Paradoxing the Paradox

  • onSeptember 4, 2018
  • Vol.41 Autumn 2018
  • byKim Hyesoon

Oh, actually, Mister Kim Su-Young, he already did it all and ran off 44 years ago.
— Kim Min Jeong, “A Certain Despair”

Some poets push the boundaries of poetry as a genre. They pioneer new territories for the country of poetry. Some poems open the door to a new territory by defamiliarizing everyday language while other poems, paradoxically, open a door by using naked, everyday language. Though the former case has been more prevalent in South Korea, Kim Su-Young provides an example of the latter. In the 1960s, he proved that the everyday language of the era was no different from poetic language, promoting a revolutionary language experiment that no one had attempted at the time. He proved, to use Heidegger’s terminology, that chatter (Gerede) can express the highest form of poetry. Everyday language is not an object to transcend for poetry, but a source of emancipation and creativity. Kim Su-Young described this attempt as “the immigration of language,” claiming that the new territory he discovered within his poetry writing through voluntary immigration was “the speech [he] learned from Mother and the language of current events.” He emphasized that his poetic language was the language of decolonization and criticized other Korean poems, asking “Has aging taught you nothing?”

The day I paid to open my legs for the first time in my life since hair grew out my head, Precious You Gynecology Clinic just had two female doctors. Thank God.
— “Ruse Named Pubes”

Kim Min Jeong’s poetry has been received as “poetry unselfconscious of its genre, obscuring its boundary against prose.” However, I believe that Kim Min Jeong’s poetry has instead been expanding the territory of poetry as a genre by challenging its conventional characteristics. At this point, five decades since Kim Su-Young’s death, I believe Kim Min Jeong’s attempt at a poetic language is the everyday language of women. In particular, it is the language of women who, because they live in South Korea, are defenselessly exposed to sexual humiliation and shame and oppression; it is their language of chatter. I believe this language has shattered the boundaries of Korean poetry once again.

Kim Min Jeong’s poetry stands at the paradoxical point where the poetic attitude of being unselfconscious about the genre of poetry becomes what is poetic instead. Her poetry adds to Kim Su-Young’s paradoxical attitude towards established poetry by turning it over once more with women’s language from a feminine position, assuming a “twice twisted” attitude. Her poetry uses women’s cutting chatter to expose the marginalization, self-deprecation, and subjugation that are assembled in women’s lives. At the same time, her poetry critically identifies the emancipatory potential of women’s chatter. Of course, this project reflects a fear about the monstrous and revolting orderliness of South Korea. The coarse jabber of women who have gathered to relieve such fear is settled in it like priming powder. Therefore, the women’s everyday lives that she observes through her poetry is not a deficient or thoughtless reflection of time and space, but is where the mechanism of oppression is demystified by triviality and ridicule and through verisimilitude. It is the backyard in which language can vent.

Win or lose, all or nothing. The red, squeaky toy hammer crunches the wind, beating thump thump instead of my heart.
— “Always That Same Formula”

Kim Min Jeong’s poetry is more frivolous than Kim Su-Young’s. Her everyday language is more raw than Kim Su-Young’s. She disrobes another layer that Kim Su-Young couldn’t take off. Her language is the language of young girls prattling at the back of a bus, the language of married women gathered in a yard, all worked up to slander someone. This persists when such language meets creativity and acquires imagery. In her poetry, there are no lofty natural phenomena, no supernatural images of space, and no defamiliarizing poetic language; there is no authoritarian core. For her, transcendence is an everyday object like a cloud of tissue in the toilet or the squeaky toy hammer in the heart. She does not try to find images to replace the abstract. Nonetheless, there’s no shortage of metaphors for women huddled together, secretly stroking, bursting open the mysterious husk of the world. She disregards dialectic transcendence. She doesn’t even try to overcome marginalization. She doesn’t try to rip open the curtains of the everyday. Yet, reading her poetry, you can feel her knife stabbing language, subjectivity, and social relations. You can feel the bodily struggle to cram in the survival of the self that has been thrown to the ground and become chaos, the corruption of the family, and the conditions for a community, all into one work of art, and you can feel the beat of the rhythm that arises from the struggle.

What does a cow need heels for? Daddies broke the housewives’ hands and feet, hurled them out the window.
— “The Secret to How Missus Cow Grows Little”

Women’s poetry requires a stage to perform its speech. Kim Min Jeong is fond of using the dissolution of reality as a stage for family drama. With family drama, she aims to demolish the family ideology that is at the root of all South Korean ideology. On this stage, she enjoys traveling through death with a comedic attitude, which can sometimes feel like her desperate effort not to be dominated by fear. However, she isn’t bound to one role on this stage. Her face changes every day and appears at every site of this country where women’s everyday lives are ridiculed and consumed as jokes. In her poetry, she does not play a fixed subject but the subject that is endlessly in motion, changing its voice, and forgetting its age. It achieves a desubjectification through the multiplication of these subjects. These various women “perform” women’s secretive, sexual, and cynical chatter and thereby transform poetry from a matter of “language” to a matter of “action.” Her poetry does not attempt to excavate a new language outside of everyday language, but rather finds poetry within its vulgarity. It is a language of revolutionary action which attempts to deconstruct the stablished language of men. It is a collection and a discovery of a new species of language. Against all expectations, her poetry identifies the stage of women’s chatter as a stage of art. The established language that we have learned is the masculine, patriarchal, and abstract language of colonization. Through poetry, Kim Min Jeong paradoxically reveals the arrogance of that postcoloniality which tries to thoroughly detach itself from the established language of colonization.


Translated by Soeun Seo

Author's Profile

Kim Hyesoon(b. 1955) is one of the most prominent and influential contemporary poets of South Korea. She was the first woman poet to receive the prestigious Kim Su-yong and Midang Awards, and her works have been translated into English, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Swedish. Her translated English works include: When the Plug Gets Unplugged (Tinfish, 2005), Anxiety of Words (Zephyr, 2006), Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers (Action Books, 2008), All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (Action Books, 2011), Princess Abandoned (Tinfish, 2012), Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream (Action Books, 2014), I’m OK, I’m Pig! (Bloodaxe Books, 2014), Trilingual Rensi (Vagabond Press, 2015), Poor Love Machine (Action Books, 2016), Autobiography of Death (New Directions, 2018), and A Drink of Red Mirror (Action Books, 2019). Kim lives in Seoul and teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. Kim, along with her long-time translator, Don Mee Choi, recently received the International Griffin Poetry Prize, Canada’s most prestigious poetry award, for Autobiography of Death (New Directions, 2019).