In Beautiful and Useless, opposing themes are held up and mirrored against each other, some more traditional, like feminine and masculine, the dead and the living, youth and old age, some sensory like salty and sweet, and some metaphoric, like real life and fantasy. Striking the perfect balance, she celebrates the meeting of obscene and holy. In her own words, “We live in a world where we can get prayer bells and straw cutters on eBay and G Market.”
Full of casual elegance and vibrant characters, Beautiful and Useless is a portrait of everyday life, an intimate look into the soul. At times an inner dialogue with the self, other times an homage to things no longer around. Dancing between wisdom and wise-ass, Jeong knows how to deliver a punchline and how to deliver blows. Her honesty is brutal and refreshing. Though undaunted and unrestrained, an unmistaken gentleness remains throughout. Her poetry flows easily, and her words hit their mark. She demonstrates mastery over word play and metaphor, giving life to moments and details glossed over, overlooked and unseen. She teaches us that often times, it’s the inconsequential things which hold the most meaning.
Roughly structured to follow events of the lunar calendar, reading Beautiful and Useless is like transversing through a year of tender moments, heartache, accidental encounters. Kim Min Jeong’s style is both playful and earnest, sensitive and steadfast.
Words hold power to Kim Min Jeong. They give vegetables their taste just through the act of naming. They make subjective experiences accessible, closing our distances between each other, thus becoming reachable. Jeong never over-explains, she treasures ambiguity and paradox. Reading a poem out of Beautiful and Useless is like the setting of a timer for a later detonation. Something to keep around in your head and feel now, maybe understand later. While spanning a wide array of subjects, including sexuality, politics, and the passage of time. Jeong is generous with inventive imagery, with humor and with heart.
Jeong’s words hold intangible gravity yet are remarkably succinct, no doubt thanks to Soeun Seo and Jake Levine, whose careful and skilled translation provided a safe landing for the essence of the work during its voyage from one language to another. Perhaps writing this collection of poetry, like finding a use for gathered stones, was another practical application of making something beautiful out of something otherwise overlooked.
Review by Vivien Yue