All the Garbage of the World Unite!
Goodness, I didn’t know there were such repulsive holes!
No knocking about with uncertainties here: holes are a good, demanding term with which to visualise emptiness, loss, and lack, suggesting both a certain misogynist way of accounting for women’s bodies (‘getting your hole’, in certain parts of Edinburgh, being a way of describing having sex) and naming what’s left after conflict and destruction. Kim Hyesoon, an essential, innovative voice from the south of Korea and a giddyingly exciting poet and critic, takes holes as something of a talisman and poetic guide. Her work deserves an Australasian audience, not just for the pleasures this poetry offers, but also for the historical implication our social formations share in the creation of the holes which are her subject matter and theme.
Holes dominate this poetic landscape so much that Choi Don Mee, Kim’s translator, herself a gifted and innovative poet, was asked by one US literary journal to revise her submission and return a synonym with fewer ‘negative connotations.’ Choi’s response, presented as a ‘Translator’s Note’ to the collection All the Garbage of the World, Unite!, places this piece of condescension in its properly historicised place:
During the Korean War (1950–1953), about 250 000 pounds of napalm per day were dropped by the United States forces. Countless mountains, rice fields, and houses were turned into holes. Four million perished, leaving more holes. It’s a place that is positively holey. Kim Hyesoon’s hole poem comes from there, and so do I.
Another hole these poems seek to fill is a social gap: the holes where women should be in activist and social life. Kim has, in interviews, expressed her frustration at women’s place in the literary sphere, claiming that ‘to live as a woman poet in Korea means to occupy a marginal place, a mere “spice” within a world of poetry constructed by men.’ One response to this situation is an aggressively controlled variation on Kristeva’s Écriture féminine, poems full of detailed specificity and abjection – rejected bodily fluids, damage, domestic abysses. There’s a frenzied energy to Kim’s lists and juxtapositions, a pitch captured very nicely in her title: All the garbage of the world, unite!. Which is usable as an aesthetic slogan; the unladylike combines here with the stray and the discarded to offer ‘critical montages’ and constellations hostile to a wider social image of consumer capitalism and its distractions. (Kim’s biographical position matters; an activist intellectual, her early work as a critic was often censored by the military dictatorship in Park-era Korea, and she is a regular participant in street demonstrations, and labour and feminist causes).
A model of women’s writing against femininity begins to emerge, taking as one of its targets the lyric voice and the limitations of a personal poetic identity. These are difficult poems to read – words sometimes stick together in Choi’s translation: daddymommybigbrotherlittlesiblings, for example – and act against the ‘extraordinary uniformity’ of the prize-winning lyric Marjorie Perloff laments.
The ‘feminine voice’ and the weight of expectations from feminist poetic tradition are both conceptual holes for Kim,and areas for her productive destructiveness to avoid. No traditions! She told an interviewer:
Mother is a synonym for abandonment and death. Comparing this synonym to water, it is like poured-out water. I call it mother, the identity that I cannot identify. Mother does not exist, like water that has given life to a flower and then disappeared. Mothers live somewhere after giving birth to us. Our mothers who have gone are buried in our bodies. It can be said that we were born with dead mothers in our body.
The poetry sets itself the task of ‘dismantling delusions’, using the grotesque to force confrontations with dead images and accounts of the body and society. A model? Smash it up and start again:
‘I’ is a name for confinement in my body!
‘I’ is a name for all the things that don’t appear outside the body’s hole!
‘I’ is a name for the lady and gentleman who don’t recognise the person
who lives in the body!
One shift these poems make without any appearance of effort is between these personalised questions of gender and social roles, and larger issues of national struggle. And it’s here that I think there’s the most value in reading Kim for an Australasian audience, and the most that might get lost were we to read her with our standard expectations from ‘experimental’ verse too close to our eyes. Hwang Jongyon, in a recent issue of World Literature Today, identifies a ‘postnational turn’ in contemporary Korean literature, as ‘the entrenched dichotomies that have constituted the core of Korean national literature – national/cosmopolitan, realist/modernist, high/low – are being challenged, and dismantled.’ The challenge, Kim suggests to me, may be one not so much of dismantling the frame of an older national struggle but, rather, to do with the suggestion that it needs radicalised by being taken all the way through the personal and out the other side.
This, at any rate, is how I read the abrupt shift that occurs in ‘Seoul, Korea’:
The mountain gives birth
The mountain licks a mountain
The moutain’s litter sucks on its nipples
The mountain cold-heartedly discards all of its litter
The young mountains copulate in broad daylight, the stench
The mountain roams like the pack of dogs inside a maze
This same mountain, all of a sudden, transforms itself into a much more challenging pile of historical remnants and suppressed trauma:
The mountain eats shit, eats a corpse
The mountain, the rash-covered mountain attacks me with its flaming eyes
The mountain, the snow-topped mountain cries
The mountain without a single tree laments with its head flung back
towards the sky
There’s good reason for official culture in the United States, Australia and New Zealand to want to keep the Korean War as a ‘forgotten’ war. It was, after all, a time when, in the words of historian Bruce Cumings, virtual wastelands were produced in the name of containment. Plenty of representational raw material for an aesthetic of holes here, for instance:
From early November 1950 on, MacArthur ordered that a wasteland be created between the front and the Chinese border, destroying from the air every ‘installation, factory, city, and village’ over thousands of square miles of North Korean territory. On November 8, seventy B-29’s dropped 550 tons of incendiary bombs on Sinuiju, ‘removing [it] off the map’; a week later Hoeryong was hit with napalm to ‘burn out the place…’
A certain strain of thought in the south of Korea is equally keen to repress this historical detail, and to normalise the workings of what Paik Nak-Chung calls the ‘division system’: that mutually rewarding and socially crippling interdependence of authoritarianisms north and south, via the standard blether about consumer society. Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic is Calling You has a nice parody of this approach, with its protagonist a spy from the North ‘gone native’:
‘You’ve changed. I mean, you must have changed. I know you. You like hirasake, sushi, Heinekens, and movies by Sam Peckinpah and Wim Wenders. You like the story of Meursault shooting the Arab and you underline the elegant prose of a far right-wing pundit, Yukio Mishima. You eat seafood pasta at a Sunday brunch. You drink scotch at a bar near Hongik University on Friday nights. Right?’
Amidst all that – and our happy implication in the re-telling of the Korean story as one among many new ‘waves’ of Asian cool – Kim Hyesoon’s poems point out how sometimes it’s History that reads us, and how repressed detail finds its way out. History is what hurts, as Jameson insists, or ‘Hole is the time bomb you have thrown’:
I thought I was gazing at the landscape
but I was startled the moment I realized that the landscape
was staring at me instead
These are very clever, linguistically acrobatic poems for the era of the ‘division system in crisis’. There’s a restless, utopian energy here too, as ‘the leaves are budding through the / holes, all the holes in the world’. Kim’s characteristic poses – the obscure imperative and the exclamation mark – fuse the styles of activist politics and experimental poetry, and promise a way one can protect the other. Choi’s Translator’s Note is a useful paratext, and positions the poems much more explicitly politically – and within the archive of the post-colonial, and responses to US aggression – than a strictly literary reading of these works, unaided, may have noticed. All the garbage of the world needs to unite:
Yes, finally it’s the victory of the gutter!
It’s the sky of guts! Hurhurray!
The tunnel beneath my feet!
Hwang Jongyon’s essay is in World Literature Today;Jan/Feb2010. Cumings’ quote I’ve taken from his Korea’s Place in the Sun. Ruth Williams has a good essay on Kim as a ‘female grotesque’ in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. You can buy All the Garbage of the World, Unite! here.