That Which We Become: Chewing Gum by Kim Ki-taek
- onMarch 26, 2019
- Vol.43 Spring 2019
- byJosé Luís Peixoto
- Chiclete (Chewing Gum)
Tr. Yun Jung Im 201892pp.
In the collection of poems Chewing Gum, Kim Ki-taek often writes about time. The poem entitled “By the Giant Banana Tree,” for example, shows a truck chasing a bicycle near a banana tree. Besides the title, the tree only appears in one modest verse in the poem—one brief mention—while all other lines are stuck in traffic, with car horns and noise all around them, in the anxiety of a merciless chase. Still, in this juxtaposition of speed and stillness, violence and peace, the latter elements have an essential role. It’s not accidental that the protagonist in the title is the banana tree; the tree is the perspective the author chose for the poem. The poem that follows, “Wooden Bench,” fittingly about a wooden bench, stationary in the world, highlights this intent.
There’s motionlessness, and there’s also the hustle of machines and people in these poems. These two distinct paces serve the poet’s exploration of time. His descriptions refer to the now, to the present that is all around us. The details in these poems belong to a generic urban setting, to any city in any continent, without ever referring to a specific culture—the exception being the piece “Eating Small Live Octopus,” which focuses on the Korean custom of eating small octopuses while they are still alive. It is significant that this is a piece of prose, an important feature of this collection. Even when the writing is broken into lines elsewhere, Kim’s poetry has a narrative, prosaic quality. Besides the extreme fluency, it displays exposition, complex characters, and plot.
But “Eating Small Octopus” also focuses on other themes that reoccur throughout the book, such as the consumption of animals. Many of the poems in the book present animals as living beings, instead of merely showing them as the food they will eventually become. Moments like these help show a certain dormant violence, and attempt to trace the line between what’s natural and what’s artificial, and how we might consume it. In the poem “Pig’s Pancetta,” for example, the smell of barbecue is entrenched in the body and clothes, amid everyday smells, and suffuses the metro setting with “the terror of the animal before slaughter.” The profoundly intimate way the human body can relate to the animal corpse suggests responsibility, as it identifies the odor of such violence. In the octopus’s case, we witness the animal being chewed alive, the cruelty of this hunger, the octopus’s futile attempts to fight for its life: “It had never tried dying before, so it did not know how to behave while it died.”
Life doesn’t seem to be the most valuable thing in the society described in this book. Often, what we’re reading is a denunciation of a system that rejects nature and condones dehumanization, as if all humans had forgotten their natural behavior and therefore started forgetting themselves. The poem “Crematory,” which describes an industrial crematory where “when one cry is over, another follows / And when a hearse leaves, another is already there,” points to this commodification of death that doesn’t take the individual into account. The countless references to public transportation also show an interest in addressing the collective, turning it into an object of study in this extraordinarily coherent collection of poems.
Human beings are sometimes portrayed at their most fragile, less solemn, and less noble state. Urban life affects them, corrupts them. Relationships are fleeting, as seen in the allegorical poem “Our Eyes Met,” the first one in the book, in which a person makes eye contact with a cat as it looks through the trash. The question that follows is inevitable: might our “everyday concerns” be trash? And yet, only someone standing outside of society could see it as such, and, perhaps, see beyond its banality. This idea, incidentally, is later reinforced in the poem “In Berkeley,” in which a homeless man makes the mistake of talking to all the passersby, as if breaking the boundaries and speaking to strangers were a form of madness.
The chewing gum is an object of consumption par excellence. The title poem describes a piece of chewing gum that has experienced the “hostility ingrained in someone’s teeth by the planet’s history.” As an object, it is fleeting because it is chewed and thrown away, but it is also everlasting because it is indestructible. Chewing gum thus becomes both artificial and human, much like poetry.
Kim Ki-taek is a poet, translator, and professor. He has published six poetry collections, one essay collection, and numerous children’s books; he has also translated many children’s books, including Hans in Luck. He has won the Kim Su-Young Literary Award, Hyundae Literary Award, Isu Literary Award, and Midang Literary Award. His books Storm in the Needle Hole and Gum have been published in Japan and Mexico, respectively.