By Kim Hyesoon
Reviewed by Sarah Trudgeon
Where can you find "ruby-red vertigo," "moon juice," "rats wearing black bras," "a plane smaller than a fingernail," "a cavity-ridden piano," and "death's umbilical cord"? A "Moon Bead Necklace," "white cream on a green furry plate," "rabbit ribbon," and "the cloud's toes"? Crying cafés and subway stations? All the garbage, mathematics, swimming pools, rats, Buddhas, toads, and screams of the world? Inside your Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, of course!
The third collection of poems by the celebrated South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, translated into English by Don Mee Choi (an admirable poet herself), Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream also includes Kim's long poem "I'm OK, I'm Pig!" and an appendix composed of two interviews and a short talk on Korean women's poetry. Kim has been awarded prizes for both "engaged" poetry and "pure" poetry, and her work has been described as Grotesque, Gurlesque, and Necropastoral, and it is all of these: "I'm going to be something that has no borders," she writes. In Kim's open, feminine, and feminist poetics, the poet is like a shaman from whom a death-filled language "comes out dancing," and the reader is left stunned, floating in a world in which all hierarchies and borders have disappeared. Serious and playful, subversive and sublime, these are heartbreaking and mesmerizing poems. Take this turn in "Blood Blooms":
A tiny bird gets its head chomped by the white cat's mouth
A tiny red heart in my hand flutters then says
The road ahead miles long is a field of roses
I got caught after running away, shedding a blood-filled stem
I've finally bloomed after a hundred years a thousand years
There are unforgettably hilarious moments—"The wound is a pus mold made just for me"—and a current of heart-wrenching dark humor coursing through the book—"An infant hatches inside mommy's crotch / The infant scratches its armpits then scratches its crotch"—but as the title of the book suggests, Sorrowtoothpaste is more melancholy than Kim's previous collections. It is the book of a mid-career poet who has spent years speaking out against patriarchal systems, industrial over-development and ecological destruction, and the United States' ongoing economic and political designs on South Korea.
The culmination of Sorrowtoothpaste is the long poem "I'm OK, I'm Pig!" Kim's maddened response to the mass killing of three million pigs and countless numbers of cows during a 2011 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in South Korea. The speaker, haunted by the exterminations (in which the animals were most often buried alive) visits the mass graves and tries to meditate and pray for the pigs in Buddhist temples, but she is frustrated with the inaction of the monks, the inefficacy of prayer, the way the Zen temple itself seems like the pigs' cage. "Do I really exist so that I need to discard myself?" she asks. The speaker only feels herself more and more "Pig": "I'm a patient who has to comfort the pig inside me / and I see only pigs inside people."
The poem moves through orations on our Speaker-Pig's position as mother, child, food, livestock, consumer, victim, pet, documentary subject, abused film star (the Marilyn Monroe of pigs!), prayer and prayer, human and beast. In one particularly unforgettable scene, the speaker futilely attempts to escape herself and Pig:
I look back as I leave
On Pig's back a sack of me, cloud-like
carrying the fickle shadow, jockey-like
Pigs legs finally gave out after spilling dark sweat
Less subtly, humans, as pig-eaters, are literally part pig. Pig tells the farmer, "You are my liver, you are my kidneys, you are my heart, you are my eyes, you are my skin." The speaker warns Pig, "I wouldn't grow up if I were you." One can't help but sense Kim's own exasperation here. She writes, "The woman carrying in each hand a bag of pig hearts / keeps walking and mumbling the same story." She is (literally) fed up. Reading "I'm OK, I'm Pig!" one feels at least once totally empty and completely stuffed, bodiless and over-bodied, a meditative swine with a giant heart and a rope of undetermined length around one's neck, but in a good way, somehow—alive, acutely—like the speaker herself.
