Kim Hyesoon - Goodness, I didn’t know there were such repulsive holes! I will certainly stay alive while the I inside me clutches onto me; furthermore, I want to deliver the cheese made of me inside me to your table every morning

Kim Hyesoon, All the Garbage of the World, Unite!, Trans. by Don Mee Choi, Action Books, Action, 2011.

“As garbage, love and death accumulate in her poems, your world will be changed for real!”—Aase Berg

“The final poem “Manhole Humanity” deserves its place alongside Césarire’s “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” or Ginsberg’s “Howl” or Inger Christensen’s It. Kim Hyesoon’s new book is armament and salve, shield and medicinal chant. It’s here to protect us.” – Christian Hawkey

"Goodness, I didn’t know there were such repulsive holes!
No knocking about with uncertainties here: holes are a good, demanding term with which to visualise emptiness, loss, and lack, suggesting both a certain misogynist way of accounting for women’s bodies (‘getting your hole’, in certain parts of Edinburgh, being a way of describing having sex) and naming what’s left after conflict and destruction. Kim Hyesoon, an essential, innovative voice from the south of Korea and a giddyingly exciting poet and critic, takes holes as something of a talisman and poetic guide. Her work deserves an Australasian audience, not just for the pleasures this poetry offers, but also for the historical implication our social formations share in the creation of the holes which are her subject matter and theme.
Holes dominate this poetic landscape so much that Choi Don Mee, Kim’s translator, herself a gifted and innovative poet, was asked by one US literary journal to revise her submission and return a synonym with fewer ‘negative connotations.’ Choi’s response, presented as a ‘Translator’s Note’ to the collection All the Garbage of the World, Unite!, places this piece of condescension in its properly historicised place:
During the Korean War (1950–1953), about 250 000 pounds of napalm per day were dropped by the United States forces. Countless mountains, rice fields, and houses were turned into holes. Four million perished, leaving more holes. It’s a place that is positively holey. Kim Hyesoon’s hole poem comes from there, and so do I.
Another hole these poems seek to fill is a social gap: the holes where women should be in activist and social life. Kim has, in interviews, expressed her frustration at women’s place in the literary sphere, claiming that ‘to live as a woman poet in Korea means to occupy a marginal place, a mere “spice” within a world of poetry constructed by men.’ One response to this situation is an aggressively controlled variation on Kristeva’s Écriture féminine, poems full of detailed specificity and abjection – rejected bodily fluids, damage, domestic abysses. There’s a frenzied energy to Kim’s lists and juxtapositions, a pitch captured very nicely in her title: All the garbage of the world, unite!. Which is usable as an aesthetic slogan; the unladylike combines here with the stray and the discarded to offer ‘critical montages’ and constellations hostile to a wider social image of consumer capitalism and its distractions. (Kim’s biographical position matters; an activist intellectual, her early work as a critic was often censored by the military dictatorship in Park-era Korea, and she is a regular participant in street demonstrations, and labour and feminist causes).
A model of women’s writing against femininity begins to emerge, taking as one of its targets the lyric voice and the limitations of a personal poetic identity. These are difficult poems to read – words sometimes stick together in Choi’s translation: daddymommybigbrotherlittlesiblings, for example – and act against the ‘extraordinary uniformity’ of the prize-winning lyric Marjorie Perloff laments.
The ‘feminine voice’ and the weight of expectations from feminist poetic tradition are both conceptual holes for Kim,and areas for her productive destructiveness to avoid. No traditions! She told an interviewer:
Mother is a synonym for abandonment and death. Comparing this synonym to water, it is like poured-out water. I call it mother, the identity that I cannot identify. Mother does not exist, like water that has given life to a flower and then disappeared. Mothers live somewhere after giving birth to us. Our mothers who have gone are buried in our bodies. It can be said that we were born with dead mothers in our body.
The poetry sets itself the task of ‘dismantling delusions’, using the grotesque to force confrontations with dead images and accounts of the body and society. A model? Smash it up and start again:
‘I’ is a name for confinement in my body!
‘I’ is a name for all the things that don’t appear outside the body’s hole!
‘I’ is a name for the lady and gentleman who don’t recognise the person
who lives in the body!
One shift these poems make without any appearance of effort is between these personalised questions of gender and social roles, and larger issues of national struggle. And it’s here that I think there’s the most value in reading Kim for an Australasian audience, and the most that might get lost were we to read her with our standard expectations from ‘experimental’ verse too close to our eyes. Hwang Jongyon, in a recent issue of World Literature Today, identifies a ‘postnational turn’ in contemporary Korean literature, as ‘the entrenched dichotomies that have constituted the core of Korean national literature – national/cosmopolitan, realist/modernist, high/low – are being challenged, and dismantled.’ The challenge, Kim suggests to me, may be one not so much of dismantling the frame of an older national struggle but, rather, to do with the suggestion that it needs radicalised by being taken all the way through the personal and out the other side.
This, at any rate, is how I read the abrupt shift that occurs in ‘Seoul, Korea’:
The mountain gives birth
The mountain licks a mountain
The moutain’s litter sucks on its nipples
The mountain cold-heartedly discards all of its litter
The young mountains copulate in broad daylight, the stench
The mountain roams like the pack of dogs inside a maze
This same mountain, all of a sudden, transforms itself into a much more challenging pile of historical remnants and suppressed trauma:
The mountain eats shit, eats a corpse
The mountain, the rash-covered mountain attacks me with its flaming eyes
The mountain, the snow-topped mountain cries
The mountain without a single tree laments with its head flung back
towards the sky
There’s good reason for official culture in the United States, Australia and New Zealand to want to keep the Korean War as a ‘forgotten’ war. It was, after all, a time when, in the words of historian Bruce Cumings, virtual wastelands were produced in the name of containment. Plenty of representational raw material for an aesthetic of holes here, for instance:
From early November 1950 on, MacArthur ordered that a wasteland be created between the front and the Chinese border, destroying from the air every ‘installation, factory, city, and village’ over thousands of square miles of North Korean territory. On November 8, seventy B-29’s dropped 550 tons of incendiary bombs on Sinuiju, ‘removing [it] off the map’; a week later Hoeryong was hit with napalm to ‘burn out the place…’
A certain strain of thought in the south of Korea is equally keen to repress this historical detail, and to normalise the workings of what Paik Nak-Chung calls the ‘division system’: that mutually rewarding and socially crippling interdependence of authoritarianisms north and south, via the standard blether about consumer society. Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic is Calling You has a nice parody of this approach, with its protagonist a spy from the North ‘gone native’:
You’ve changed. I mean, you must have changed. I know you. You like hirasake, sushi, Heinekens, and movies by Sam Peckinpah and Wim Wenders. You like the story of Meursault shooting the Arab and you underline the elegant prose of a far right-wing pundit, Yukio Mishima. You eat seafood pasta at a Sunday brunch. You drink scotch at a bar near Hongik University on Friday nights. Right?’
Amidst all that – and our happy implication in the re-telling of the Korean story as one among many new ‘waves’ of Asian cool – Kim Hyesoon’s poems point out how sometimes it’s History that reads us, and how repressed detail finds its way out. History is what hurts, as Jameson insists, or ‘Hole is the time bomb you have thrown’:
I thought I was gazing at the landscape
but I was startled the moment I realized that the landscape
was staring at me instead
These are very clever, linguistically acrobatic poems for the era of the ‘division system in crisis’. There’s a restless, utopian energy here too, as ‘the leaves are budding through the / holes, all the holes in the world’. Kim’s characteristic poses – the obscure imperative and the exclamation mark – fuse the styles of activist politics and experimental poetry, and promise a way one can protect the other. Choi’s Translator’s Note is a useful paratext, and positions the poems much more explicitly politically – and within the archive of the post-colonial, and responses to US aggression – than a strictly literary reading of these works, unaided, may have noticed. All the garbage of the world needs to unite:
Yes, finally it’s the victory of the gutter!
It’s the sky of guts! Hurhurray!
The tunnel beneath my feet!" - Dougal McNeill

