A Poetics of Transformations: Mommy Must be a Fountain of Feathers by Kim Hyesoon

  • onNovember 8, 2014
  • Vol.4 Summer 2009
  • byJonathan Stalling
Mommy Must be a Fountain of Feathers
Tr. Don Mee Choi

In the poem that bears the title of Kim Hyesoon’s remarkable book “Mommy Must be a Fountain of Feathers” (elegantly translated by Don Mee Choi), motherhood blooms outward until the private world of her children is transformed into a vast feathered incubator:

At mommy’s house, the floors are also mommy, the dust that floats around the rooms is also mommy, when you open the door of mommy’s house I’m under mommy’s feathers like an unhatched egg.

By blurring the lines between human and animal consciousness/experience, Kim complicates the intimacy of the private, often domestic space of mothering by revealing how such spaces feed into a larger and often shockingly violent historical or social machinery.

Uncle who lives next door and checks the sex of the chicks killed all the males and sent them to a food stall where roasted sparrows are sold
All the female chicks were sent to a boarding house
He says the females chicks will be raised to be eaten later.

Yet the aperture of the poem opens exponentially wider to reveal the slightness of these societal conditions in the cosmic birth of all existence from within mother.

Beneath sleep there are stars that have not hatched yet
Stars that call me desperately
Below the stars, far below
I, another mommy, have many cold stars in my embrace

From such assemblages of exquisitely disjuctive images and narrative swaths, shimmering shamanic, philosophical, surreal, magical, and at times brutally materialist portraits of a vast samsara sea inhabited by countless sentient beings in various forms of death and rebirth appear page after page. While only some of the poems deal with explicit Buddhist themes ("Why Can't We"), I find myself reaching for the specific tone and breadth of Buddhism to house Kim's determination to challenge subject/object dichotomies, inhabit and speak from non-human forms of sentience, and continually return her readers to the underlying flux that results in our endless suffering.

While less than 100 pages in its English translation, I found this a difficult book to review because I wanted to closely read nearly every poem, to open up the bristling variety of richly textured readings waiting within each one. The poem “A Hole,” for instance, is a complex aggregate of feminist, corporeal, existential, and comical elements, which collide to create an ambivalent reading of “the hole” as orifice, genitalia, suture, void, absence, epithet, and origin. The reader is taken around, through, and back out of the paradoxical space of the “hole” which shifts from absence to presence depending upon the always-changing position of the viewer. The “hole” “makes good steamed rice,” has “babies pop out of it” is indifferent, idiotic, open, frightened, made up, pleasurable, and

The hole intensifies when it stays in bed too long
In other words the hole becomes deeper and deeper
When I get up in the morning I see a mark on my pillow
from the tears of the hole

From transfigurations of dust mites into microscopic kittens and kitchens into infernos that conjures Ezra Pound’s Hell Cantos,” the poems within this volume return the reader again and again to the sometimes sublime but often brutal fact that we, like all animals, dwell within transient, vulnerable bodies.

I am my prison
I am my prisoner
My eyes are my prison’s guard posts
The pain that escapes my body
Is no longer pain
But I still want to step outside
The ribs tonight

These poems not only reveal how dynamic and vital Korean poetry is today, but the translation of this book into English has enriched English poetry as well, and will no doubt catalyze greater interest in contemporary Korean literature more broadly. 



Mommy Must be a Fountain of Feathers is a selected collection of poems from eight books published from 1981 to 2004.
1. From Another Star (Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd., 1981)
2. To the Calendar Factory Manager (2000)
3. A Poor Love Machine (1997)
4. Your First (2008)
5. A Glass of Red Mirror (2004)
6. My Upanishad, Seoul (1994)



* Jonathan Stalling is assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma and an assistant editor of World Literature Today.

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).