.— “Blue Beard’s Last Wife”, Kim Yideu
Reading Kim Yideum’s Cheer Up, Femme Fatale (trans. by Ji yoon Lee, Don Mee Choi, and Johannes Göransson), I had a bit of a ritual: I could only read it in the morning, in commute, as I was shuttled from one end of Brooklyn to Queens and then to Manhattan. I came to associate Kim’s book with insidious and incessant city living. There isn’t enough space in the body for a book of poems like this, which is to say, a book of poems like this is rare. Rare in its ability to denature; rare in its ability to see restitution as a kind of homecoming; rare in how the female body is experienced first and foremost as an anatomical hindrance (its seepage, its seams) and then again as a specter of desire. I read this book on trains. I read this book on buses. I read this book in coffee lines. I read this book in elevators. I could not bring this book into my bedroom. I could not let this book into a comfortable sleep with me. This is a book composed of connections and leaps, suspensions and directives. It lay always by my side as a private gun, choking with liquid life.
There is violence to Kim’s poems that is between pulp and surreal dissociation. The systems at play are soaked, stained, and spotted with body—the free–bleeding woman with her “squishy mush” panties, the objects held by the woman stick and smear like a warm entity (“My key is bleeding. My dictionary is also bleeding.”), the animals dead and alive who absorb and emblazon Kim’s mythos (“I smuggle the cat in my arms up the hill / the way the tobacco shop owner tried to cover up his daughter’s death”). As readers, we are just as much a series of holes in the performance from which Kim rims and oozes accruals of her metropolis. Take the first three stanzas of one of the most memorable poems in the book, “Fluxfilm No. 4 (Lesbian)”:
When I take a walk on the bridge with my dead cat in my arms, people say strange things to me. They show unprecedented interest; they must feel certain urges at the sight of a dead thing.
When I approach, mirrors crack and coats rip. Beds fall apart, and bookcases topple. When I approach, motorcycles fall over, canned meat cracks, and plastic bags fly away. Cement becomes rice pudding, the sun hides in the river’s womb. When I approach, things run away.
A writer has his hands deep in his pockets, pulling out his machine guns and rifles. Now the four-eyes who wears glasses without lenses is aiming straight into my pupil. The guy with prosthetic legs pretends to want to shake my hand but trips me instead. I am strangled by his neckties. And I know that the guy dozing off on the bench, next to the dog, is wiretapping me, tailing me. These guys are all plotting to make love to my dead body.
This poem contains so much of Kim’s particulars: There is a messy pilgrimage at work here and elsewhere, a bridge of her own construction that leads to the arresting and eviscerating gaze of men. If the objects of her landscape liquefy into a phenomenological goo, the men weaponize into red-hot revolvers. Her freedom is what the world wants to do to her before it is her freedom at all. It is the perfect embodiment of rape culture: The onus is on her to survive it, even as neither the urges nor the interests have anything to do with her and her inventory. Invasion is part of her imagination. Invasion hinges and clips itself to the living and soft appendages of the city’s principle foundations.
Midway through unpacking the spectacular nuances of Cheer Up, Femme Fatale, it occurs to me that I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the efforts of this translation, which was a collaborate process between Ji yoon Lee, Don Mee Choi, and Johannes Göransson. As Lee says near the end of her very smart translation’s note, “Korean leaves so much implied that meaning depends on context. For example, if I were to say ‘I love you’ in Korean I would write ‘사랑해.’ Literally translated, ‘saranghe’ means ‘do love.’ The subject and object are left unstated and implied. If I am standing in front of you, the meaning is clear. But in a poem, these subjects and objects can quickly become vague, slippery, and multiple. Kim Yideum’s poems play havoc with this indirectness which is built into Korean syntax. As one sentence spills into another, the readers lose track of boundaries, and in the negative space created through these omissions of subjects and objects, power dynamics are easily reversed and scrambled.”
I appreciate this anecdote, as so often such intellectual labors are within the same vacuum of the translator’s necessary invisibility. As such, the achievements of the translator(s) are secondary to the experience of reading the book. However, this book’s very competent stable of translators allowed a more enriching engagement of the text, especially because Kim’s world (and the voices of her world) is in utter opposition to the conditions of her language and, to borrow from Lee’s passage, there is quite a lot of slippage. I asked Göransson if he could shine further light on the work involved in the maintenance of this slippage: How does one create a deliberate mess while also negotiating the breadth of the language divide? He told me that there was an effort to work within these contextual challenges, both in terms of the grander scheme, as well as the minute details of word choice and syntax. “Korean doesn't define subject to the same extent as English does,” Göransson continued, “so a lot of the problem came from just figuring out who is saying what and doing what to whom. Since the poems are in flux concerning those questions, it’s like translation forced us to be more mundane in our approaches than the poems called for.” Mundane these poems are certainly not, though. Kim occupies the space of ramshackle, the language yet one more architectural edifice in Seoul to break apart.