"Among recent notices on my Facebook feed was one for the new issue of Big Bridge, in particular a feature on “Neo-surrealism,” edited by Adam Cornford. Cornford’s expansive introduction to the feature, which looks back to the history of surrealism and forward to his selection of living poets, includes this definition of his subject: “What defines a Surrealist poetry today, then, is what has defined it from the outset . . . Surrealist poetry can only be ‘a cry of the mind determined to break apart its fetters.’ It must contribute, intentionally or otherwise, to the liberation of the mind ‘and all that resembles it.’” I’m not here to argue against the mind’s liberation, rather to suggest that newer forms of surrealism can be used effectively to record what occurs before the imagined line break in Cornford’s phrase, “the mind determined to break apart / its fetters.” The breaking apart of a mind, most familiar to me as a product (or anti-product) of dementia and Alzheimer’s, can be tracked through what I’ve elsewhere called “documentary surrealism.” In the blog post to which I just offered a link, I wrote: “To say that dementia is a surreal condition is probably not to say anything anyone doubts who has confronted a relative or friend with Alzheimer’s disease. More interesting, on a literary level, is the way in which writing about dementia creates a hybrid form, documentary surrealism. If documentary poetry combines the strengths of historical writing, journalism, collage, and the lyric, then documentary surrealism opens up the field to the ways in which the imagination is actualized by mental illness or other extreme states (such as the post-traumatic syndrome Andre Breton dealt with during WWI when he treated soldiers off the battlefield).”
The surrealism that western readers know comes from Europe by way of African influences; it spread to the Caribbean and the United States. The line-up of Cornford’s feature in Big Bridge is all American. But there’s a surrealism less well known to western readers, which comes to us from Asia. Some of its purveyors, like Linh Dinh, write in English. We’re made aware of others through translation. One of the best contemporary surrealists is Kim Hyesoon, a Korean poet whose work is translated by another poet, Don Mee Choi. Their newest book is All the Garbage of the World Unite! There are so many potential ways to read this book, as critique of empire (a method more than suggested by Choi in her brief preface), as feminist poetry, as an investigation of insides and outsides (and inside outsides), as surrealism. But I want to turn to a single poem, “An Old Woman,” to illustrate the way in which this poet’s surrealism works to describe the realities of old age. The old woman of the poem is a tree, the tree a “meme.” No accident that, I presume. This tree, like any tree, can’t move far: “She’s a tree that can’t even turn over or rub with her fingers / when the first butterfly she has waited for tickles with its thin toes / the spaces between the grooves of her lips” (65). Because she can’t move (physically, psychically), she must be cared for:
meme’s waist is so wide that she can’t bend
over or lie down by herself
Someone must come and change
her underwear and diapers
and then a few lines later:
No one can walk beside her with head held up in the air
because of the stench she gives out when she cries before the first leaves

