Sea of Mirrors
- onSeptember 1, 2019
- Vol.45 Autumn 2019
- byDon Mee Choi
Photographs Copyright ⓒ Melmel Chung
On December 3, 2016, Kim Hyesoon, her artist daughter, Fi Jae Lee, and I met at the sixth weekly candlelight protest in downtown Seoul at Gwanghwamun Square. We each carried a lit candle in a cup and a sign that read “Park Geun-hye Step Down.” We sat down for a while in awe of the waves of lights and sheer number of protesters parading through the square. The surviving family members of the high school students who had drowned in the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster led the march to the gate of the president’s executive office, to continue their demand for an investigation of the disaster. Kim Hyesoon turned to me and said that she hadn’t been out in the streets to protest since the dictatorship of the 1980s. And it was my first protest in Seoul. I was just a child when my family left South Korea because of the dictatorship. That night, a record number of 2.3 million people hit the streets nation-wide and demanded an end to Park’s presidency and her corrupt, conservative administration. After the nineteenth rally, South Korea’s constitutional court upheld the impeachment of President Park, the daughter of Park Chung Hee, who had enforced nearly two decades of US-backed dictatorship from 1961 to 1979.
Each of the forty-nine poems in Autobiography of Death represents one of the forty-nine days during which the spirit roams about after death, before it enters the cycle of reincarnation. The book concludes with a separate poem, “Face of Rhythm.” When Kim Hyesoon sent me these poems, she said that she had no choice but to write them because of all the unjust deaths that have occurred in South Korea. She was referring to the recent tragic event in which 250 high school students drowned when a private passenger ferry heading to Jeju Island had capsized. Many believe neoliberal deregulation and privatization that led to safety violations played a crucial role in the sinking of the ship, including the state’s dismal failure to rescue the passengers. The most recent findings have revealed that the ferry, which was carrying 1,228 tons above the legal limit, was also carrying 410 tons of iron that were meant to be used for the ongoing construction of the new naval base on the island. The base, which now hosts US and South Korean warships as well as cruise liners, has been contested by activists and residents for the past decade. Kim was also referring to the many deaths caused by the recent dictatorships, including the brutal military suppression of the pro-democratic May 1980 Uprising in the city of Gwangju. Kim says about her collection, “When one writes poetry in a country of so many deaths, it’s inevitable that the voice that emerges is the voice of someone who is preoccupied with death. I was very, very sick while writing these poems. Death was in front and in back of my head, it was inside my head. . . .That tree doesn’t know me. That rock doesn’t know me. That person doesn’t know me. You don’t know me. I also don’t know me. I wanted to die before I died.”
It’s midnight and you’re bored. You can’t fall asleep.
You go out on the deck. The vast sky and ocean are a black mirror. It wavers.
You think about the sleeping fish inside the black mirror.
You think about the gluttony of the vast mirror that leaves nothing behind, not even a single shadow.
You ponder, What if starting tomorrow the days without sunrise continue?
Then we’d be inside this black mirror 24 hours a day, and who’d dip a pen into the mirrorwater to write about us?
Why is there so much ink for writing?
I believe Autobiography of Death is one of Kim’s most important and compelling works to date. It not only gives voice to those unjustly killed during Korea’s violent contemporary history, but it also unveils what Kim refers to as “the structure of death, that we remain living in.” An aspect of this structure is the neocolonial and neoliberal order that has shaped Korea’s history since the US intervention at the end of World War II. Autobiography comes after her two acclaimed long poems “Manhole Humanity” and “I’m OK, I’m Pig!,” both of which also address political and military atrocities. Autobiography is at once an autotestimony and an autoceremony that reenacts trauma and narrates our historical death—how we have died and how we remain living within the structure of death. Autobiography is a sea of mirrors, hence the death we see reflected in it is the plural “you.” It can only speak as a multitude. Its body beaten, bombed, buried many times over by history can only speak in multitude:
Next to you
Kim Hyesoon debuted her poems in 1979, the year General Chun Doo Hwan led a coup and came into power right after Park Chung Hee was assassinated by his own intelligence officer. Kim, along with another renowned feminist poet, Choi Seung-ja, were the first female poets to be published in South Korea’s prominent literary journal Literature and Intellect, which took the lead in literary opposition to authoritarian rule. Kim worked as an editor then, and frequently had to go to city hall to submit each manuscript to the military censors for review. The first time I met Kim, in 2001, she told me that a play by the renowned playwright Lee Kang-Baek, whom she later married, was returned to her totally redacted except for the title and author’s name. She said she wept profusely as she watched the actors perform the entire play without speaking. Then once when she was editing a biography of a pioneer feminist, she was taken to the police station. The police officer demanded the contact information of the translator of the book and slapped her seven times. Kim tells me that this experience of hers does not merit mentioning, for she was not victimized, not like those who were killed and tortured in unspeakable ways during the eras of Park and Chun. But I still think of Kim as a survivor in the way I still think of my parents as survivors of the Korean War (1950–53) during which over four million, mostly civilians, were killed. About 250,000 pounds of napalm were dropped per day by US forces. How does anyone survive such a rain of napalm? How does anyone survive unrelenting beatings? How does anyone remain living in such a structure of death?
