A Singularity. Kim Hyesoon

  • onSeptember 3, 2019
  • Vol.45 Autumn 2019
  • byJoyelle McSweeney

Photographs Copyright ⓒ Melmel Chung



When I introduce Kim Hyesoon to new American readers and critics, my first instinct is to describe her as a master poet. No other term but master seems to convey my sense of her stature, importance, expertise, and reach, both in Korean and global poetry. Yet it is certainly the wrong term, since it carries with it an expression of unidirectional, hegemonic power which Kim Hyesoon’s whole body of work, as a poet, critic, and activist, seeks to undo. 

Instead, Kim Hyesoon’s work is more like a singularity, in the astronomical sense, a paradoxical locus at which an entire precarious universe is simultaneously birthed and consumed, a simultaneous destruction and rebirthing that has already happened, is happening, is about to commence. Her body of work is the impossible heart of a black hole, essential and self-erasing, generous with its black capacity, a shard of mirror glancing life and death off its inside-out radiance.




I first read Kim Hyesoon’s poems in Don Mee Choi’s English translation in an early issue of Circumference magazine, a fearless translation journal edited by Stefania Heim and Jennifer Krovonet. These poems throbbed with vitality and fatality; easy English nouns like “mommy,” “kitchen,” “cats,” “rats” became apertures of cute mayhem, sites of wobbly expansion and compression, a squeezing with care and love until the sinister-but-still-cute guts popped out. A city, Seoul, had a heart, which was a kitchen, where all the sieving and siphoning of the world ran down to and oozed out from. It was an utterly feminine place, an utterly feminine predicament, where to utter was to bleat, oink, scrabble, tear, suckle, and to read was bleat, oink, scrabble, tear, suckle. To read was to find oneself in the midst of some kind of tender and dangerous mirroring, like in a cell about to rupture as it doubles.

Soon I began to scrabble, snuffle, oink my way after Kim Hyesoon, tracking her translator, Don Mee Choi, through the weedyards of the internet with the help of Susan Schultz, the editor of Tinfish, who had just published a chapbook of Choi’s translations. It was my intention to beg Don Mee Choi to give us an entire volume of Kim Hyesoon’s work to publish with our nascent press, Action Books. We were and are a press for poetry that operates outside American publishing norms, which at that time were virtually translation- free and divided neatly into L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems or first-person autobiographical narratives.

Don Mee Choi kindly informed me that it would take some time to complete such a task. She conveyed to me for the first time the complexity of translation itself—and of her relationship with Kim Hyesoon. In translation, artists form a twin-like tandem like radio stars. Together, they manifest a cosmic zone where many sensibilities, many languages, many syntaxes, millions of experiences of life and death, pump darkly in the veins. In this fetid zone, the feminine darkness of poetry, the binaries of Korean/English, target/source fall away, and Art festers and blooms, spawns and goes under, emerges tentacular, marshy, uterine, fronded, proximate, non-Cartesian, co-bodied: Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers. All the Garbage of the World, Unite! Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream. Poor Love Machine.




I should pause here to note a strange phenomenon—in conveying the translation relationship of Choi and Kim, I reach for language and imagery sourced from an array of Action Books authors, such as Raúl Zurita, with his songs issuing from the mass grave, or Hiromi Itō, with her kid- migrants sprouting up in poverty and joy in Wild Grass on the Riverbank, or Aase Berg, whose dark girlscapes are florid with foxhearts and fetus-lillies. All these fecund landscapes are brushed with the somnambulant/infernal wingprints of translator-poets Don Mee Choi, Daniel Borzutzky, Jeffrey Angles, Johannes Göransson. This is the continuous enfolding necro-zone of Art, with translation as its avatar. As Aase Berg writes in Göransson’s English:


Now I love you and now I fear you, and now I finally roll out your guinea-pig body on the baking sheet. And you lean back and let your skin grow into the stinking cell plasma of the guinea-pig wall, my beautiful traitor, and the guinea pigs swarm all the way into the depth of your treacherous guinea-pig organism.


Our early publication of a selection of Kim Hyesoon’s work exfoliated in all sorts of exciting and unpredictable directions. After our initial four volumes of translation by Don Mee Choi, we have published another volume, A Drink of Red Mirror, collaboratively translated by Jiwon Shin, Sue Hyon Bae, Lauren Albin, and a group of students at the University of Arizona. We will publish To Write as a Woman, a collection of Kim Hyesoon’s essays translated by Emily Jungmin Yoon and David Krolikoski. We have published two volumes by Kim Yideum, whose work feels like a dazzling and fatal valley opening on the verge of Kim’s oeuvre, and will publish a volume by Choi Seung-ja, the inimitable poet, Kim Hyesoon’s friend. Our entire map of Korean poetry, and world poetry, forms like a galaxy around the dust-germ of Kim Hyesoon’s work. Meanwhile, Don Mee Choi has gone on to become a major poet with both US and international accolades, while her translation of Kim Hyesoon’s latest volume, Autobiography of Death, has just won one of the largest poetry prizes in the world, International Griffin prize. The universe of Kim Hyesoon is expanding; who knows what new stars and planets are soon to be hurled outwards. But it also, impossibly, exists as an underground, operating infernally, a conversation among women and ghosts, in a place of pain and stillness. This damagescape remains a structuring elegance and emergency in Kim Hyesoon’s work, even as her virtuosity unfurls like a tender comet in the sky, a banner sewn from light and hair.




Having spent more than a decade now contemplating the collaborations of Kim Hyesoon and Don Mee Choi, I return again and again to “The Road to Kimp’o Landfill,” the poem which opens our first volume, a poem which, for me, is at once, paradoxically, omphalos and mise-en- abyme, star and abyss, a model for thinking about poetry’s essential state as paradox, birth-as-destruction, arrival-as- collapse. In Don Mee Choi’s English, the poem reads:


I kissed in a place where garbage came down like rain

I kissed where I vomited all night long

Every time I sang, vomit flew in

I’ve read this poem a thousand times and have thought of it as a poem about the individual artist and the pain of making art. But now I read it as something else—a model of the co-making of the universe, the co-making of the artwork through the feminized collaboration of poet and translator, mother and child, writer and reader.


I turned the garbage bins upside down in my room

And had morning sickness, then had a smoke

My poetry books burned

Three hundred million babies were born

One hundred million of the young and the old died


Such sorcery works when the “I” becomes not a site of originality, individuality, or production but a site where all the bodies blur, the speakers superimposed or subsiding, the I becoming lawlessly capacious and multiple, to the point of metastasis, of ecstasy, to the point of possible implosion—and of flying out again, as on the very centrifugal skirt of the universe itself, as on its very hem.


Born in the 20th century, I was on my way

     to die in the 21st century


What a thrilling thing, to think so cheerfully and cosmically together, to gesturally overmap temporality and locality, to anticipate a subsidence and a cancelling, anticipation itself signaling the perhaps-arrival of new and novel forms. What a weirdly familiar death, longed-for like the arrival of a loved one. How acutely and tenderly imagined, this singularity. This death, this event horizon. And we’re here. We’re already here.



by Joyelle McSweeney
Poet, Playwright, Novelist, Critic,
Publisher, Action Books