of the season sprout and the dogs lift their legs and piss on her lower

trunk and take off.
Like so many of Kim Hyesoon’s symbols, that of the tree is at once abstract (this old person, like a tree, can’t move) and literal (both tree and old woman stink). Both trees are planted in beds, though the “planting” and the “bed” are different images and acts, indeed. Her images tend to hover, waver between fact and sur-fact, between our ideas of the thing and the thing itself. Yes, old age is an idea, she seems to be telling us, but it is also smelly. Even that smelliness is unstable, as Kim makes clear in the final stanza of this poem:
memememe is a lone big tree
Her stench of sadness when she cries before the first flower of the
season bloom
is so unbearable that my family members carry a bowl of medicine
and hold their noses outside the door (66)
Now it is her sadness that smells, the actions of her family that make a louder stench. The meme can be read as “me me me me,” or an acknowedgement that we are all — if we’re lucky — headed for this condition of stinky paralysis. Noses will be held outside our doors, not those of an old woman who stands in for all old women as meme.
Kim is such an effective poet of old age because she knows that life is always already entangled with death and dying. In her recent Tinfish Press chapbook of three short essays, Princess Abandoned, also translated by Choi, Kim writes of her poetic practice, a “poetry of hearing”: “The performer cannot develop her body and soul, her life as the performer of the Abandoned, without making contact with ghosts . . . making contact with her own spirit allows her to communicate with other spirits through the bodies of the others and enables her to guide the spirits of the dead to a safe place (?) in the netherworld at the request of her regulars” (np). The poet is a midwife, in other words, who pulls bodies out of life and into death, or who performs the opposite task. This activity also pulls the reader into the text, “incorporates” that reader. No mistake that this poet is also obsessed with bodies eating other bodies, whether they are cats consuming rats or persons swallowing tornados. In the poem entitled “To Swallow a Tornado,” Kim writes an elegy for the Abandoned, using the metaphor of consumption again. Perhaps this amounts to an over-reading, but Kim herself suffered from tuberculous pleurisy, or “consumption” as a child, hence knows what it means for one’s body and one’s spirit to find themselves at odds. And so, “When my body becomes tight as a bow I can see everything”:
My beloved, the last skeleton beneath your hair is already dead