Though not exactly Pig, the other speakers in Sorrowtoothpaste are similarly mournful and amorphous: "In your next life please come back as a Brahman, in your next life please come back as a man / The round words deceive me, the round wheel tracks of the universe deceive me." She is like a grandma in a schoolgirl uniform, a perpetually distorted and distorting Alice in Wonderland, where Wonderland is a nightmare and Alice eats the white rabbit and then gets waterboarded. The white rabbit himself is everywhere; one speaker tells us, "That star is outside the window / like Lewis who came to caress Alice." In fact, Sorrowtoothpaste is bursting with distorted, fragmented princesses, fables, nursery rhymes, and the distorted "mommies" telling them. Take this passage from "Inside This Very Tiny Sleep":
From beneath a very tiny tree a very tiny moon arose and beneath the tiny moon there was a peaceful night of very tiny people pushing a very tiny house along and mommy sucked all the fluids out of daddy after mating and laid a tiny me in a froth inside a very tiny house [ . . . ]
In "Morning," the speaker actually sings the carol, "Away in a manger, no crib for his bed / The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head" and praises the Lord before serving a girl her own scrambled "egg." Snow Whites in hell, our speakers don't sing of bluebirds on their shoulders; they say, "The parrot that has lost its vocal chords perches on my collarbone and puts a curse on me."
The bits and pieces of dystopian fairy-tale imagery situated inside reality give birth to subversive distortions of body, land, space, and time. A helicopter pulls up a giant Mrs. Everest in a giant corset from the bottom of the ocean: "Somewhere inside her body a huge salt fountain spouts // (I wonder where the river that begins deep inside me flows to)." In "The Way Mommy Bear Eats a Swarm of Fire Ants," the "mommy bear" grows larger and larger and cries "that I'm filled with all the screams of the world / that there is nothing else but that."
I can't help but think of Kim's brilliant chapbook essay, Princess Abandoned, in which Kim envisions the woman-poet (yôsôngsiin) of Korea as the protagonist of the only Korean myth in which a woman claims the central role: that of the first shaman, the Abandoned (paradaegi) or Princess Abandoned (pargonju). The discarded seventh daughter of a poor couple, the pargonju is raised by animals, gods, and spirits, but instead of rejecting the living society that rejected her, she grows up to speak the narratives of the dead from her space of death-within-life, in the process opening up new narrative possibilities for the living.
So, too, with Kim, who writes within her role as woman-poet in a patriarchal South Korea "in order to express a different dimension outside of the reality's system and rules or in other words, what exists behind the crack of reality." What else are "sorrowtoothpaste" and "mirrocream" but the shaman-poet's potions, or poisons, for erasing identity, for opening "the crack of reality"? But it's not easy to be the princess-witch, the Dead Red Queen. Where there is oppression, there is pain. In "The Poetry Book's Open Window," the poem in which these terms are coined, the speaker asks the passing Cheshire Cat, "That face etched onto the glass is worth something, right?"
Kim does not claim to speak for all women in all cultures, but by filling her speakers with "all the screams of the world," and by speaking from a space of death (a universal phenomenon if ever there was one) she invites cross-cultural connections. Her speakers and characters weep the same "salt dress" inside them; the river flowing deep inside the giant Mrs. Everest flows somewhere. Kim Hyesoon is the Whitman-Plath of the (under)world, her body growing and diffusing to contain all things.
As a neocolony, contemporary South Korea is partly a skewed, compact mirror image of the United States. And when Kim writes, in an interview in Guernica, that Korean feminism has become "a sort of old-fashioned trend or joke […]. No one acknowledges that discrimination among women is still widespread," it's impossible not to think of the situation in the U.S. It's a necessary part of Kim's project that readers connect her poems to their own reality, whatever it is, and make these comparisons. Ultimately, Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream is a book of openness, disseminating an international, bisexual Tao by which we can travel, if we make the effort, like water through the pervasive underbellies towards each other:
forge the body thin as a knife blade
shove it in
spit it out from smelly mouth
go with eyes closed trapped inside a camel's hump
become a squirmy spirit-like thing
[. . .]
the water hasn't found its boundary yet
is a cup like an eye
A cup of water knows everything about the insides of our body that we don't know
It's with love and empathy and sorrow and outrage that the speakers of these poems take us places we think we don't want to go. They are the princess shamans who become, in the end, our queen—and thank god for it. Finally, someone is saying something! In the words of Kim herself:
Joy to the world, the Pig is come
Let earth receive her Queen!