Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers
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.