The rake-like smile of the wind spreads

on the backs of the pedestrians walking hurriedly

God has clawed and gathered up the empty blankets

of those who have departed this world

and lit a blue fire far up above
The world is like transparent silk underwear

you can see right through it (61)
For Kim, the act of hovering between life and death is explicitly feminine, and writing about this state is feminist. Meditating on the “woman-poet,” she notes: “at some point she realizes that she must embrace the inside’s death; unless she accepts it, she will not be able to accept her own reality. Then she reaches a point where she can name her death. She accepts the conception of death with its intensity akin to painful childbirth.” Identity is transformed in this “connection with death.” Whether or not this is true for all of us “women-poets” and “men-poets,” Kim has arrived at a beautiful approach to writing about old age and death. For, despite her poems’ astringency, their brave confrontation with the “holes” that surround us, they come out of a deep “merriment.” “Without merriment,” she writes, “poetry remains on a singular plane. In order to achieve polyphonic planes, my poetry needs to be merry — inside things, between things, inside the multiple ’I’s’ and between the multiple “I’s’” (Garbage x). It’s this “merriment” that brings together the twin connotations of freedom and loss in Surrealism’s notion of “mental liberation." - Susan M. Schultz

On the seat you left, two beer bottles, a cigarette butt, two pieces of scratch paper.
Why are you screening my calls, my messages? Don’t you have anything else to do?

You are the bourgeoisie of communication. Why am I always afraid of the phone?

When you look at me, I always feel as if I should change into something else.

How about changing myself into a bundle of clothes dumped on the sofa

or a pale pink wad of bubble gum dangling from someone’s lips

like the poor tummies of all the animals that flail about when they are turned over?

Do you know?

Eyesnavel god. Forearmsearflap god.

Sweetpotatokneesappleseed god. Pigstoenailschick god.

Dreamingdivingbeetlesashtree god. Lovelygirlsheelstoenail god.

Antsghostscatseyeball god. Ratholescatsrottingwater god.

Mrsdustingarmselephant god. Salivadropexplodeslikefreongas.

Salivafountainevenmoremortifyingnauseatingthanthesmelloflionsrottenbreath god.

Do you know all the dearest gods that are hanging onto our limbs?

On the seat you left, a wet towel, a wad of gum, a crushed tomato.

Dear blackgarbagebags who thankfully lent each one of their bodies.
Dear foldedarms of the window and concrete and steel under my feet.
How high the armsofthemachinehammers that beat down steadily upon

those foldedarms.

All the pigs of the world unite god. All the cats of the world let’s become a butter god.

Dear wrists escape from the arms god. Heap of curses, mackerel corpses spit out from a soccer player’s mouth god. There are 3 million gods in India. How many people live there?

Dearest multiple gods that have swarmed in from the sky, land, sea.

On the seat you left, I sit like a garbage god, and do you or don’t you know

that I wait for the green truck heading to the landfill like the dearest dirtiest loftiest god

who has long endured till now because of its hunger for humans?

Do you or don’t you know that every day our hair falls and mixes with the melting water of an iceberg in the faraway sea?
Yournostrilssingledropofapricklynosehairearth god!

Kim Hyesoon, Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers, Trans. by Don Mee Choi, Action Books, 2008.

"The first full-length English language edition of one of the foremost woman poets in Modern Korean poetry. Kim Hyesoon was the first woman recipient of the prestigious Kim Suyong Contemporary Poetry Award, and is the author of eight collections of poetry. In Kim Hyesoon's saturated political fables, horror is packed inside cuteness, cuteness inside horror. Interior and exterior, political and intimate, human and animal, agent and victim become interchangeable, interbreeding elements. No subjecthood is fixed in this microscape of shifts, swellings, tender subjugations and acts of cruel selflessness."

"By morning all is quiet— he must have left
Mommy finally gets up and breathes
Mommy bites and kills each one of us
for giving off a suspicious scent from last night’s terror
She kills us then eats our intestines,
grinds her teeth against a wall
then digs out our eyeballs to eat
then there is no one
As always, only Daddy and Mommy are left
It looks as if Mommy is expecting another litter - Kim Hyesoon, from Mommy Must be a Fountain of Feathers

Stars are whores.
I weave pubic hair for dolls and frogs naively lit by your orange lamps. If cloth is meat, what is blood? Try weaving shredded wrists, decapitated hearts.
- Don Mee Choi, from “Weaver in Exile 2” in La Petite Zine