From the late 1990s, after the establishment of civilian rule, Kim began to receive critical recognition through numerous literary awards. Her influence on the younger generation of writers, particularly women, in Korea’s highly patriarchal culture is far-reaching. Kim observes that younger women poets are “developing a terrain of poetry that is combative, visceral, subversive, inventive, and ontologically feminine.” As Kim often mentions when asked about her poetics, she says that she had no role models or mother tongue because Korean women’s literary conventions had always been prescribed by men. However, women were free to express and explore their identities within the oral tradition of Korean shamanism. It was the only zone in which women, as performers of rites, songs, and storytelling, were not subservient to men. Kim’s poetry and poetics tap into the traditional shamanistic zone, the zone women were expelled to, the zone where Princess Abandoned [Princess Bari], a prominent female figure in shaman narratives, was left to die for being the seventh girl to be born in a row. The zone of the unwanted. This is also where the expendable, the fall-out, the collateral damage, the refugees, the exiles of the neocolonial and neoliberal wars go to. To the sea of ink. Military ink. Expelled, abandoned, and left alone to live or rot. The new tongue Kim invents, based on the long tradition of poetics and politics of expulsion, can be called expelled tongue. Autobiography, its multitude of death, its multitude of you, speaks expelled tongue. As an expelled child, I also speak it and translate it. I refuse to rot. For a child-translator, translation is an act of autogeography.
Today, Mommy cooks pan-fried hair
Yesterday, Mommy cooked braised thighs
Tomorrow, Mommy will cook sweet and sour fingers
All of our fingers are stained by the ink of atrocities. What Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o calls for in his 1983 essay “Writing for Peace” in Barrel of a Pen is more relevant than ever: “The European writer has a special responsibility. He must expose to his European audience the naked reality of the relationship between Europe and the third world. . . . But the responsibility also belongs to the writer from the third world. From Kenya to South Korea to South America the third world is ringed round by US nuclear and conventional military bases. The third world writer must be on the side of the struggles of those sat upon.” The same is true for the American writer of the US whose country is the leading political and economic perpetrator and producer of military ink. Kim Hyesoon’s pen is a winged insect, a butterfly’s hind legs: “It felt as if the ink inside a bottle as big as the Pacific Ocean was oscillating. I wept thinking how am I going to use up all that ink, writing about all the unjust deaths, with my tiny pen as skinny as a butterfly’s hind legs.” Within what Kim calls “a faint architecture,” a form that resists the “content of death,” the structure of death, everything must be winged, ribboned, tiny, or skinny to create a surface tension, to repel the ink.
The wind that gently ties thin streaks of rain into moist ribbons and pins them to your nipples has arrived
Your wings flutter like ripples on the water
Now are you liberated from yourself ?
You naked angel,
you days of the day,
with wings piddlier than a housefly’s
Finally your first black wings flutter when your body is ripped apart
But the blue hen’s tiny feet are buried inside each page
Whenever you turn the page its huge wings flutter!
Eyelids fluttered like moths trying to unfold their wings and
Bodies panted under the eyelids and
A child-translator’s special responsibility lies with remaining small, keeping her ink-stained fingers nimble enough to trigger a butterfly’s dainty legs. Autogeography is an act of autotranslation.
Don Mee Choi is the author of The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010), Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016), and several chapbooks and pamphlets of poems and essays. She has received a Whiting Award, Lannan Literary Fellowship, Lucien Stryk Translation Prize, and DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Fellowship. She has translated several collections of Kim Hyesoon’s poetry, including Autobiography of Death (New Directions, 2018), which received the 2019 International Griffin Poetry Prize.