Containment and Confetti: A Review of Kim Yideum’s Cheer Up, Femme Fatale,
translated by Ji yoon Lee, Don Mee Choi, and Johannes Göransson
by Madeleine Wattenberg
In The Queer Art of Failure, J. Jack Halberstam describes a “shadow feminism,” where “in a performance of radical passivity we witness the willingness of the subject to actually come undone, to dramatize unbecoming for the other so that the viewer does not have to witness unbecoming as a function of her own body.” This feminism functions through self-negation, self-disruption, self-rupture, and it appears throughout South Korean poet Kim Yideum’s collection Cheer Up, Femme Fatale. “I’m a plant that grows only when I’m brutally mistreated,” announces one speaker. The brutalized femme body is repeatedly depicted, but Kim’s poems are more than a reiteration of trauma on a linguistic stage: “It suddenly occurs to me that these lies are how I really feel,” the speaker later states. The stages’ edges flicker in and out of view as the performance gains and loses an uncomfortable sincerity; it’s the possibility of masochistic belief lingering in the poetic turns that productively unsettle and trouble. The way trauma is performed in poetry is an especially important conversation in a time where the fetishization of trauma, especially of women, queer writers, and writers of color, is commoditized by the literary marketplace. Kim’s speakers split in bloody sequence—she arranges abused and abandoned bodies under a fluorescent spotlight—yet these speakers thwart capitalist satisfaction as they refuse to place the reader in the role of savior and instead seek out violent ruptures of selfhood. In this way, the reader is at all times complicit in the rendered violence without possibility of redemption or release. The reader’s only options are to look or look away.
These poems traffic in the language of containment and breach, plugs and punctures.
Halberstam’s shadow feminism is not a prescriptive feminism, which offers a predetermined and defined end goal, nor is it redemptive. It is also not an ideology passed down the matriarchal line. Halberstam offers as examples texts that “refuse to think back through the mother; they actively and passively lose the mother, abuse the mother, love, hate, and destroy the mother, and in the process they produce a theoretical and imaginative space that is ‘not woman’ or that can be occupied only by unbecoming woman.” I hear this thinking in Kim’s lines: “It’s Mother, clumped like tangled hair in a drainpipe, who makes that wailing sound I hear whenever I really want to live,” “Surprisingly, some maternal instincts are just a cruel form of megalomania,” “I get a shitty feeling like I’m turning into my mom,” “The abandoned daughter seeks out her mother for the same reason a star rises in the sky.” The mother is a stopper that seals the daughter into the world and into a discrete self, and she joins the patriarchal system in this effort: “I need to be plugged, even during my period, like a mannequin who finally stops feeling depressed only when sealed with a cock.” But the mother, as the source of memory, tradition, and paradigm, must be rejected; Kim’s speakers desire to “unbecome” as much as they desire to be made whole. These poems traffic in the language of containment and breach, plugs and punctures. Even the oft-gendered moon is rendered in this language: “When the moon rises like manhole cover.” What hole, what drainage, what way out, does this feminized symbol hide?
This theme of containment and contamination continues in the poem “Curtain,” where a note from the translator informs me that the original title in Korean also means eyelid, film, or hymen: “There’s a curtain between us, so we won’t dream of transcendence. Instead we’ll be swallowed up. Since we’ll be wearing condoms, we’ll be earnestly consumed. I love you and I love this amazing disaster.” An integral medium for this nothing-making is the poem itself: “Silently and swiftly / poetry makes nothing happen.” One might read this conclusive line as a cynical dismissal of poetry’s power to incite change, but Kim’s poetics instead generates power via negation; her speakers express a desire to be “swallowed,” but first they must craft the nothing into which they will dissolve. These poems seek the possibility of nothing—of carving an undefined space in an overly defined world: “Is there any time when nothing is taking place?”
Kim often deploys laughter as a destabilizing and disruptive utterance. Outside of language, but inside sound and body, the insertion of laughter creates a fissure in the meaning-making process—how does one translate laughter? In “Blue Beard’s Last Wife,” Kim writes, “Half of my genitals have blood trickling out, the right side of my crotch has cum trickling down . . . Hahaha, just kidding. I was just rambling in a fantastical voice that is neither feminine nor masculine, neither alive nor dead, it is trendy to speak like that, you know.” Kim teases the feminist fairy-tale revision, then uses laughter to shatter the potential of the world-building offered by the tale. She instead draws her reader’s attention to the “fantastical” and ultimately disembodied voice asserted earlier in the poem in order to denounce it. Yet Kim’s poems are simultaneously populated by bloody keys and the dismembered bodies of Bluebeard’s wives. Later in the poem, the speaker states: “We don’t have any more places to hang the bodies in the basement. We ran out of space to bury the bodies in the garden also. Some say I lure them here, but what can I do, when they voluntarily come here and take of their clothes?” There is no Bluebeard and there is no last wife. She doesn’t humanize the abuser through persona nor write women’s agency back into the narrative, but instead turns to a voice that generates a collective complicity in the ongoing production of these bodies.