Terror deserves a special place in poetry. Of course we live in a mutual assured destruction world. Of course modernity as we know it is dying. Many of us still delight in Kafka and Beckett, though the cultural weight is lighter and lighter all the time. We could all turn to hipster writers who slickly reveal, while boot-lickingly accepting it, the emptiness of this permutation of reality. We can eat Hot Pockets and watch The Simpsons. Or we can take a cue from Action Books: Terror, Horror, Cruelty, Disgust, all made lovely; Villain-making, shit-spewing Decadence in the Face of Despair -- this is the right response to our times. Such antics will save us - in a way - or will, at least, act as salve.
Kim Hyesoon is a feminist South Korean poet. Her translator for this text, is Don Mee Choi, also Korean, also a feminist poet. Their work is anything but “antics,” but this book fits nicely into Action Books’ taste as I know it (Lara Glenum and Aase Berg were my introduction to the Notre Dame press).
Not knowing much about Korean language structures, not really knowing much about South Korea itself (other than my provincial, lazy sense of it in relation to the more foreboding North Korea), I feel a little foolish and inadequate commenting on the nature of the translation, but I find that Don Mee Choi’s introduction offers an excellent “note” for the novice. She cites ideas about translation from Elfriede Jelinek and Paul Ricoeur, suggesting that the reader gladly accept the failures of literal (whatever that could possibly mean in a landscape of metaphor) translation and, instead, work on a better understanding of the net of information cast by the writer-translator-reader dynamic. She also makes it clear that Kim Hyesoon is herself a “translator” of the absolute disaster of the neocolony of South Korea, that Kim’s poems come from a history of censorship, dominance, Other-ness:
Elfried Jelinek says... “I gaze into the certain, because the authors I translate knew what makes the clockwork of society tick... And this knowledge about hierarchies and rules drops like a net [...] over the staged asylum into which we theatergoers are allowed to peer, and which makes it more into an orderly middle class dwelling...”

Don Mee Choi ultimately demands, in her introduction, that we understand the “twoness” of her process and product; she is South Korean in origin, American in location, and her translation work is meant to create a space of “mirrors.” She also makes the rather bold and interesting claim that this work stands very blatantly against KORUS (Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, not yet signed by either country’s legislative branches). So the whole endeavor takes on the quality of subversion and disobedience.
The book is absolute pleasure, though it is sometimes a pleasure of the sort you might reserve for peeing in a shower, eating liverwurst, fiddling with a hangnail. It is also the kind of pleasure related to the undetected watching of animals. It is also not unlike the excitement of realizing the self as a force for transgression.
There are many rats. There are bodies made into alien landscapes. There is straight-up cold horror -- at reality, at bourgeois values, at physical existence. Although it’s easy enough to “decode” the metaphor, in a general way, it does not play out so easily in specific moments. “To Patients with Contagious Diseases” can be about sickness as an alien force, about imperialism and control, about the modern tendency for sterility, about the unaccepting link between bodies as they are and bodies as we have language for them, even about the aftereffects of disaster at large. When carefully read aloud (and do this, seriously; it’s a trip), the poem almost feels like Laura Palmer and the midget talking backwards in Twin Peaks’ Red Room (“That gum you like is coming back in style”).
Run, holding, only, your, lit, ten, ta, cle, blue, and, cold. Go, run. Give, your, bodies, to, mag, gots, that, feed, on, bodies, sell, frenzied, your, legs, to, people, who, come, to, buy, legs, and, shout your bids. Vomit, excrete, dribble, give, away, everything, every thing.
Pull out and show, your, wick. Run. Sick, Body, when, someone, calls, you, shout back, I’m alivealive. Don’t, arrive, just, de, part. Run, so, that, the, needles, can, slip out, white, beds, can, crumble, bloody shit, can, splatter, and, dead things, and, stench, can fly, high up, in, the, sky. Life, leavesthenreturns, departsthenarrives, and the, sick, body, burns, up, then, takes, on, life, and runs, out, again! Look, over there, there. Happiness, painted, in oil, is, inside, a frame, and, now, sa. ccha. rine. Of happiness, flows, like. a. ri. ver. Into, my, blood. If someone, asks, Is anyone alive? Break, your, head, open, and, show, your, ten, ta, cle.
There is another wonderful poem, called “Face,” that explores the “you inside you.” “The you inside you pulls you tight into the inside, so your fingernails curl inward and your outer ears swirl into the inside of your body...
The aforementioned rats are ever-present, a kind of vigilant force against the prettiness and wonderment of other moments in the book. They are also an excellent morphable symbol. Kim, through Don Mee Choi’s lively diction, plays with the tone of reality; how we “hear” the world is, in large part, dictated by forces with vested interest in Control. “Everyone, please try to talk. Watch how speech disappears. Today’s words walk away into the forest. They play a golden guitar, leaning against a worn-out wooden chair.” The poems, working rather outside of form as we normally handle it, seek to carve out a strange rebellion. I don’t know. Maybe the rebellion is half-hidden; if we encourage rebellion against reality, can this rebellion exist in a sensate world?
I don’t know, Kim Hyesoon, really, what you’re up to, “but I still want to step outside / the ribs tonight” with you." - Olivia Cronk

