H.A.G.S.: Summer Reading with JD Scott #1
This summer I’ll be doing a little residency here at Real Pants—with a new post going up every Wednesday. Think of me as that cute li’l sun clip art wearing sunglasses (what is the sun shielding its eyes from?). Or dirt dessert fresh with gummy worms. Or chicken-scratch in glittery gel pen on the back page of your yearbook: yelling at you in all caps to HAVE A GREAT SUMMER. This space will mostly be used for summer reading lists or mini-reviews (today’s reviews are incidentally quite un-mini). I’ll try to keep it thematic too. This week’s theme is: “There is a huge stack of books beside my bed from AWP that I’m only now beginning to crack into.” A softer theme could be: poets with substantial publications whose work is now being collected into new compilations.
Let me know if there’s any books or themes you’d like me to venture towards these next couple of months—and remember—H.A.G.S. 8)
CHEER UP, FEMME FATALE by Kim Yideum (Action Books, 2016)
Translated by Ji yoon Lee, Don Mee Choi, and Johannes Göransson
When you were a child, did you ever have to build a diorama out of an old shoebox? Did you glue matchboxes together to make a tiny building? Use leftover wallpaper for the sky? Did you seal it up with electrical tape—poke a hole so you could look into the toy world you just created?
In Cheer Up, Femme Fatale, Kim Yideum’s poems feel like pressing the eye to a peephole to get a glimpse at a high-contrast tableau vivant. Each poem is like a room where an actress is lit in ghastly light. Which is not to say these poems are diminutive—quite the opposite—it’s just that I feel myself in a blood velvet chair, audience-member-as-witness, staring up at a stage where all these careful constructions are unfolding. The people and objects burst into motion as an old sprinkler system blasts rusty water from above. There are multitudes to Kim’s magician tricks, and from my current vantage point, I’m only grasping a fragment of her work’s intensity.
“Avoidance Addition” opens: “Every midnight, there’s a tightrope act at Barbie’s Castle.” In this poem, the speaker, costumed in mourning dress, drinks a flat peach Coke. Eyeballs roll on the ground “glistening like sewer rats.” The poem winds down with the statement of “Things just go on and on. Is there any time when nothing takes place?” This manic buzzing is what gives Cheer Up, Femme Fatale such a lush, violent, moving landscape that thumps with a fairytale logic.
The politicized body moves through these poems as well beside the speaker’s (or speakers’) ventriloquizing voices. Everything shifts under the weight of phantasmagoria. Yes, the landscapes change quickly, but so too does the body transform. It is a body surviving the horror flick—but it too is the familiar face of the gwisin—the ghostwoman’s bloodless complexion and bloodied lips and eyes popping out in vengeance. It’s a menstruating body—“Red as tomatoes, the squishy mush trickles down my leg.” It’s a Piscean body: one that is constantly being rained upon or soaked in a bathtub of jellied eyeballs or dripping wet across the carpet or shipped overseas in “fetid water” as commodity (as the epigraph of “Distribution Center” states that 143,000 Korean children are sent abroad & 71.3% of adoptions are international—one layer of the violations and injustices that are channeled here in these poems).
One of the most memorable transformations occurs in “The Guitarist on the Street,” where the poem opens with an anxious woman playing a guitar in the rain. By the end of the poem the speaker looks again at the guitarist only to see that this time,“…it’s the guitar that’s holding the woman. The guitar tightens its grip on the guitarist’s neck.” In the final line, “The guitar pushes the guitarist into the guitar case.”
“Blue Beard’s Last Wife,” toying with the image of the familiar bloody key, provides a key of its own: “Hahaha, just kidding. I was just rambling in a fantastical voice that is neither feminine or masculine, neither alive nor dead, it is trendy to speak like that you know.” If the poems are a stage, this is Kim letting us see the techies bedecked in black, moving the background props around while we’re focused on the actors. The slipperiness of these poems allows us to move between megalomania, maximalist horror, layers of politic, a careful humor, and a look into the precariousness that leaves some of these voices incredibly vulnerable. If I’m being long-winded or recounting bloodshed too many times, it’s because this is the reality inside these poems and the reality of the state that produced them. Power courses through Cheer Up, Femme Fatale as a supernatural lifeblood. If you blink, the powerless will be dispatched.
It would be irresponsible if I claimed I know all the systematic injustices referenced here. I don’t. I’m certain there’s many references I’m not informed enough to understand. Ji yoon Lee’s Translator’s Note at the close of this book pulls the veil back a little: “Contemporary Korea’s prosperity rests on a foundation of violence, death, and trauma, the emotional charge of which is not relieved.” I was fortunate to see both Ji yoon Lee and Kim Yideum read together twice this year. The most recent was on April 16, 2016. April 16 was the two-year anniversary of the sinking of MV Sewol (a South Korean ferry that capsized—many criticizers believe the government response was poor in regards to culpability), and Kim read the names of all 304 passengers and crew members who died in the disaster. All of them.
It’s in these moments I step outside of myself and actually remember why poetry and activism matter. Even if it’s just so the names can enter the air, so the dead are not forgotten. I won’t try to entirely make sense of the unsettling and grotesque scenes that move through this collection, because I’m not entirely in a position yet to understand them—as an American most of my experience with Korean media has been through the gloss of pop in dramas like Secret Garden or the musical stylings of boygroups like Big Bang. So when I recall Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber or horror films like Hausu or poets who I associate with the gurlesque, it’s because these references are most familiar to me, not necessarily that they’re the best comparisons for Kim’s work. I have a lot more reading to do before I can even begin to understand how power and rage is coursing through Kim’s poetry. But I’m grateful that Ji yoon Lee, Don Mee Choi, and Johannes Göransson have crafted a careful compilation of Kim’s works. I’m grateful to have access to Kim Yideum’s polyphonic landscape, the final diorama she unravels in “A Flower Bouquet”:
When these stop sounding like an attack
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.
