The body is a sick place. Its reality is viscera. Kim Hyesoon’s poems are composed of these unsightly and unpleasant viscera. They squirm, blind and deaf like newborn puppies, then grow up and live in a dog-eat-dog world. This world is called Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream.
In Kim Hyesoon’s third collection of poems translated by Don Mee Choi, the South Korean poet examines the sick, grotesque body and its effects on a nation. Sickness begets sickness in Hyesoon’s poetry, but it is also a necessity. We need the disease in order to make the antidote.
I’m a soldier of goodbye
I’m a body that produced a dead infant
I’m a minus producing machine
If you get too close to me anyone turns into Minussoandso
I don’t know why my music only subtracts and doesn’t know how to add
I get carried away by music and disappear into the supersonic
In this country no one can choose the fall
Here people swarm all over to cure you
but I’ll live together with the fallen angel for the time being
(from “Morning Greetings”)
Here, the body is a “minus producing machine,” a contagious body that produces a dead infant. In this poem, the insistent “I’m a” turns into a reluctant “I don’t know” and eventually gets “carried away…” Poetic urgency speaks until it gets swallowed by a swarm of people; the poet is resigned to live “with the fallen angel for the time being.”
Death, like pollution, is a reality we cannot escape. Death’s nebulous glow permeates our body’s house. It floods our insides until our orifices ooze with disgust and cruelty towards each other. Is this a trap of our own making? We stew in our own hot mess. Yet, we want to escape, a feeling that is echoed in “Saturn’s Sleeping Pill” when she writes: “What do you want to be when you die? I’m going to be something that has no borders.” And in “A Cup of Water”: “Why do people have that look in their eyes like they want to leave their body?” I think I have the same look in my eyes when I read Hyesoon’s work.
In Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, the body is inextricably linked to the commercial world—the body exists inside the world in as much as the world exists inside the body. Capitalism morphs our perception of our body like a funhouse mirror. We cannot escape one without the leaving the other. In these poems, the micro and macro and the past and the future continuously merge into and out of each other, creating a lurid, surreal landscape: “Are we of the Korean race anxious to escape the belly button? / Are we of the Korean race anxious to escape the belly button?” She asks in “Pensive Bodhisattva Touching His Belly Button.”
The emergence of the micro and macro within a single entity can read flat when translated into another language, but Choi sustains Hyesoon’s intensity throughout the collection. Part of this is also Hyesoon’s belief in working within extreme states of mind. In an untitled text printed in the book’s Appendix, she writes: “For me the vast open field of the unknown and the prison existed simultaneously.” Freedom is the same as imprisonment. She elaborates further on this idea in an interview with Shin Hyông-ch’ôl:
I am colored by the poetic state like some kind of bodily sign. As if I’m about to cry, as if my laughter is about to explode in giggles, I need to overlap with a blank paper-thin girl. And while I write, the girl becomes a witch or grandmother, but first I need to be in that state. I call it “the state of something yet nothing.”
But Don Mee Choi must also be credited for her brilliant translations of Hyesoon’s work. In each poem, Choi establishes a commanding cadence that is particular to the tone of each poem. Often words and phrases are repeated, not to lull the mind but to keep it alive, like carefully administered electroshocks.
Long ago, all the things I ever wanted were inside a display case.
Maybe that’s why I became afraid of everything kept behind the glass.
My lovers asked, Are you afraid of this wine? Why are you afraid? Are you afraid
of that bread? Why are you afraid? Are you afraid of the people behind the glass
window? Why are you afraid?
It’s pouring. 10 tons of glass beads fall every hour on the asphalt pavement.
Our past and our future are all inside the transparent beads.
In the above poem, “Glass Cage,” the repetition of the words “glass” and “afraid” mimic the urgent fear and anxiety produced by capitalist society. Emotions become one with tactile objects, thus imbuing them with a sense of domestic terror: “My comb called mirror and mirror called light and light called me / Locked inside my sad eyes locked inside the mirror locked inside the room, I put on / mirrorcream and get slowly erased.” Hide behind the product. Become the product.
In Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, sickness is the way the body detaches itself from the capitalist world. One of Hyesoon’s and Choi’s trademarks is combining words and phrases into a single word or connecting them with hyphens. In many ways, I read these word inventions as signs of illness. Illness that is out to destroy the capitalist body as a means of giving birth to a new one. In “Cloud’s Nostalgia”:
White-hair-cloud encircles god’s neck
Hook-cloud hooks my neck’s artery onto a cloud
Lens-cloud opens the lid of my house and peers into it
And in “Really Really”:
My house—the words that I understood when we lived together
but can’t understand after I’m dead, really really
In my next life how would we, we mommydaddyolderbrotheryoungersister recognize each
These clustered words and phrases contribute to the claustrophobic and monstrous nature of these poems.
Like the long-form poem “Manhole Humanity” in her previous book, All the Garbage of the World, Unite!, Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream also concludes with an epic 18-page poem titled “I’m OK, I’m Pig!” In this final poem, which reads like both a play and a manifesto, Hyesoon considers the 2010-2011 foot-and-mouth outbreak in South Korea, which resulted in millions of pigs and cows being put to death, alongside the country’s own dark history of torture:
We return as pigs
We snap back onto the pig magnet that eats and shits
Don’t say that I pinned a flower in my hair
lay down on my icy death bed
inserted oxygen tubes and buzzed-buzzed frigidly cold
We return as hot pigs
We return for our final act
The act in which our fingers rot even before we lie down in our coffins
(from “Marilyn Monroe” in “I’m OK! I’m Pig!”)
Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream may end on this bleak note, but there is something liberating about reading poetry this unapologetically vile and disturbed. Hyesoon’s fearless poetics suggests a grossly visceral alternative to the capitalist world. These poems conjure both feelings of desire and disgust, awe and repulsion. I want to read more. I need it. Please stop. Don’t stop. You make me sick.
Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon (Translated by Don Mee Choi) is available from Action Books.
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Thanks for this great article and introduction to the work of Kim Hyesoon.
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