"In the poem that bears the title of Kim Hyesoon’s remarkable book “Mommy Must be a Fountain of Feathers” (elegantly translated by Don Mee Choi), motherhood blooms outward until the private world of her children is transformed into a vast feathered incubator:
At mommy’s house, the floors are also mommy, the dust that floats around the rooms is also mommy, when you open the door of mommy’s house I’m under mommy’s feathers like an unhatched egg.
By blurring the lines between human and animal consciousness/ experience, Kim complicates the intimacy of the private, often domestic space of mothering by revealing how such spaces feed into a larger and often shockingly violent historical or social machinery.
By blurring the lines between human and animal consciousness/ experience, Kim complicates the intimacy of the private, often domestic space of mothering by revealing how such spaces feed into a larger and often shockingly violent historical or social machinery.
Yet the aperture of the poem opens exponentially wider to reveal the slightness of these societal conditions in the cosmic birth of all existence from within mother.
Beneath sleep there are stars that have not hatched yet Stars that call me desperately Below the stars, far below I, another mommy, have many cold stars in my embrace
From such assemblages of exquisitely disjunctive images and narrative swaths, shimmering shamanic, philosophical, surreal, magical, and at times brutally materialist portraits of a vast samsara sea inhabited by countless sentient beings in various forms of death and rebirth appear page after page.
While only some of the poems deal with explicit Buddhist themes (“Why Can’t We”), I find myself reaching for the specific tone and breadth of Buddhism to house Kim’s determination to challenge subject/object dichotomies, inhabit and speak from non-human forms of sentience, and continually return her readers to the underlying flux that results in our endless suffering. While less than 100 pages in its English translation, I found this a difficult book to review because I wanted to closely read nearly every poem, to open up the bristling variety of richly textured readings waiting within each one. The poem “A Hole,” for instance, is a complex aggregate of feminist, corporeal, existential, and comical elements, which collide to create an ambivalent reading of “the hole” as orifice, genitalia, suture, void, absence, epithet, and origin. The reader is taken around, through, and back out of the paradoxical space of the “hole” which shifts from absence to presence depending upon the always-changing position of the viewer. The “hole” “makes good steamed rice,” has “babies pop out of it” is indifferent, idiotic, open, frightened, made up, pleasurable, and
The hole intensifies when it stays in bed too long
In other words the hole becomes deeper and deeper
When I get up in the morning I see a mark on my pillow
from the tears of the hole
From transfigurations of dust mites into microscopic kittens and kitchens into infernos that conjures Ezra Pound’s Hell Cantos,” the poems within this volume return the reader again and again to the sometimes sublime but often brutal fact that we, like all animals, dwell within transient, vulnerable bodies.
I am my prison
I am my prisoner
My eyes are my prison’s guard posts
The pain that escapes my body
Is no longer pain
But I still want to step outside
The ribs tonight
These poems not only reveal how dynamic and vital Korean poetry is today, but the translation of this book into English has enriched English poetry as well, and will no doubt catalyze greater interest in contemporary Korean literature more broadly." - Jonathan Stalling