SUPPLICATION: Selected Poems of John Wieners (Wave Books, 2016)
Edited by Joshua Beckman, CAConrad, and Robert Dewhurst
Whenever I read poetry that is over 50 years old I think, “Oh there is probably a scholar out there who knows quite a lot about this, who would very much so dislike all the things I am about to say!” The historical nuance of the poetry immediately following World War II can easily blend together for me. I’m not always certain where the lines are drawn in the sand between the work of the New York School and the Black Mountain poets and the Beats and those associated with the San Francisco Renaissance (I tend to associate much of these folks with that Donald Allen anthology). Interestingly enough, John Wieners spent time in New York, Buffalo, San Francisco, Boston, and was at the Black Mountain College, so as far as Venn diagrams go, he at the epicenter of overlapping circles.
It is, perhaps, inevitable that after I mention the above movements that I drew connections to Ginsberg and O’Hara as I read the first few poems in this collection (their names appear in later poems in the book, for whatever validation that provided me). There are certainly aesthetic crossovers between their works, although sometimes I wonder if this gesture is also a reductionist one as all of these poets were queer men—and something about the comparison feels too easy, too clean.
Like O’Hara, much of Wieners’ poetry follows an account. Although, unlike Lunch Poems, where O’Hara is a feather floating in a draft on a city street during the day, Wieners’ poems are like sitting in a candle-lit bedroom. But not candles of maudlin romance—more: the electricity’s cut off, oil lantern blinking, coming down from the high, single cot on the floor next to a beat up Willa Cather novel. Remnants of the night’s fix not in room, but body. He talks to you, directly, in a low voice through this darkness.
Of night and the junkies
stealing my bicycle and books. I love them because they are the
boys of my childhood who would chase me home
from school and leave this same terror.
So that even here by the sea,
the objects of my life return, from another life that never dies.
—excerpt from “July 22”
Queer folk rarely benefit from the consanguineal. It’s a lineage of reset buttons and gaps. Our stories are often an oral history, passed down to each other with more mouth than blood. Public sex to my generation is an outlier, a fetish, an adventure, but to many of my elders it was a necessity—at least a necessity of a desire that seeks the completion of skin on skin—and every orgasm got you closer to being locked up by the fuzz. Many of these men had wives and children. Wieners writes candidly from and about this era of tea rooms, where gay men often “made it” in public restrooms, bushes around the perimeters of a park. That is to say the love that moves through Wieners’ poetry is often one of chiaroscuro. Yes, there is light, but it’s the shadow that gives the light definition. It’s the shadow that gives the queer body dimension. These shadows complete us as much as sacrifice us to our loneliness, our abjection.
It’s a mistake to assume love
where none exists
we create within our hearts
a worthy object
others may share it
and enter that sacred grove but
it is a matter of our caring
—excerpt from “In the Darkness”
Although I think of Ginsberg, too, as these poems contain a secular or pedestrian divinity to them, these are not verbose poems, or poems that belong shouted from a soapbox. It’s the aforementioned quiet, conversational quality that keeps the ass against the hard wood of the pew. And it’s this straightforward delivery of the gay underground, too, that feels divergent from Ginsberg’s hyper-performative, self-mythologizing candor.
Ah daddy I wanna be drunk many days.
On a stage in front of beautiful eyes
I wd. remove my rags,
my dress drop
to work the curtain,
to dance out softly
(over their heads) barefoot on wood
toes like vaseline
knee dips as I strip out my—
I desire to be taken to the top of the Liberty Bell and blown
by winds from Sweden
softly and my toes would do it if I
were a dancer.
—excerpt from “With Mr. J. R. Morton,” the first poem in the collection
The titular supplication haunts these pages. The head bobbing down. The lips moving. The prayer: please. Please. Beyond the forthright content, there is something earnest to Wieners’ form, the way the accounts move from skinny-necked stanzas to narrative paragraphs and dissolve to sparse words on the page, as if they were moths or the dust from wings left behind (I didn’t fully do the exact spacing of these lovely poems justice in the confines of the above blockquotes). It’s this humbleness too that provides contrast to O’Hara and Ginsberg who thought of fame and found it (as Wieners points out in “Memories of You”, an Orphean gaze at blowjays)—but maybe he felt this humbleness also concealed his work to the periphery of a canon. It at least feels concealed to me, and it could be that my words are a penitence for not being introduced to Wieners’ poetry sooner.
Beyond the form of Wieners’ poetry, this book also contains collages, remnants, letters, and revenants via the good graces of Joshua Beckman, CAConrad, and Robert Dewhurst’s hard editorial work. Perhaps we can take a cue from the title and make an appeal for more of Wieners’ hard-to-find poems to be made more accessible in the future. I’ll say a prayer. As Wieners knew, the first step to begging is to get down on your knees….
- H.A.G.S. #5: Dear Esther and Gone Home: Two Video Games for Writers and Readers - June 29, 2016
- H.A.G.S. #4: Southern Cryptozoology by Allie Marini and Daniel, Damned by Tim Jones-Yelvington - June 22, 2016
- H.A.G.S. #3: All the Rage by sam sax and Nostalgia for Death by Xavier Villaurrutia - June 15, 2016