[ENGLISH] The Digestive Transformation of The World’s Lightest Motorcycle
by Leah Silvieus March 10, 2022
The World’s Lightest Motorcycle
At first glance, the surreal world of Yi Won’s high-tech contemporary twenty-first century Korea seems as distant from Emily Dickinson’s nineteenth century Amherst, Massachusetts as it could be. However, reading The World’s Lightest Motorcycle, first published in 2007 and published in an English translation by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello and E. J. Koh in 2021, one begins to see that the two poets might have more in common than one might assume.
Yi Won nods directly toward Dickinson in “Road, Motorcycle, Nike” where she references a letter of hers in which Dickinson writes, “my heart slowly grew bigger than me,” a fantastical image of the kind that surfaces often in Yi Won’s collection. Indeed, some of Yi Won’s images, including that of a speaker touching “the cosmos of the daffodils / in your address,” could almost be plucked from a Dickinson poem. Both poets interweave meditations on time, mortality, solitude, and connection to the natural world into compressed, often surreal images. While Emily Dickinson’s poetic eye often hovers closely upon a single image (a bird coming down a walk or a certain slant of light), Yi’s gaze flashes through collages of the quotidian: hangers and TVs, walls and mirrors, computer screens and wrist watches. In one poem, Yi writes, “the dough of time / stands before the rotting of history” within a refrigerator. Another poem peers in at two people at a table with stars in their mouths who are suddenly sucked into a black hole. Even as darkness often signifies loss and uncertainty in Yi’s poems, it also seems to have its own desires and volition. In one poem, the darkness “rolls up the roads like a straw mat,” and in other, it is “tired, unaware of the light leaking out from itself.” Darkness is the space from which rebirth arises, despite itself: “Even if the darkness won’t brim to the top, the earth’s time begins anew.” Darkness is the place where life both begins and ends, and in so being, is that which connects the two, even if its very nature challenges those on either side from understanding this reality.
Both poets also press the limits of poetic form. Compared to Dickinson’s compressed poems which challenge meter and rhyme by pressing out from inside the walls of the poem, Yi presses form through her surreal approach to images, many of which occur in flashes, as if seen through the scenic rhythms of a dream. In many places, she slices an image open and inserts another one at its center: “[. . .] the world sloshes, there’s an empty road inside the sloshing sound, the world spills over, the side of the cup [. . .]” In another poem, a man and woman tear off parts of each other’s bodies until they become almost indistinguishable from each other. Images of violence permeate these poems, but the violence resists gratuity as it reveals the reality of alienation from self and society even as the poems continue to press toward survival.
Yi Won’s multivalent approach to poetic image might overwhelm if the reader is seeking to understand them in a linear, meaning-making sense. However, Yi’s poems are better experienced than explained. This is not surprising, since, as the translators point out, the poet is much more interested in viewing “the world through images rather than meaning,” and in doing so, press “the limits of meaning.” As dense and sometimes disorienting as these poems can be, it is the very nature of the images themselves that guides readers in how to read them. Images of movement such as flowing, circulating, breathing, growing, and decaying saturate the poems and carry the willing reader along with them. The collection almost seems to be an organic thing, a body of sorts, that digests the reader, spitting her out on the other end, transfigured, sticky with the residue of Yi ’s difficult, yet life-giving world. Such a “digestive” approach to reading does not diminish the reader’s humanity but rather defamiliarizes, transforms, and finally renews it. In one of the most striking poems of the collection, the speaker says, almost confessionally, “I am a horror,” “a horror is love,” and finally, “Love is a horror, so I walk out from the mirror.” Love (one might say the ultimate connector) is a horror when examined closely: a dance of recognition and difference, one that beckons us deeper into and away from ourselves. In the gaping mouth of Yi Won’s strange and magnificently horrifying poems, few readers will escape profound transformation.
Poet, Arabilis (Sundress Publications, 2019)
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AUTHORS Yi Won Yi Won debuted in the pages of Segye-ui Munhak in 1992. Her poetry collections include When They Ruled the Earth, A Thousand Moons Rising Over the River of Yahoo!, The World’s Lightest Motorcycle, The History of an Impossible Page, Let Love be Born, and I Am My Affectionate Zebra. She has received the 2005 Contemporary Poetics Prize, the 2002 Contemporary Poetry Award, and 2018 Hyeongpyeong Literary Award. She works as a professor of creative writing at Seoul Institute of the Arts.