She writes in “Also Today”, a poem that begins with a deadline missed and then moves through funereal units, from her father’s death to her hundreds of lovers to her own corpse,
This is my life. A pathetic pebble. Eroded by air. Suicide, murder, forgiveness, love, renunciation, resignation, and what else? With those ridiculous abstract words I postpone things again and again. Meanwhile, it rains, snows, and the wind’s blowing.
Here we are offered a kaleidoscope of contexts, and they mean nothing against the tapestry of living things. But of course, this plaintive attitude is but an asteroid belt in Kim’s orbit. We are plunged into her world-building, always a tensive verb in labor, tumescent and creamy with denizens. This is how the science fiction erupts, because of this volta between a teeming city and the desiccated shell of the abandoned city, the faceless passels carved in that relief.
Elsewhere in the book is a complicity with the men, whether familial or artistic. There are pervy uncles and grandfathers she is willing to serve and kill, and there are effacing artists of a certain propriety. In “Annapurna, Two Layers of Croquis”, one of my favorites in the collection, an Italian artist begs the speaker to pose for him and she does. The willingness is a familiar one. The speaker in so many of these poems is guns-blazingly destructive, in between nameless missions, and so this submission to the gaze is almost surprising if we weren’t steeped in a world in which to be a “bad ass” woman is to submit to a genre-specific phallocentrism where the codes of a woman’s heroisms still speak to the larger network of patriarchal needs, cloaked in the glitch of that pernicious power structure to utterly serve men. And Kim, I believe, is aware of this paradox, as her femme fatale is sometimes stuffed with semen, or else stuffed with the gunk of organs. She can speak to the clumsy disarray of power dynamics that recapitulate gender paradigms, and do it with such scary finesse that I’m unable to open the book from the safety of my bed. In “Annapurna, Two Layers of Croquis,” she writes,
The painter adjusts his hat and closes just one eye. He points a yellow pencil, his sword, at me. Starting with my nose, he cuts me clean in half perpendicularly. He stabs at my neck, then cuts me exquisitely at multiple angles. The hanging basket shakes up the entire terrace, making whirring noises, then falls to the ground. In the basket, there’s a withered Chain of Hearts. The painter looks pale as he snatches up the worst of the mess, then goes inside with his easel at his side.
So much of Kim’s work in this book is about queering the production of artistic imagination. And when she isn’t exposing oblong shapes in her quarry, she incubates a violence so deliberate it shutters rather than obliterates the meta frameworks. She’s asking us to look into the interiors of the cultural imagination and pull out something other than a dead woman from a body of water. She asks us what else that body of water could host beyond the junk of a woman’s floating corpse. Later, she will say this:
He glares at the unfinished drawing, which flinches and spits out a woman. I saw that woman a long time ago. She looks around as if she could see for the first time. Her appearance is so faint I can’t see or understand her. Vanished things always reappear as models. The woman runs away when she sees me.
That the gaze still works and spits out bodies of desire is astonishing. That those bodies of desire are unfinished suggests a reliance on the master to thrive. To be incomplete is to model on that very disappearance. It is with these shifts—culminating and manifested by the vision of Kim’s brilliant disobedience—that I trust her voice and can see the world she dismembers so wholly. I believe in these poems because of their intimacy with process, the shocked ways they create that process incarnate. It is revolutionary but it is also resigned to the outcomes of potential energy. Even as she constructs her ruinscape, coyly declarative, there is an alternate vine of earnestness to these poems that is damn near romantic about the rupture of humanity. In “I Believe in this World”, she says,
The flowers bloom even when I barely water them. Some flowers sprout even though the soil is parched. Those kinds of flowers are terrifying. I put on a mask and flee. I believe the thief who escaped from the dark alley might have been my lover waiting for me. I believe the killing won’t end, the raping won’t end, and more wars will flare up. I believe we’ll divvy up our pointless flaws and finally disappear without ever making things good.
The end of this poem is almost celebratory in its fatalism, and parallels with the final few lines of the whole collection, which concludes, “when someone ties a flower bouquet / or slowly unties it / when nobody is screaming or crying / or when I can’t hear anything at all // I will walk on this path. / It’s a protected area, a path made for animals to roam.”
Humanity’s failures are staggering, and we have never been a species that plays well with its resources. Kim’s Cheer Up, Femme Fatale leads us down bridges and roads and highways crowded with death, but also with doggedly internal belief systems. We see the woman working as cog or killer, but we also are pointed to a strange periphery of a city in a country that wants to disavow her agency; it fails because she enjoys none of it. She is with her materials and her histrionics, and what she sees beyond that does nothing to impress her—it only inspires participation in its disruption. She writes, in “Hometown Refugee”, “I watch the fire rising from the turrets. / How beautiful. / I watch quietly, flat on my tummy, / together with all of my hometown’s feral cats and dogs.”