Ch'oe Sŭng-ja, Kim Hyesoon, and Yi Yŏn-ju, Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women, Zephyr Press, 2006

Reviewed by Jamison Crabtree

[Review Guidelines]


Before dusk, the superheroes come out. They wear backpacks or they push hand-trucks full of equipment down the sidewalk.

Rumors go around; a few months back, someone told me that one of the Spidermans has started using again and though I don't know him, I still start to worry when I haven’t seen him for a few days.

By the time I leave work, the sun's down and the signs on Las Vegas' old strip, Fremont Street, are powered up. Many of them on the far end of the street have been repurposed. Instead of advertising hotels, they announce messages like:

W e s t e r n
H o t e l

to the fenced-off buildings and quiet sidewalks. Over a quarter mile of Fremont Street is covered by a barrel-vaulted continuous television screen. The middle of the street is dotted with oversized martini glasses and giant shoes. Signs are everywhere.



At night, everything vies for attention. It used to overwhelm me, but now I remember Ch'oe Sŭng-ja's poem in which she imagines a city as a prone millipede, its feet shoed with neon.

Worms start to dream wiggle wiggle,
wet smiles of neon signs bloom;
all at once the dead of the underground
open their shut eyes and gave at the surface.

Each poet from Anxiety of Words differs in her voice and aesthetic, but they collectively eliminate the divisions between the natural world and the artificial world. It’s possible because they look at the world as it is.

Now, when I see "W E   H O T," little grips of poem flash through my head.



Don Mee Choi's introduction to Anxiety of Words asks, how did "Korean women gain a feminist consciousness under military dictatorships?"

Which begs other questions: how does anyone develop a voice that will let them speak against an established structure of power? How do you create a new voice that can still be understood, that can still communicate? How do you start a conversation about something that there are no words for? For something that's been censored?

Even nine years after the publication of this translation (thirty-one years after some of the poems were first collected in full-length publications), these questions are still urgent.



It's difficult to care about people and not ask these sorts of questions.

Most of the apartments around me don't have porches. The airport is the heart of the town; planes regularly interrupt my friends when they're talking with me. Two hundred miles of flood tunnels run like veins beneath the city. Much of the city's homeless population takes shelter in them and, whenever it rains, inevitably, someone drowns.

I look down the street and see the closed-down low-cost hotels. Their doors and windows boarded up—big sheets of plywood screwed into the frame. To make it friendlier, someone painted comically happy-looking doors and windows on the boards blocking the doors and windows.



Yi Yŏn-ju:

Those who are dead because of those alive,
their bodies incinerated each night.



This is not a city that asks for new voices; it wouldn't operate well if it did. From my own experiences, I feel like it's a city that says: if you don't like it here, don't try to change it; leave.



What if every place is like that to some extent?



All three of the poets collected in Anxiety of Words were writing at a time in which Korean poetry was openly gendered—female poetry demanded a female voice.

A female voice meant writing in a way that was sentimental, gentile, and non-confrontational. Passive. To write outside of that tradition required a completely new tongue, one that could somehow be heard and understood by old ears.



Kim Hyesoon explains, "[w]hat I wrote about was cooking and my ingredient was death...I tried to turn the heaviness of oppression into something playful and light, so that what I ended up with was a type of poetry that did not appear to be political."



The Greek word anthos translates to "flowers," meaning an anthology is a collection of flowers.

By limiting the number of poets presented in the book, readers can linger with the reverberation between the poems.

Anxiety of Words is a carefully arranged bundle of flowers, suited equally well for a vase or a headstone.



Ch'oe Sŭng-ja:

They say it still rains in the ruins of our youth.
So, they say at times rain splatters onto our distant corpses, our toes.
And rumor has it that we are still alive.




The book is comprised of selected translations of three contemporary Korean poets: Ch'oe Sŭng-ja, Kim Hyesoon, and Yi Yŏn-ju. A dual-language anthology, Don Mee Choi's translations appear alongside the original poems.

Included in the 175 pages of text is a general introduction that provides a historical and cultural context for the poems, individual introductions to each poet, and translation notes.

The three poets in this collection differ in their voices, but their social engagement is uniform. They primarily explore issues related to gender, physical bodies, individual/state power, economy, and materialism.




I'm dramatically distanced from Korean culture. Yet I find the poems in Anxiety of Words to be immediately relatable. Something in the way the poems treat their subjects: people. There's desperation in these voices. Quick associative leaps lash the sacred to the vulgar. The playfulness in these poems is genuine, making the tragedies all the more heartbreaking.

Language abstracts the world. These poems transform the world by describing it, adding to what's already there rather than trying to simplify.

Kim Hyesoon:


Their work reminds me that there's a lot to be sad and angry and heartbroken about—and that something can be made from all of that. In the process, lines like "Someone pissed / on top of my already dead body / and then left whistling" becomes a strange comfort.

These poems force me to imagine cities I've never visited, and to see those cities echoed throughout the landscape.

They teach me how to listen, and to look.



Ch'oe Sung-ja:

I didn't drift away.

I didn't drift away.
I mixed zeal and nothingness
and produced a day,
produced a year,
and faithfully paid monthly installments on death.



Yi Yŏn-ju:

Let's start again.