Friday, May 10, 2013

THREE BOOKS by KIM HYESOON, Trans. by Don Mee Choi


Kim Hyesoon’s books, all translated by Don Mee Choi:

All the Garbage of the World Unite
(Action Books, Notre Dame, IN, 2011)

Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers
(Action Books, Notre Dame, IN, 2008)

Princess Abandoned
(TinFish Press, Hawai'i, 2012)

They are rummaging through the corpses. Those who ignite and hold the tortchlights. Outside our sleep, the roads are wet from the rain, and they tear off our nametags… Eyeglasses pile up with eyeglasses…Babies with babies who are thrown out into the future far, far, away…[1]

Kim Hyesoon (in the Asian tradition, “Kim” is her family name) is an extraordinary Korean poet blessed with an equally extraordinary translator in the Korean-American poet Don Mee Choi.

A poet of astonishing power, Kim does not turn her gaze from things most of us try desperately not to look at, from the realities of political oppression to the realities of the body: Our skin melts, so anyone can look into anyone’s intestines. Toilets also overflow in dreams… Now, I throw salt at you — what little is left of you — inside my heart.[2] She writes powerfully as a woman from a place of female powerlessness. This cosmopolitan writer, who so easily invokes western philosophy and global tragedies, is deeply influenced by Buddhism and shamanism. There are a number of online reviews of and homages to her work, which is rich enough that no two people seem to see the same Kim Hyesoon. What I want to draw your attention to here is Kim writing as a woman in a nation with a long Confucian history of prescribed women’s roles, a nation with deep Buddhist and shamanistic roots.

“Not every Asian country is steeped in Buddhist tradition. I was rather raised in a Christian environment. I think Buddhism is more than a religion, it is first a process of discipline, and Buddha is one who has gained wisdom rather than being a god. In my poetry, I enjoy making fun of Buddha.” This is Kim Hyesoon, in an interview that appeared in conjunction with the Poetry Parnassus festival in London, a month before the 2012 Olympics.

She does not claim Buddhism, but her poems are saturated with Buddhist references: bodhisattvas, asuras, bits and pieces of Buddhist folk tales and, of course, the Buddha himself. These are not superficial references. As Jonathan Stalling says in his online review of her work in the journal LIST, her poems create “portraits of a vast samsara sea inhabited by countless sentient beings in various forms of death and rebirth [which] appear page after page.”

In the Koryo period, and through the first hundred years or so of the Choson, upperclass women had a literary presence. But as Confucianism took hold, from around the middle of the 16th century, women were actively discouraged from learning Chinese, the language of Korean literature, and their poetry, if written down (much of it was oral), was written in hangul and only circulated privately — women were effectively kept out of the literary tradition.

In the early 20th century, when women began again to have a public poetic presence, they were shunted into a passive, “feminine” voice. Kim, born in 1955, was a leading figure in smashing through that voice, reinventing language in order to speak from a woman’s lived experience, including the realities of birth and menstruation. But this description is inadequate to Kim’s project. Her reinvention of language is not in the service of any political or social agenda. To quote from the Parnassus interview again:Poetry is language but it also lies outside the realm of language. Poetry is written in the mother tongue and yet it transcends the mother tongue.”

This transcendence is not the transcendence of the western saint, eyes rolled up to heaven, communing with God. It is the earthy transcendence of the shaman, transcending the human by inhabiting (or, more accurately, being inhabited by) the worlds of animals, ghosts, gods, demons, and the dead.

Most Korean shamans are women. They are understood to be performers, learning elaborate dances, rituals, and drum patterns. But the efficacy of their performances rests on having undergone a lengthy period of physical illness and mental torment that no-one would plan or wish for. Shamans are considered low-class, but their services were (and to some extent still are) considered necessary. Shamanism is the oldest religion in Korea by far, and this helps to explain the relatively strong emphasis in Korean Buddhism on magic and the supernatural.

In her remarkable short book of linked essays Princess Abandoned, Kim links the woman shaman and the woman poet: “… the books of such poetry are the records of the process of pulling out life from death… like the way the boundary between life and death is mashed inside the performance-space [of the shaman]… she [the poet] begins to realize that she stands at the center of death rather than at the center of life and that she cannot maintain her life if she does not embrace death…”

Kim’s poetry embodies this process, perhaps most starkly in her remarkable long poem Manhole Humanity, the word “hole” evoking the emptiness of Buddhism, the holes of the body, and, as the translator notes, the physical situation of a bombed out Korea after the Korean war, as the poem lurches from dream to doctor’s office to a child in a subway station to an IC ward to wherever Kim is looking/remembering/attending to.

“I” is a name for a place of confinement in my body!
“I” is a name for all the things that don’t appear outside the body’s hole![3]

And, two stanzas earlier, the shamanistic Today’s dish — put several roots of hatred, add my mashed hole, and mix in shadow powder. Then boil the mixture down.[4]

In some sense that last sentence encapsulates Kim’s project: embracing everything and boiling the mixture completely and entirely down.

[1] from The Saints — Mr. and Mrs. Janitor in Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers
[2] from When the Plug Gets Unplugged in Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers.
[3] from Manhole Humanity, in All the Garbage of the World Unite!
[4] from Manhole Humanity, in All the Garbage of the World Unite!


Judith Roitman lives in Lawrence Kansas. Her books include No Face (First Intensity Press) and the chapbook Slackline (Hank's Original Loose Gravel Press). Her poetry has appeared in various journals.

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