Words Splitting on the Page: I'm OK, I'm Pig! by Kim Hyesoon
- onNovember 16, 2014
- Vol.24 Summer 2014
- bySasha Dugdale
- I’m OK, I’m Pig!
Tr. Don Mee Choi 2014160pp.
I first heard Kim Hyesoon at Poetry Parnassus, the global festival of poetry which took place in London’s Olympic year. Kim Hyesoon shared the stage with Seamus Heaney. It was the last time I heard Seamus Heaney read in public and the first time I heard Kim Hyesoon, and even at the time it felt momentous. Heaney read some of his best-known poems. graceful, lyrical, and contemplative. The birdlike Kim Hyesoon wove a pattern of poems, so strangely compelling and curious, and utterly unlike anything I had heard before.
In April 2014, Kim returned to the Southbank Centre to read from the poems published in I’m OK, I’m Pig! and Modern Poetry in Translation.
Kim Hyesoon has a following in London despite her rare appearances there, and the reading sold out very quickly. As editor of Modern Poetry in Translation I was particularly interested to notice that the crowd that gathered at the Poetry Library was not the usual poetry audience; they were younger, they knew Kim Hyesoon, and they wanted to hear her read.
Perhaps this cult status is due to the fact that Kim Hyesoon, in Don Mee Choi’s translation, really does bear little resemblance to anything else in contemporary world poetry. In one of a number of fascinating prose pieces accompanying the poetry selection, Choi describes Kim writing out of the blackened space of state censorship. There is a strong sense of a poetics bursting out of nothing, creating itself out of nightmares and grotesque horrors and coming from a dark place where all is forbidden, and therefore all is allowed.
The poems grow from a single point, you might call it a wound, and they split and diverge and swell like organic matter, following first one image, then another, flowering and withering like bacteria spread under the microscope:
On a rainy night fishy-smelling pig ghosts flash flash
busted intestine tunnel their way up from the grave and soar above the mound
A resurrection! Intestine is alive! Like a snake!
(from “Bloom, Pig!”)
In her prose Kim Hyesoon describes this as “like the way a ghost speaks, the way a subject speaks after its ‘me’ is erased. Language is freed to follow its organic ‘dancing’ course when the ‘I’ of the poet is suppressed, even to death.”
The images combine the hideous and repellent with luminous beauty. Her poetry is teeming with rats, rotting and fetid things, mutations and mutilations. There is a sense in which this rottenness is simply the efflorescence of life—like a glass room with a bowl of fruit in the center, designed for the observation of the lifecycle of a fly. But in the long poem “I’m OK, I’m Pig!” which gives its name to the collection, the impulse is darker, more conscious: Kim explains that the poem’s genesis came from the burial alive of millions of pigs with foot-and-mouth disease, and her feeling that this was not much different from the barbaric torture of people in her country’s history which she had just read about. In this poem the spreading imagery is more like the nightmare that sticks to the dreamer in her waking hours that won’t be shaken off.
I had the privilege of reading aloud Choi’s translations at Kim’s reading, and I could feel just how good they were: adventurous, witty, but also lyrical and powerful. I can’t recommend this extraordinary collection enough.
by Sasha Dugdale
Editor, Modern Poetry in Translation
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).