Nature Morte No 10: Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon

  • onMarch 28, 2017
  • Vol.35 Spring 2017
  • byAnne Portugal
Dentifricetristesse crèmemiroir (Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream)
Tr. Koo Moduk and Claude Murcia

The world is oppressive, our environment threatening, the ground muddy. We inevitably become bogged down, buttocks-deep, skull-deep, mired in nausea. Objects and living beings are indistinguishable: everything is porous, conjoined. A crude, viscous matter spreads, clouding our vision, clogging our lungs, precluding any respite. We hear the murderous echo of Korea’s dictatorial regime, which resounded again in 2011 when thousands of pigs infected with foot-and-mouth disease were exterminated en masse. Kim Hyesoon’s collection of poems sets out line by line, via a process of mathematical accumulation and addition, the zero-sum game of the organized disappearance of living beings.

The pivotal word here is “distract,” as the poet herself makes clear: “I like the word ‘distract’ very much.” This can be interpreted in terms of the interlinked aims of the author’s two-pronged style. First, we may detect a kind of sidetracked attention, a dissipated desire to read the world while gleaning only snippets and scraps. “Are you distracted? I’m distracted.” After all, the “I” of these poems is the subject of a fundamental split, a division into pieces. And if the individual is broken up within the larger whole, “does that make connection impossible?” Pointless, then, to reveal the source of this anxiety and terror: better to describe its effects. An elegant lesson in poetry, telling any reader who “asks me to offer up a reality” or a reproduction of the everyday to abandon their expectations of coherence right away: “Dear Rabbit! Please leave reality on this paper.”

Or we can recall the etymological meaning of the word, dis-tract, draw apart, extract oneself from. “In the morning I want to separate myself from everything”: a concise summary of the process at work here. The individual has been shattered into pieces ever since a major conflict that has defined much of history, while paradoxically the living being attempts to piece everything back together again by any means possible, grabbing and snatching with a mad, whirling energy. Each sliver of life is swallowed up into this seething mass: a continuous solution exists between the flesh, “the knife fingers,” and un-obliging objects, between bodies and elements of the cosmos, which offer no way out. “One day my nervous system will become tangled like a snarl of fishing line,” between a “sewer father,” a “jug mother,” and “the little brats,” between the living and the dead, between men with “butterfly eyes” and animals, until the poet becomes a pig—and more bizarrely still, one that goes “tweet twee.” In the final poem, “I’m OK, I’m Pig!” a crucial and emphatic moment, we see the author’s determined affirmation that, in an almost Christ-like sacrifice, she will remain on the side of the animal. This long, disjointed final poem filled with scathing humor could easily have been laugh-out-loud comical, except that what we hear is the piercing squeal of decisiveness and clarity.

This pervasive osmotic process rarely takes the form of comparison, with Kim preferring the complicit lexical contamination of one word by another, subjecting them all to the same sticky fate (hence the explicit title sorrowtoothpaste mirrorcream), a machine for producing monstrous alien offspring. The syntax, too, gets caught up (“womenwithhitched upskirtsrushintotheattic”) in the assembly line of childbirth, of the wretched egg-laying, of the cutting edges of the material world—“knives, axes, hammers, and diggers” of death inflicted by life: “a rat is eaten gently by a cat a cat by a cat hunter a daughter by a mother a mother by a grandmother.”

So there is a pressing need to dissociate as much as to piece together, to trace the terminal stages of a resonance line that results in diffraction more than hierarchy. The poet imbues every line with the flavor of separation, creating poems which do not rhyme, laugh, or sing, their “commas fallen to the ground,” but instead struggle on, assuming the role of concerned witness, describing processes of burial and evisceration. We may find our own place in this demented world after all, but it must be one free of illusion. Kim Hyesoon has chosen hers: the certain squalor of the pig in the sty. “Do not say that we have lived in a world as clean as a screen.” Poetry may not be able to save us from anything, but it can confront and add color to the underside of the farce. 


by Anne Portugal

Author's Profile

Kim Hyesoon(b. 1955) is one of the most prominent and influential contemporary poets of South Korea. She was the first woman poet to receive the prestigious Kim Su-yong and Midang Awards, and her works have been translated into English, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Swedish. Her translated English works include: When the Plug Gets Unplugged (Tinfish, 2005), Anxiety of Words (Zephyr, 2006), Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers (Action Books, 2008), All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (Action Books, 2011), Princess Abandoned (Tinfish, 2012), Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream (Action Books, 2014), I’m OK, I’m Pig! (Bloodaxe Books, 2014), Trilingual Rensi (Vagabond Press, 2015), Poor Love Machine (Action Books, 2016), Autobiography of Death (New Directions, 2018), and A Drink of Red Mirror (Action Books, 2019). Kim lives in Seoul and teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. Kim, along with her long-time translator, Don Mee Choi, recently received the International Griffin Poetry Prize, Canada’s most prestigious poetry award, for Autobiography of Death (New Directions, 2019).