All the Garbage of the World, Unite!
Action Books recently released a new collection of work by South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi. Titled All the Garbage of the World, Unite! the collection is indeed a cry for us to struggle against—while also dwelling and finding glory in—the minor corridors, abjected detritus, and mundanely overlooked interstices of life. In Kim’s vigorous hands, these spaces are ferocious, strange and gaspingly alive.
I turned to this collection with a highly motivated curiosity. I wanted to see what a contemporary Korean female poet might be interested in, with the assumption that race and immigration—key preoccupations in a lot of contemporary diasporic Korean writing—would not be of central concern for a native author. Perhaps I hoped to see a version of what someone a bit like me might have become had my parents never immigrated. As gratifying as it is to see numerous Korean American poets getting published (Myung Mi Kim, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Lee Herrick, Ishle Park, Cathy Park Hong, Sunyoung Shin, Ed Bok Lee, to name a few) I’ve found that many Korean American writers working today, myself included, have been primarily interested in wrestling with the psychological fallout of inheriting a cultural legacy structured by the Korean War, displacement, and racialization processes at work upon us here in the colonial center. There are exceptions—Brian Kim Stefans, for example, has never written explicitly about such themes. However, regardless of our aesthetic inclinations, I have noticed that Korean American literature generally has been caught in a particular refrain, one in which these wounds are worked over and over. This isn’t to denigrate the writing—if we are trapped in a refrain, it is clearly because we still need to work this out—but I wanted to see what possibilities looked like outside of this structure of being. And though there have been some anthologies of translated Korean poetry, there are few translations devoted to a single author’s work—at the moment, I can only think of Ko Un and a small collection of Yi Sang’s work. The fact that this is the second collection of Kim’s poetry that Choi has translated into English makes Kim’s contribution to US-based audience’s understandings of contemporary Korean writing particularly weighty.
The war is old news in Korea, and the country’s division is simply the uncomfortable mundane reality they must live with. Kim’s poetry is more interested in exploring the psycho-spiritual consequences of daily life when one is madly sensitized to the commotion of Being that surrounds and permeates us. For Kim, simply eating a bowl of strawberries transforms into a drama of suddenly intimate encounters:
A full plate of tongues arrived.
They quivered like the tongues of the choir members
as they sang the hymns.
Your tongue is placed on top of my tongue.
Our tongues are getting goose bumps.
A running motif in Kim’s poetry is how an unconventional observation quickly transforms into a physical confrontation—the strawberries rub against her, call to her, enter and writhe through her. This is hardly happenstance, and in fact reflects Kim’s resolutely feminist politics: the body is a central agent of the imagination and site of productive, if not always reproductive, mystery.
However, western feminists may have some difficulty making sense of how Kim continually concedes to these violent intrusions. In her poems, though she often complains about these forces and how they work upon her, Kim barely fights them or escapes. For example, in “The Cold,” Kim writes how the act of being gazed upon entraps her in a cold, two-dimensional realm.
We gazed at each other from a different world
It was as though I were in a black and white photo that you were looking at
It is always cold inside your photo
The cough-trees stood coughing along with the river
There was an avalanche inside my heart, so I trembled for over an hour
As the cough-trees quivered and shook off clumps of snow
the shards of ice bounced out of the exposed valley
I sat on the frozen bench of the wind against my bare face, my lips shivering
I wanted to get of of the photo that you are looking at
I was initially tempted to read Kim’s concessions to these encounters as modeling a violently egalitarian vision of being, one that puts Kim on level with and in communion with the psychic milieu around her. However, I think that such a reading could impose a westernized framework for a recognizably radical feminist response upon her poetry. Furthermore, Kim herself is clearly not comfortable with having to live in these spaces. The poem ends with her stating that she “wanted to get out.” Most Korean American literature might be caught in a refrain, but I see a different refrain at work in Kim’s writing—despite her upset and suffering due to the violence around her, she persistently concedes to it. Her poetry seems bent towards describing a psycho-environmental violence that she internalizes and must live with.
