Holey holey holey : reading Kim Hyesoon
In the “Translator’s Note” for Korean poet Kim Hyesoon’s book All the Garbage of the World, Unite!, Don Mee Choi says that she responded to a condescending request from a US literary journal to “change the word ‘hole’ because it has negative connotations”. She wrote:
“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.”
Don Mee Choi is a Seattle-based Korean poet who translates contemporary Korean women poets into English. This month she was awarded the 2012 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize by the American Literary Translation Association for her translation of All the Garbage of the World Unite! Her own collection of poems The Morning News is Exciting was published by Action Books in 2010. In the preface to Kim Hyesoon’s Tinfish chapbook, Princess Abandoned, Don Mee says “Kim writes in the context of Korea’s highly patriarchal society… Kim is severing women’s writing from the written tradition of both men and women that has been regulated by men.” In part, this written tradition is a shaman narrative that’s considered inferior and is usually prescribed to a lower class and to women. Don Mee says “shamans are outsiders, the lowest of the low.”
In Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Ruth Williams gives a further context for Korean poetry: “In South Korea male poets are simply referred to as siin (poet), while women poets are called yŏryu siin (female poet). As yŏryu siin, women poets are expected to write sentimental, ‘pretty’ poetry that conforms to Korean poetic traditions as well as gender norms of femininity.”
Kim Hyesoon’s poetry and essays radically challenge and transgress that passive tradition and they uproot the glowing future envisaged by Korean nationalism. Kim was one of the first women in South Korea to be published in a literary journal – in 1979 in Munhak kwa jisong (Literature and Intellect). When she first began publishing her work she was excluded from Korean male poets’ groups and, together with other contemporaries, her early critical work was often censored by the oppressive Korean military rulers in the 1980s. Refusing marginalisation she continued writing, publishing and teaching and is now a professor at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.
Her poems are not ironic. They are direct, deliberately grotesque, theatrical, unsettling, excessive, visceral and somatic. This is feminist surrealism loaded with shifting, playful linguistics that both defile and defy traditional roles for women. There are seventy extraordinary poems in the All the Garbage of the World, Unite!, but I want to draw attention to the lengthy final poem “Manhole Humanity”, with its stanzas separated by a hole, made with a capital ‘O':
Goodness, I didn’t know there were such repulsive holes!
My hairy holes!
Creases of my stomach
Hair-like cilia in my nostrils
Finger-like villi in my small intestine
Pubic hair of love
Hair sprouts up inside the holes and ripples like water plants.
Holes are neatneatly piled inside a steaming stomach.
The wet and most poisonous snakes in the world pant.
Fill us up! Fill us up with the outside!
When hair whines like the fingers that reach out towards the refugee aid
bread truck someone picks up a brass instrument and wails at the sky
praising the blueness.
Holes of the world, open up your lids and howl!
Removing the lid from “Manhole Humanity” reveals a fermenting churn of muck amassed down in the hole – sewage, rats, disease, gas, poison, steam, vomit, all kinds of filthy gunk and fluids. It’s “all the garbage of the world”.
Holes are transformative agents here. Many of the poem’s scenes take place in a hospital where holes ooze seepage like serum generating from bodily decay and wounds. The pages spill and spew the stupendous labour of birth, dismal illness, rashes and repair, drug resistant blood viruses, and death.
Try relaxing your legs and raising your hands above your head
to attain the posture of rising steam.
Imagine that all the holes of your body are opening
Think of your solid body changing into a liquid body and then to a gas body.
Unwind the additions, multiplications of your holes.
Try and picture your body whirling down the drain.
Then imagine the blue sky sitting on the holes, relieving itself!
My legs and arms dangle all over from the big drainpipe
and a heavy manhole lid is on top of my neck!
Rodents feature prominently in much of Kim Hyesoon’s poetry. Here they are in one of their many creepy appearances in “Manhole Humanity”:
At one point a rumor spread that, if you can digest all the rats living in the hole, you could reach nirvana and wouldn’t ever have to be born again.
An afternoon of a woman already pregnant with the next life waddlewaddling by. Packs of rats are bartering me in my hole. I hear a chorus of rapid breathing.
Kim relegates the first person to functional roles. It is useful as a way to confine the body’s holey proliferation, to efficiently classify external matter and as a standard polite means of address. She shifts the “I” away from its conventional use, from the personal to the impersonal:
“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!
“I” is a name for the lady and gentleman who don’t recognize the person
who lives in the body!
But is my hole sick? Is the mask of the hole sick? …
The poem is powerful and confronting. It is also a very distinctive type of feminist writing. It is singularly different from women’s poetry written across and into patriarchal official verse culture in English-language countries like Australia (and UK, US, Canada etc). With an inventive extension of the personal and a unique choreographic writing style, Kim Hyesoon’s turbulent poetry embroils the body and its howling holes with traditional gender roles and mores in order to force a subversion of their particular political bearing in Korean culture and history.
In Australia, there are many ceremonies in memory of the country’s various wars but the Korean war is not given prominence. Like the later devastating war in Vietnam, it was waged by the United States in a willing alliance with Australia and New Zealand. As Don Mee Choi reminded the North American editor, the US deployed incendiary bombs and napalm to destroy thousands of hectares of North Korea along the border with China in an attempt to contain communism. The late experimental film-maker Chris Marker once remarked “History throws its empty bottles out the window”. Kim Hyesoon says “Hole is the time-bomb you have thrown”.
Ruth Williams (University of Cincinnati) published an excellent interview with Kim Hyesoon in the January issue of ‘Guernica’ magazine.
Don Mee Choi is in conversation with H.L. Hix on the blog ‘The Conversant’
Action Books, publisher of All the Garbage of the World Unite!