Unleashing Her Tongue: Poor Love Machine by Kim Hyesoon

  • onAugust 2, 2016
  • Vol.32 Summer 2016
  • byNeil Astley
Poor Love Machine
Tr. Don Mee Choi

This first full English translation of a landmark collection published nearly twenty years ago takes us back to a turning point in Korean poetry. When Kim Hyesoon won the Kim Su-Young Literary Award for Poor Love Machine, she became the first female poet to receive this coveted award, following many years when the women poets who had emerged during the 1980s struggled for recognition in a literary culture policed by Korea’s male-dominated literary establishment.

Kim began publishing her work in 1979 and was one of the first of few women to be published in Literature and Intellect, one of two key journals which championed the intellectual and literary movement against the US-backed military dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan in the 1970s and 80s. She has since won numerous other literary prizes, and was also the first woman to receive the coveted Midang Award in 2006.

The naming of prizes after esteemed poets has symbolic force in Korean literary politics, so there was significance in Kim being awarded major prizes honouring both Kim Su-Young (1921-1968), who was closely associated with “engaged poetry” that displays historical consciousness, and Midang, the penname of Seo Jeong-ju (1915-2000), a poet who stood for “pure poetry.”

Poor Love Machine was born out of Kim’s reaction against the still massively popular works of the Korean poets of the 1900s, notably Kim Sowol and Han Yong-un, who adopted female personae to express their grief over the Japanese occupation of Korea. That literary convention or pose involved ventriloquizing an anti-colonialist agenda by appropriating and clumsily feminizing the voices of a gender oppressed and silenced in their own culture:

As I began writing poetry, I often felt as if my tongue were paralyzed. I had no role model for poetry. The woman’s voice made by Korean men, the voice that is even more feminine than a woman’s, was not mine. I had no role model, especially because even pre-modern women’s poetry only consisted of songs of love, farewell, and longing for the other.

The impetus for Kim’s poetry came from her decision to explore in her own voice “the possibilities of the sensory” and to believe in her own “feminine individuation, its secrets.” In sharp contrast with the language of passivity and contemplation typical of earlier women writers, Kim’s work—along with that of Choi Seung-ja—was resonant with what her translator Don Mee Choi has called “a stunning language of resistance to the prescribed literary conventions for women.” So the publication of Poor Love Machine—with its grotesque imagery of rats, pigs, holes, garbage, excrement, and death—delivered an almost physical body-blow to the established corpus of Korean poetry in 1997:

Pigs enter. The pigs oink and suck on Seoul’s lips. She dips the meat from the pig’s neck in pickled shrimp and eats. Her squirming throat is omnivorous. […] Having left the party, I begin to vomit as soon as I step outside. 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.

“Seoul’s Dinner”

Born and raised in Seoul and Hong Kong, but long a resident in the US, Don Mee Choi has taken on the task of metamorphosing the living, writhing body of Kim Hyesoon’s Korean poetry into English with the zeal and personal advocacy of a kindred spirit committed to doing more than just translate words and phrases from one language into another. The whole body of the poem conceived in Kim’s reinvented mother tongue has to be totally absorbed into the self before being spewed out in Choi’s adopted language. Her bodily response to Kim’s squirming, seething language is transmuted via the alchemy of an unusually visceral translation process: “I howl and I shriek and I translate. So the miserable images I translate are the same as the letters I send out into the miserable world. I come to translation, the language of echoing, the language of howling, under the US imperialism. Translation = Antithingification.”

Poor Love Machine, which she calls the “ignition point” for Kim’s subsequent collections, is the fourth of her translations to appear with Action Books in the US, following Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers (2008), All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (2011) and Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream (2014), the first of these a selection from Kim’s earlier books including Poor Love Machine. A UK selection drawing on the Action Books editions, I’m OK, I’m Pig!, was published by my press, Bloodaxe Books, in 2014. 


by Neil Astley
Founder and Editor, Bloodaxe Books

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).