January 2010

Olivia Cronk


Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers by Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi

By morning all is quiet— he must have left
Mommy finally gets up and breathes
Mommy bites and kills each one of us
for giving off a suspicious scent from last night’s terror
She kills us then eats our intestines,
grinds her teeth against a wall
then digs out our eyeballs to eat
then there is no one
As always, only Daddy and Mommy are left
It looks as if Mommy is expecting another litter 

--Kim Hyesoon, from Mommy Must be a Fountain of Feathers

Stars are whores.

I weave pubic hair for dolls and frogs naively lit by your orange lamps. If cloth is meat, what is blood? Try weaving shredded wrists, decapitated hearts.

--Don Mee Choi, from “Weaver in Exile 2” in La Petite Zine

Terror deserves a special place in poetry. Of course we live in a mutual assured destruction world. Of course modernity as we know it is dying. Many of us still delight in Kafka and Beckett, though the cultural weight is lighter and lighter all the time. We could all turn to hipster writers who slickly reveal, while boot-lickingly accepting it, the emptiness of this permutation of reality. We can eat Hot Pockets and watch The Simpsons. Or we can take a cue from Action Books: Terror, Horror, Cruelty, Disgust, all made lovely; Villain-making, shit-spewing Decadence in the Face of Despair -- this is the right response to our times. Such antics will save us -- in a way -- or will, at least, act as salve.

Kim Hyesoon is a feminist South Korean poet. Her translator for this text, is Don Mee Choi, also Korean, also a feminist poet. Their work is anything but “antics,” but this book fits nicely into Action Books’ taste as I know it (Lara Glenum and Aase Berg were my introduction to the Notre Dame press).

Not knowing much about Korean language structures, not really knowing much about South Korea itself (other than my provincial, lazy sense of it in relation to the more foreboding North Korea), I feel a little foolish and inadequate commenting on the nature of the translation, but I find that Don Mee Choi’s introduction offers an excellent “note” for the novice. She cites ideas about translation from Elfriede Jelinek and Paul Ricoeur, suggesting that the reader gladly accept the failures of literal (whatever that could possibly mean in a landscape of metaphor) translation and, instead, work on a better understanding of the net of information cast by the writer-translator-reader dynamic. She also makes it clear that Kim Hyesoon is herself a “translator” of the absolute disaster of the neocolony of South Korea, that Kim’s poems come from a history of censorship, dominance, Other-ness:

Elfried Jelinek says... “I gaze into the certain, because the authors I translate knew what makes the clockwork of society tick... And this knowledge about hierarchies and rules drops like a net [...] over the staged asylum into which we theatergoers are allowed to peer, and which makes it more into an orderly middle class dwelling...”

Don Mee Choi ultimately demands, in her introduction, that we understand the “twoness” of her process and product; she is South Korean in origin, American in location, and her translation work is meant to create a space of “mirrors.” She also makes the rather bold and interesting claim that this work stands very blatantly against KORUS (Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, not yet signed by either country’s legislative branches). So the whole endeavor takes on the quality of subversion and disobedience.

The book is absolute pleasure, though it is sometimes a pleasure of the sort you might reserve for peeing in a shower, eating liverwurst, fiddling with a hangnail. It is also the kind of pleasure related to the undetected watching of animals. It is also not unlike the excitement of realizing the self as a force for transgression.

There are many rats. There are bodies made into alien landscapes. There is straight-up cold horror -- at reality, at bourgeois values, at physical existence. Although it’s easy enough to “decode” the metaphor, in a general way, it does not play out so easily in specific moments. “To Patients with Contagious Diseases” can be about sickness as an alien force, about imperialism and control, about the modern tendency for sterility, about the unaccepting link between bodies as they are and bodies as we have language for them, even about the aftereffects of disaster at large. When carefully read aloud (and do this, seriously; it’s a trip), the poem almost feels like Laura Palmer and the midget talking backwards in Twin Peaks’ Red Room (“That gum you like is coming back in style”).

Run, holding, only, your, lit, ten, ta, cle, blue, and, cold. Go, run. Give, your, bodies, to, mag, gots, that, feed, on, bodies, sell, frenzied, your, legs, to, people, who, come, to, buy, legs, and, shout your bids. Vomit, excrete, dribble, give, away, everything, every thing.

Pull out and show, your, wick. Run. Sick, Body, when, someone, calls, you, shout back, I’m alivealive. Don’t, arrive, just, de, part. Run, so, that, the, needles, can, slip out, white, beds, can, crumble, bloody shit, can, splatter, and, dead things, and, stench, can fly, high up, in, the, sky. Life, leavesthenreturns, departsthenarrives, and the, sick, body, burns, up, then, takes, on, life, and runs, out, again! Look, over there, there. Happiness, painted, in oil, is, inside, a frame, and, now, sa. ccha. rine. Of happiness, flows, like. a. ri. ver. Into, my, blood. If someone, asks, Is anyone alive? Break, your, head, open, and, show, your, ten, ta, cle.


There is another wonderful poem, called “Face,” that explores the “you inside you.” “The you inside you pulls you tight into the inside, so your fingernails curl inward and your outer ears swirl into the inside of your body...”

The aforementioned rats are ever-present, a kind of vigilant force against the prettiness and wonderment of other moments in the book. They are also an excellent morphable symbol. Kim, through Don Mee Choi’s lively diction, plays with the tone of reality; how we “hear” the world is, in large part, dictated by forces with vested interest in Control. “Everyone, please try to talk. Watch how speech disappears. Today’s words walk away into the forest. They play a golden guitar, leaning against a worn-out wooden chair.” The poems, working rather outside of form as we normally handle it, seek to carve out a strange rebellion. I don’t know. Maybe the rebellion is half-hidden; if we encourage rebellion against reality, can this rebellion exist in a sensate world?

I don’t know, Kim Hyesoon, really, what you’re up to, “but I still want to step outside / the ribs tonight” with you.

Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers by Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi
Action Books
ISBN: 0979975514
93 Pages