What’s a colonizer to do when the subject refuses to be saved?
Kim disrupts the possibility for a coherent narrative of trauma, and throughout her poems bodily fluids negate the possibility of the body’s coherence and containment. Kim often places her reader in the position of witnessing speakers in search of their own self-destruction. These speakers don’t desire a savior, which makes it difficult for a reader to “claim” the narrative for feminism without becoming involved in a complex relation between masochism, abuse, and complicity; this undoing also resists the colonization of trauma. What’s a colonizer to do when the subject refuses to be saved? The subject instead negates herself and slips through the reader’s fingers. For example, in “The Night Before Opening a Barbie Repair Shop in an Abandoned Mental Hospital,” the speaker’s “boredom” is “swept away” when they declare that a man “grabs me by the throat and slap me around a few times. // I’m in a much better mood now.” What to make of the masochism? Kim’s catalog of marginalized bodies is not constructed in the language of victims and survivors. Her speakers are simultaneously radically passive and radically masochistic. The poem manifests in the fracture between the “Barbie Repair Shop” and “Abandoned Mental Hospital.” Kim refuses to simplify the ways sexual abuse, stigma against mental illness, and objectification are produced. The doll-femme-body is valuable enough to repair—the femme body will be “fixed” into doll form or abandoned. This poem’s speakers oscillate between doll, hospital patient, and doctor, until it is difficult to tell who is what. The doll repair shop and mental hospital are the same factory tasked with the production of passive female bodies. In their brief pause in operation, Kim readies her actors: “He begs me to calm down and postpone the performance . . . To prevent him from going crazy and tearing my expensive shoes and hat, I just lie there.”
Power never solidifies in the subject or object, but is repositioned in constant exchange of penetration and reception. Often, the source of violence shifts through pronoun selection: “Every time he breathes, beautifully crafted bullets ooze out from every hole in his body like frozen sherbet . . . in what direction should I shoot the bullets from my body?” Ji yoon Lee’s notes on translation provide crucial insight into the different ways these poems function in English, which demands a clarification of power relations that isn’t inherent to Korean: “the grammar of Korean often obscures the subjects and objects in sentences . . . the subject and object are left unstated and implied . . . subjects and objects can quickly become vague, slippery, and multiple.” Where English bolts everyone into place, Korean relies on context in order to determine syntactical occupants. What exerts power on what is left unmoored through the possibilities in what constitutes the subject and what constitutes the object.
Kim highlights the way her readers are already complicit in systems of violence against femme bodies, but the reader’s complicity largely resides in acts of witness and gaze.
I want to consider how to revive in English some of this necessary slippage. Ji yoon Lee writes that in Kim’s poems, “wounds burst open, and contents scatter like grotesque confetti.” This description reminded me of Halberstam’s claim that “cutting is a feminist aesthetic proper to the project of female unbecoming.”
As I considered these two quotes, it occurred to me that I could turn Kim’s language into literal confetti as a way of destabilizing the language and re-enacting the process of unbecoming. But what would the consequences of such an act be? Would it merely be another imperial attempt to “rescue” the language from the important ways it fails through its translation into English? To cut a poem’s language up is not an apolitical act. Is the wielder of the scissors responsible for new emergences, unstable bodies, rearranged referents, resulting from these disordered cuts? Is this a sadistic reenactment of blue beard dismembering the bodies of his wives? Kim highlights the way her readers are already complicit in systems of violence against femme bodies, but the reader’s complicity largely resides in acts of witness and gaze. To literally cut her poems adds an additional layer; the reader no longer merely wields the gaze, but becomes an actor on the subject’s radically passive body.
Following is the first few paragraphs of Kim’s poem “Bluebeard’s Last Wife.” To create your confetti, cut along the lines and toss. Note that the confetti poem does not reside in what meaning solidifies after the words fall and are re-pinned into English, but rather the potentiality and illegibility of the airborne pieces. In that spirit, I’ll close with one more reminder from Halberstam: “[the masochist] refuses to cohere, refuses to fortify herself against the knowledge of death and dying, and seeks instead to be out of time altogether, a body suspended in time, space, and desire.” If you choose to take up the scissors, be warned—as she refuses coherence into a traditional feminist narrative and formation of selfhood, Kim’s femme fatale is a subject willing to take you down with her.
Madeleine Wattenberg’s lifelong dream of writing a review entirely in emojis feels closer than ever. Her poems have recently appeared in journals such as Best New Poets 2017, cream city review, The Seattle Review, DIAGRAM, Fairy Tale Review, Ninth Letter, and Mid-American Review. She is currently a PhD student in poetry at the University of Cincinnati.