"I saw Don Mee Choi reading some of the poems of Kim Hyesoon’s she had translated for the Tinfish chapbook When the Plug Gets Unplugged (2005) a couple of years ago at a conference in Austin, and had an experience I don’t often have at poetry readings: I was genuinely disturbed, made viscerally nervous, as though one thing had been peeled back to reveal something else, something I didn’t necessarily want to see. That same feeling revisits me upon reading the collection of Kim’s work recently published by Action Books (and incorporating the poems in When the Plug), Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers. Kim’s surrealism is not a precious affectation or a sterile literary convention, but a way of conveying nightmarish states of existence through the most effective means available. In this case, those means include mass suicide, visions of nuclear annihilation, endless vomit, dismemberment, and an awful lot of squirming, cannibalistic rats.Before you run in the other direction, looking for something less, shall we say, negative, let me say that beauty is also a major part of its approach–beauty is inherent in both the smooth surface that is ruptured by the book’s violently repulsive images, and in the space of unsettledness opened up by that rupture. It is not a comfortable beauty, however, but a beauty, like Rilke’s, that threatens to be more than one can bear. From “Boiling,” which begins with an image of a cruise missile being launched:
The condor shoots straight up against the harsh air streams
slowly circles, then rapidly descends
and looks down distantly at the boiling water
Maybe someone has hidden a helicopter in the forest
From faraway the sound of the trees boiling
The thousands of electrical wires are pinned to the body’s interior
begin to emit electricity to the inside, inside
this is not just a feeling but an ultrasound, a hydro-current
my inside can get electrocuted when I place my hand in it
this time I begin to boil like an electric pot
this isn’t love but an electricity detector, a missile
If there is one theme that recurs even more insistently than rats in this book, it is the inside of the body. This interior turns inside out, is illuminated by various light sources, is figured as a mechanism of desire, pain, fertility, nourishment, expulsion. In “Seoul’s Dinner,” the city itself is an expression of this monstrous reversibility:
Seoul eats and shits through the same door. My body curls up like a worm. It seems that every few days a big hand descends from the sky to roll out cloud-like toilet paper and wipe the opening of Seoul, which is simultaneously a mouth and an anus.
The air of detachment with which Kim describes abomination and suffering is like an extenuated version of the detachment with which one realizes that one has suffered a terrible wound, when one registers the facts of trauma just before pain removes the capacity for such reflection. In a suspended holding pattern, the mind dreams and strays and analyzes relationships with others, as in “The Rat Race”:
Wherever I meet you, you are always on the run
from Scorpio to Libra
from Libra to Taurus
Not here, not here
From the potato sack to the rice sack
from the soap dish to the bottom of the desk
from Lukács to Deleuze
from the basement to the attic
from the wastewater plant to the cemetery
I hate all things that are shiny and black
You are always on the run
from the deep to the surface

Where are you really?
Am I the dream you dreamt inside my body?
Am I the dream you pulled up with chopsticks from the 39 degree Celsius fever?
Did we meet as we gnawed on a corpse and rolled around inside the grave?
Where, where was that place?
Not here, not here
This is the inside of somebody’s skull–
you can’t see out without the two black holes
As Choi explains in the Translator’s Introduction, Kim is one of the most radical innovators in Korean women’s poetry in recent decades, breaking as she does with a limited and limiting tradition in which poetry by women is “characterized by a language of passivity and contemplation” as “predefined by the literary establishment.” One can perhaps see sardonic nods to that language in the way that Kim’s traversing of predictably domestic images (potato sack, rice sack, soap dish) is disrupted by the mention of Lukács, Deleuze, and “the wastewater plant”: the familiar confines of home life and kitchen duty cannot keep out continental theory and industrial sanitation. Similarly, the discourse of erotic address (as defined by an interlinked “I” and “you” faced with a problem of distance and separation) gives way to a discourse of sickness, entombment, and necrophagy. And once again the inside of the body is an obsessive touchpoint, here given special emphasis as a place within which consciousness transpires–though in a defamiliarized context, “inside my body” rather than “inside my mind”–and from which vision emerges–though only paradoxically, from the “two black holes” of the skull rather than the eyes that should fill those holes.
Throughout the poems in Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers, intimacy (physical and emotional) is alternately reaffirmed and transgressed. In “Face,” the dynamics of “I” and “you” are subjected to further destabilizing, but in a way that suggests those categories are indispensable even as they are claustrophobic:
The you inside you is so strong that the I inside me is about to get dragged into your inside

Now you are drinking a glass of red wine, holding a piece of cheese in your hand

The I inside me thinks about the fact that the cheese is made of milk then worries about which cow inside the cow has spurted out the milk

Even if you are far away, another you inside you is here I can’t return or avoid the you inside you

Maybe I am the hostage of an absent being

I will certainly stay alive while the I inside me clutches onto me; furthermore, I want to deliver the cheese made of me inside me to your table every morning
I have no way of knowing how Choi’s translations compare to Kim’s originals, since I don’t know Korean. There is a sense of precision and intensity in these Englished poems, however, that makes me think Kim’s response to someone who asked how she felt about the translations was genuine and reliable: “It is like meeting someone like myself” (again, from the Translator’s Introduction). And in fact, much of the power of this work lies precisely in the eerie convincingness with which it appears to deliver to us a perfectly realized, specific self, even as that self is threatened, stretched, and torn by monolithic forces of alienation." - K. Silem Mohammad
Joel Scott reviews Kim Hyesoon and Don Mee Choi

Kim Hyesoon, When the Plug Gets Unplugged, Trans. by Don Mee Choi, Tin Fish Press, 2005.

from "Conservatism of the Rats of Seoul"

By morning all is quiet--he must have left
Mommy finally gets up and breathes
Mommy bits and kills each one of us
for giving off a suspicious scent from last night's terror
She kills us then eats our intestines,
grinds her teeth against a wall
then digs out our eyeballs to eat
then there is no one
As always, only Daddy and Mommy are left
it looks as if Mommy is expecting another litter.

