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Last fall, when I was living in South Korea, a woman in Seoul was killed by her stalker, a co-worker, in the bathroom of a subway station. A friend and I went to see an informal memorial dedicated to the victim. We read piles of notes left by strangers: “Stop femicide.” “Your death is my death.” “The government, the courts, our culture of discrimination are guilty of murder.” The scene of the crime and the shape of the commemoration recalled another murder, from 2016, which had sparked Korea’s version of the #MeToo movement. Whatever remained of that feminist upsurge now felt eclipsed by widespread backlash; in 2022, a new President had been elected on a platform of unreserved misogyny. I went from the memorial to a bookstore and bought Kim Hyesoon’s most recent poetry collection, “After Earth Dies, Who Will Moon Orbit?,” which was inspired by her mother’s passing. “Mom, don’t read this book. It’s all sand,” the dedication says. The poems include bloody dramas, familial and cosmic, set in the space of the kitchen. It felt appropriate to read Kim in that moment, not as a manual for processing grief but as an extended fantasia of feminine rage.
Kim is sixty-seven years old and going on her fifth decade as a poet in the public eye. She has published more than a dozen books—of poetry and of unclassifiable texts, with titles such as “I Do Woman Animal Asia”—and won every major literary award in South Korea. Since her début, in 1979, in Literature & Intellect, a journal founded during the country’s authoritarian period, she has been at the frothy crest of many artistic and political waves. In her first career, as an editor under the dictator Park Chung-hee, she had to tell a Marxist economist, on his deathbed, that his book had not survived the censors’ redactions and would not be published. (She later wrote, “Behind his thin, wrinkly glasses, his tears flowed down to his ears.”) In the mid-eighties, she joined Another Culture, a pioneering feminist group that convened educational camps for kids, critiqued patriarchal norms in books such as “Equal Parents, Free Children,” and translated women from other countries, including the Indonesian poet Sugiarti Siswadi. “We were finding a Korean language for feminism,” Kim told me. In her second career, as a professor at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, she helped revive an interest in shamanism and other gynocentric folk traditions. Once, she followed an anthropologist friend to Mt. Halla, on Jeju Island, to commemorate a shaman’s death in a days-long kut ritual of singing and ecstatic dancing.
Poetry in Korea has been a vaunted form—and traditionally left to men. Kim broke away from the masculine styles that came before her, which tended to be either self-consciously political or “pure” and detached from the world. She smashed words together and savagely enjambed her lines. She ripped apart syllable blocks and turned the letters of Hangul into raw material for typographic play: “Mrsdustingarmselephantgod. Salivadropexplodeslikefreongas. / . . . Do you know all the dearest gods that are hanging onto our limbs?” She wrote about women’s bodies, in all their guts and gore. “Women poets start out writing like men,” Kim told me. “Feminism isn’t something you’re born believing. Feminism is going through life and changing yourself.” In “To Write as a Woman: Lover, Patient, Poet, and You,” a book of essays, Kim connects the experience of the woman poet to Princess Bari, a Korean folk heroine who remains loyal to her parents even after they’ve abandoned her. To be lost or left behind, or to disappear, is at the core of being a female artist, Kim argues. In Korea, the book became something like Hélène Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa” or a less practical version of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” It was reissued last year, on its twentieth anniversary, and is being translated into English.
Kim has pursued a vernacular that’s intensely Korean yet open to the world. She reads widely in translation, and hosts obscure Catholic nuns, the Tibetan sages, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir, and Agnès Varda in the back of her head. About fifteen years ago, when her own work began to be translated, she attracted a following across North America and Europe. She grew especially close to her English translator, the MacArthur-award-winning poet Don Mee Choi. In 2019, the English version of Kim’s “Autobiography of Death” won the international Griffin Poetry Prize. The book is structured as a forty-nine-day Buddhist mourning ceremony for hundreds of teen-agers who drowned when a Korean ferry capsized five years earlier: “perhaps a doll, perhaps a human, perhaps you, perhaps me,” she writes on day forty-four. Kim’s latest translated work, “Phantom Pain Wings,” came out in May. These two volumes are the first and second of what Kim calls her “death trilogy.” (The book I bought in Seoul, “After Earth Dies, Who Will Moon Orbit?,” is the final installment.) “I don’t think I’ve ever comforted anyone with my writing,” Kim notes in an afterword to “Phantom Pain Wings.” “Perhaps literature crosses into a zone where consolation can’t intervene.”