When I wrote earlier that the war is old news for Koreans, I don’t mean to suggest that it is buried or inconsequential. I had to ask myself why Kim’s world appeared so unsettled and strange. For example, in her poem “A Breezy Prison Breezes” commuting by train transforms into a prison;
Just because there is a window, a wind is blowing, and starlight is leaking
I don’t know I’m in prison
After work when I lie down in my sleeping prison
all the prisoners outside of the outside of the prisons run to me
and tie up my body with the redred blood-paths
10-hour-long 10 year-long 100 year-long prison
The easy answer would be to suggest that something about South Korea’s rapid industrialization and digitalization (South Korea has the highest internet speeds in the world and is one of the most wired cultures, globally) has led to isolating and dehumanizing social structures that Kim is especially attuned to. However, her insistence on a particularly physical (read: quasi-organic) experience of this monstrous world belies any simplistic argument for postmodern alienation. Kim also doesn’t write about these experiences as reductively destructive—rather, they are the unsteady space in which she ardently survives. This attitude struck me as a necessary response to the fallout of the radical transformations Korea has undergone in only the past century. The fact that Korea went from Hermit Kingdom to annexed, occupied territory, to active battleground and divided nation without completely being torn apart is astounding. Where the war for Korean Americans is often a lost point of origin in our self understanding, I venture to say that for Kim, the war is one of many traumas that has been swallowed up by the terrain and shudders with deep psychological reverberations that she captures in her work. Her radical feminism therefore emerges in her insistent wholeness—her continuity with this space as experienced through her body. Readers not so familiar with Korea’s history will certainly still recognize these reverberations in pieces like “Tearfarming,” which describes an ice princess caught in an endless cycle of suffering:
As I heard the ice princess for the first time beneath the snow-covered mountain, my mind hazed over. Even if I live for a thousand years, her wretched scream will linger in my heart. After I met her restless and painful expression, even in my waking hours, I stared at the ice princess with the icy tears streaming out of her eyes. I’m becoming so thirsty that I could drink a thousand, ten thousand buckets of ice princess’ tears.
To suggest acceptance as a radical response might seem strange, but that stance depends on one’s cultural framework. The more I sat with All the Garbage of the World, Unite!, the more I felt that there was a deep han in her writing: han, that ineffably Korean cultural trait that is perhaps best described as a Job-ish long-suffering that drowns one in bitterness, anger, and melancholy that condense together into a red glory beyond tears. The closest analogue I could come to in a western context is Spinoza’s sense of “sad passions,” but they are still radically different from each other: han doesn’t act to stupefy or disempower—it’s an intensely physical/spiritual response to being disempowered. I saw han most clearly in Kim’s poem, “To Swallow a Tornado,” which begins
Have you ever swallowed a tornado?
A tornado is supposed to be swallowed through your backbone
My body flips over
my hair becomes as stiff as frozen laundry
and I feel goose bumps down my backbone
With han, one can only open oneself to suffering, take it all in, swallow it down.
Am I wind’s home
or a tornado’s ghost?
When the wind’s path that is as cold as a snake
rises up from the deep place
my arms and legs flutter like the bamboo leaves on the day a typhoon arrives
and when my tears splattersplatter everywhere
a sad song comes up like a whirlwind from the inside of my body
Someone please come and hold my bow-like body
that keeps getting bent back
In the wake of han, the self takes on a new locus for its identity; Kim wonders if she has become “wind’s home.” The body transforms into a hollow that this tornado of emotion works through, registering only its effects and never its origins. Tellingly, there is no possibility of not swallowing a tornado or escaping it. It’s as neat as fate, and one must accept it if one is to survive. All Kim requests is for someone to hold her together while she is bent awry.
As dire and destructive as han may seem from the outside, it is a way of being, which I felt that Kim aptly demonstrated in her final poem, “Manhole Humanity.” In this long poem in series, the hole is offered up as at once a vacuity and fullness, fetid and clinically serene. The hole is as vehemently physical (“My hair holes! / Creases of my stomach / hair-like cilia in my nostrils”) as it is abstracted.
Hole, the heart of all things.
Hole, my country, my matter, my toasty-warm god.