Ruth Williams interviews Kim Hyesoon

Why Can’t We  By Kim Hyesoon

leave Buddha alone? We make Buddha ride an elephant like the way a village boy rides on a man’s shoulder, and we let Buddha run and play, then make him cry, and we make him couple blissfully with a buttery woman and call it Tantra, but then we make him smile by himself in emptiness, make him sit, lie down, make him be born from the waist, then teach him how to walk right away, and we question him when he lies down to sleep You said this and that didn’t you? and we braid his fingers, cut off his nose and swallow it down with water, then dress him in gold, but then we cut his throat and sell his head at a store in Insadong, and we lock him up inside a cave on top of a mountain, and as if that weren’t enough we keep him inside a rock, starve him, paint his skin gold so that he can’t even breathe, have him stand far away on top of a mountain and caress him slowly as we approach him by boat, and beneath his feet we beg him to beat us up. Why can’t we leave him alone? We build a house on a cliff overlooking a blue river and lock him up, and a bunch of us go together to gawk at him. We pummel him, crush him, and push him over, then we come home and write a letter of apology in blood from our pierced fingers, and we pull his teeth and divide them up into numerous pouches and give them out to the whole world, and why do we go near him and bow on our knees till they are raw and look once into his eyes then return home with our downcast faces?

Again, I Will Call You My Muse by Kim Hyesoon

Again, I will call you my muse
The life span of each muse varies, but they are always alive
Muses multiply by themselves, they even produce litters
I call out the names of my muses one by one

Empty-match-box muse. Chocolate-wrap muse. Already-read-newspaper muse. Toshiba-laptop muse. 2-kg-laundry-capacity-washing-machine muse. Cooked-rice-container-called-Elephant muse. There is no end to crumpling the foil muse and calling it affectionate names. One muse was friendly enough to come up to me wearing a name tag, even a family genealogy paper. Nature-made muse, man-made muse, muse that Mother packed for me when I married. Still that is not enough, so I buy new muses daily. Sometimes, when it is too expensive, I pay by the month. It was tiresome waiting for the muse to be delivered. Anyhow, there are life spans to the muses. Many muses died next to me regardless of whether I gave them a name or not. My autobiography buys new muses daily, and it can only note that it has abandoned the muses that have died nearly every day. The big muses are filled endlessly with little muses. Do dead muses also produce litters?

My house in which a rice-cooker muse nurtures a maggot muse in my absence
A muse lays a muse, lays, lays again
Must take the forked lane in order to enter the house full of muses
My house that becomes a heaven of muses when the street sweeper doesn’t come for ten days
My happy house in which my muses are left to fend for themselves—they glare at the opportunity to produce litters on the last day of the world

How about the collapsed-department-store muse? That place which became an embodiment of muses as soon as the store crumbled. At least a statue of a muse-goddess should be erected. The conversations of people crushed under the muses inside the collapsed store. A woman whose thigh is caught between metal rods on the 3rd floor of the basement endlessly pages her pager and calls home on her cell phone: “Hello, hello, I don’t think the phone is working….” I devote my life to washing, wiping, repairing, and ironing my muses. I discard the dead ones and take care of the live ones. I tidy them up, wash their faces, and hug them. I wonder if, someday, I might really become a muse myself, embraced by a muse. It is written on the back of the Choson- Daily muse, which arrived in the morning, that the entire world has proclaimed the wars and corpses of the muses. The muses that will become wild when I die, the whole house full of muses that will fiercely multiply even after they are dead. Despite all that, this afternoon, I engraved the following on the back of a one-eyed-computer muse:

When I moved, I abandoned
a blue-eyed-black-cat muse
because I heard that when a muse lives
with you for a long time it turns into a ghost
But after three days, my family saw
the black-cat muse fly up to the window
of our new house and cry all night long
The eyes of the cat muse gleamed ice-blue
intense enough to burn a hole through the glass
Even the new-fridge muse shook
with fear all night long

Princess Abandoned: essays (PDF)

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