A Note on Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death

  • onSeptember 1, 2019
  • Vol.45 Autumn 2019
  • byJeffrey Yang

Photographs Copyright ⓒ Melmel Chung

Being struck by a poet’s work is a kind of enlightenment. I imagine a metal rod must feel the same way when lightning hits it—lit up, vibrating, totally absorbed by a supercharged flow of outside energy. But what a metal rod lacks we can possibly make up for in heart and brains. Courage, too, ideally. It is how Philippe Soupault felt when he first read Lautréamont, finding a copy of Les Chants de Maldoror by chance in the mathematics section of a bookshop in Paris, across from the military hospital where he was convalescing from an experimental typhoid vaccination that almost killed him. He marked the date of his discovery ( June 28), saying, “Since that day, no one has recognized me. I myself don’t know if I have a heart anymore.” As if transformed into a metal rod. He also described the experience as “like an enlightenment.”

I had initially reached out to the poet and translator Don Mee Choi to ask her about the work of Yi Yon-ju. I had found her translations of Yi in her edited anthology Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women. Yi Yon- ju’s spare, raw lyrics about prostitutes and children suffering—barely existing—in a US military camptown, coupled with her own tragic suicide before her fortieth year not long after her first book of poems appeared, opens up another wound in the space-time continuum of poetry that bleeds with hopelessness and injustice—two things that her poems, maybe the very act of writing her poems, wholly resist. At the time, however, Choi was in the middle of translating another book and planned to return to Yi later on, though perhaps New Directions would want to take a look at that manuscript instead? It turned out to be Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death.

What first struck me about the book was Choi’s description of its overall structure, which forged an immediate bond with my own preoccupations before I had read a single poem in it. It was a coincidental bond of mutual interest, as I had also used the traditional Buddhist forty-nine days of mourning (or dead spirit roaming) as a way to structure an anthology of poems I had edited, Time of Grief: Mourning Poems, dividing the collection into forty-nine days of discrete readings. It was a ritual I was somewhat familiar with as my mother’s family had observed it for her father’s death when I was in my second year of college, and many years later followed again when her mother passed away. The bond, in essence, struck an inner chord. But what about the poems themselves? The title suddenly seemed particularly strange: Was this going to be a Bergman-like play-by-play of an endless chess match? What does it mean to personify (objectify?) death in such a way, through poetry?

“Commute: Day One”: “Your gaze directed outward now departs for the vast space inside you.” In the opening poem a woman dies on a subway, dies “bounced out of the train,” her body groped, pillaged, kicked, discarded, and ends with death continuing on to work. Day Two, a rabbit “reincarnates as a bloodied menstrual pad.” Day Three, a doll “worships your ghost in its pupils.” This poem is mysteriously titled “Photograph,” perhaps referring to a photo of a dead child on the memorial altar for the Sewol ferry tragedy, or the photo of the Varanasi cremation that appears in the poem for Day Forty-four, “A Doll,” or is just a metaphorical snapshot of a doll, since a photograph, like a doll, never changes, never dies. Day Four, death (your body, my body) clings to water until “I . . . wear a coat woven with water’s hair.” In this way each day unfolds unexpectedly, rippling out with death (“Every every day is the eve of death”), extending its journey, builds up and deconstructs (the scene, allegory, dream, narrative, myth, rite, family, folktale . . .), lines falling rhythmically, anaphorically, mimetically, with an intensity of conviction reminiscent of passages of the Bible or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the names of the dead never appearing save for Lord No or, in the case of the coda-like last poem “Face of Rhythm,” as the names of an anonymous priest in a confessional (as Kim Hyesoon has said: “To write poetry is to witness the names that die in poetry”). Abstracted images (history) congeal in a womb, a lullaby, a razor blade, a blue hen, the moon, “the tire marks of a Cadillac hearse.” The book’s multifaceted feminist impulse has its roots in a radical tradition of Korean women shamans. Like any poetry collection composed of individual poems, the book can be opened up at random and read, but the sequence of days develops the autobiography from beginning to end, poem to poem, shaping the asphyxiating atmosphere, the chronic madness, to the final Face of Rhythm. Reading Autobiography of Death is “like an enlightenment”—your body turns into a metal rod.

 And what cannot be over-acknowledged: that this book, in English, only exists through Don Mee Choi’s marvelous translation, her active transformation that has, along with her previous Kim Hyesoon translations published with Action Books, enriched American poetry like a transfusion of plasma. She is not only the poet’s dream of a translator, but the editor’s dream of a translator, and has been devotedly translating Kim Hyesoon for so long now that she knows all the tricks and means to capture the poetry’s phonetic vibrancy, syntactical disruptions, emotional cadences, playful- serious tone of the sentence-line, as if careening happily along the border of sorrow and horrific humor. With such skillful, attentive work there is very little an editor needs to edit, and so I became more of an inquisitor: should there be an article here or no article, active verb tense or gerund, singular or plural, consistency (or not) of punctuation, confirming word choices and prepositions for clarity and specificity—all of these issues having everything to do with meaning in rhythm, for as Kim Hyseoon writes, “In sync with rhythm I’m me and not me.”

A parting thought about the poet who also wrote I’m OK, I’m Pig!: Whenever swine looked at Maldoror they vomited. That Bachelard’s description of Lautréamont’s Chants as “a system of violent energy that fractures the real in order to live out its achievement without scruple or embarrassment” could apply to Kim Hyesoon’s poetry, too. A “system of violent energy” that produces, in one sense, an art of the grotesque, an art of the phantasmagoria—a poetry spewed out of the mouth of atrocity and emptiness. If Lautréamont can be seen as a proto-surrealist, Kim Hyesoon, like the Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, for one, shows traces of a post- surrealist strain. (Pizarnik, whose poem “Silencios” Yvette Siegert translates: “Death always at my side. / I listen to what it says. / And only hear myself.”) I note this not as a strict label but as indicator and conjunction. The phantasmagoria of Japanese colonialism, civil war, dictatorships, the minjung democratic movement, the women’s movement, US militarism/neocolonialism in South Korea—what Kim Hyesoon calls in her interview with Don Mee Choi at the end of the book “the structure of death”—feeds directly into her writing-spirit, as evident in the deeply stirring poem Day Twenty-Two “Seoul, Book of the Dead”: “Listen, listen to the voice of the mountain of the North / The candlelight inside you is extinguished.” Surrealism, Walter Benjamin noted, was born in the arcades, that nineteenth-century manifestation of marketplace phantasmagoria. The speaker in Autobiography of Death—a body reaching for sound—says “it’s time to shatter the dream with a hammer.”


by Jeffrey Yang
Editor, New Directions