Hole, stay eternal! All things endure a life of nuisance through small uteruses then die for the sake of the eternal life of a big uterus. Dear queen ant’s many uteruses packed inside that high mountain: my eating and breathing has to do with my worship of the hole. This is my lifelong commemorative hole rite.
Kim invites us to recognize our hole-yness, the vast melange that fills and evacuates us, consumes and is consumed by our being. The hole is Kim’s invitation to us to enter into a new mode of han, one in which we dance.
Dance is the sadness called upon by the music of my hole.
Dance is the cry that is called upon by the music rising up through my hole.
I dance like a pair of starved pink shoes that show up after midnight in the street.
I have come out of the hole, but my body is wearing a hole, the hole endlessly proliferates!
Garbage of the world, unite, indeed.
A final element of Kim’s work that I found of great interest was how various spiritual/religious structures came together. South Korea has been an intensely fertile ground for Christian missionaries and more neon crosses line Seoul’s skyscape than mosque turrets in Istanbul. Kim offers up a unique response to her religious tableau: though there are minor Christian references, her poetry generally conjures up a zen carnivalesque. One moment in “Manhole Humanity,” rewrites the biblical Fall and offers instead a vision of a buddhist-like empty fullness, tinged with Kim’s unique vigor.
One side of the apple bursts and gets sucked through the lips of the naked first woman. The original woman’s yellow teeth and smelly tongue begin to grind the apple into small bits. Cold wind, suns, apple blossoms, the gentle strokes of rain on my cheeks all get sucked into a wormhole. The apple doesn’t know where it’s going, but it follows the general theory of relativity and gets swept down a funnel. A legend spreads, that time-travel becomes possible if you go through the funnel. A legend spreads, that if you leave here and arrive in the distant past and kill the lethal snake, I will get to stay in the vast spaciousness, the time of being unborn. In order to digest this hole, an adequate amount of yin mass is needed. Digestive juices are quickly produced inside the hole.
Empty my hole. Amylase enzyme. Vesta digestive aid. The hole secretes digestive juices and mixes them with whatever it sends down. After it ingests the apple, the pitiful hole gulps for more towards the emptiness. It flails about like a snail that has fallen into the sea.
Being nearly illiterate in Korean and a barely-perfunctory speaker of the language, I cannot intelligently address how well Choi’s translation captured Kim’s work, but I was struck by some of Choi’s choices, such as the doubling of certain words—″limplimp” and “splattersplatter”—in mapping a few Korean language tics onto the English language. While initially this doubling was terrifically “noisy” to my eyes, across the work it transformed into a visual means for emphasizing the physical insistence in Kim’s poetry. The only piece in which I felt some working knowledge of Korean might have been helpful was the poem “Double-p How Creepy,” in which the double-p Kim refers to is the appearance of two Korean letters side by side. Without some familiarity of these letters, ᄈ, Kim’s invitation to “squeeze hard and have some honey, a gift from pappa, when I opened the lid of the beehive the wigglewiggling larvae filled each hexagonal cell” loses its visually metaphoric resonance. However, Choi attempts to navigate this divide in translation with phrases like “I even hate soappy laundry because I hate pp.” The extra “p” in soapy stands in for the fact that English readers would never know that “laundry” in Korean contains a double-p. Though the original wordplay is effaced, a new one emerges instead. I did notice that Choi elected the phrase as the primary unit of measure for line breaks. With Choi’s consistently minimal use of punctuation, however, this strategy sometimes broke down when she attempted more fluidity across lines:
You first, my first, firsts that part forever.
I approached you as if
I were meeting you tonight for the first time
and had lost my first.
My impression is that Choi privileged clarity of images and emotions over any rhythmic soundplay in Kim’s work, and given the differences between the two languages, I was impressed by Choi’s phrasing, which I found to be quite earthy and direct.
Though there are incredible transformations in Kim’s poetry, I found it to be nothing like the neo-American-surrealism that is so popular among mainstream-ing contemporary work. And whether we are attuned to it or not, there are terrifically resonant historical sub-terrains in this mode of writing. There are genuine, deeply dire consequences to the transactions Kim describes in her engagements with the world. She is not trying to be trendy—she is trying to live.