What zone does Kim occupy? She has modelled an approach to language, and the writing life, for dozens of poets and other artists in Korea and in the diaspora. In 2019, her writing on Princess Bari inspired “Community of Parting,” a video installation by Jane Jin Kaisen, a Danish Korean adoptee who represented the Korean pavilion at the Venice Biennale. (A suite of poems titled “Community of Parting” is the centerpiece of “Phantom Pain Wings.”) A former student of Kim’s, Yoo Heekyoung, runs a poetry bookshop called Wit N Cynical, in Seoul’s Hyehwa district, which became a center of the #MeToo protests. When that movement got started, Yoo told a reporter that Kim’s “Autobiography of Death” was a top seller.
Since retiring from her job as a professor, in early 2021, Kim has kept mostly to her apartment, in Seoul’s Daehakro neighborhood, beset by undiagnosed nerve pain—which she interprets as a chronic female ailment—and insomnia. At night, she goes between her bedroom and her study, lying down and failing to sleep. She reads old novels all the way through (recently, she was back on Clarice Lispector, a favorite) and new fiction until it bores her (“It isn’t very good”). She watches competitive-singing shows on television, answers e-mails from three continents, and drafts stanzas longhand.
Several times last year, I caught up with her in periods of good health. One afternoon, she intercepted me at a subway stop near her home. She lives with her husband, the avant-garde playwright Lee Kang-baek, and their daughter, Fi Jae Lee, whose raucous line drawings and sculptures adorn many of Kim’s books. Kim was unmistakable, even in a face mask: jet-black, bowl-cut hair, architectural glasses, scarf, billowy pants, and platform sneakers. We were repeat patrons of Gupo Noodle, an old-fashioned restaurant that specializes in batter-fried squid and rice noodles in anchovy broth. We ordered makgeolli rice wine, which she barely touched and I ended up drinking alone. Kim speaks at an unhurried pace, and in a soft rasp. She told a tragicomic story about travelling with an incurable melancholic, a Debbie Downer-type who saw only pebbles, never pearls. Laughing and eating with Kim, I felt an alien-like attentiveness to my own body. I considered the peristalsis working noodles down my throat and the purple-blue blood racing back to my heart. “My bones are hollow like a flute / so every one of them can sing and whistle.” “The achy root has spread between the intestines like lightning.” I suspected that she noticed all this somatic activity in herself and, possibly, in me.
For Kim, poetry is “dancing,” “being a nameless animal,” “crossing the river of the grotesque,” “making a revolution in the realm of language,” and “a verb.” She has long concerned herself with animals, human and nonhuman. The collection “Poor Love Machine” is filled with rats and felines. “Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream” contains a gray bear, fire ants, roe deer, an ostrich, a rabbit, and a duck. Her pig poems are among her most famous, and controversial:
Bodies filled with filthy water
Pigs oink-oink in the sty
Why, they all look alike!
A girl goes dancing after sorting her family’s trash
Oh that fantastic-sewer-daddy hit me
Oh that water-filled-jar-mommy abandoned me
Daddy pig eats numbers and buttocks dangle from the cheeks of mommy pig
This poem, “I’m OK, I’m Pig!” appeared in her 2016 collection, “Bloom, Pig!” The following year, the book won the 5.18 Literature Award, named after the Gwangju uprising of May, 1980, when South Korean soldiers, commanded by President Chun Doo-hwan and backed by the U.S., killed democracy activists. On Facebook, male critics slammed Kim as undeserving of the honor: her use of “surrealism” and visceral animal metaphors were an insult to the democracy movement, they said. It seemed like a clear case of jealousy, or gendered territoriality—but Kim was forced to turn down the prize and a much-needed cash award. Her brute-force poetry—what one critic called “the female grotesque”—was at once career-making and costly. To my ears, in English, it recalls the work of Lyn Hejinian (“The baby is scrubbed everywhere, he is an apple.”) and Dawn Lundy Martin (“Awareness of being in a female body is a tinge of regret.”).
Kim’s new translated work, “Phantom Pain Wings,” is heavy with birds and verbs. “It’s an I-do-bird sequence,” Kim writes. As the second book in her death trilogy, it responds to the loss of her father and the traumas of his generation: colonization, war, and economic development at all costs. “Daddy, in the room where you died / I become bird,” she writes. The address sounds tame in English; in the hierarchical ordering of Korean, it’s a crass impossibility. “In Korea, you can’t call your father ‘you’ or ‘other,’ but, in this book, I call my father ‘daddy’ and ‘you,’ ” she told me. “It’s my way of bringing myself and other women to an equal level with the father as an institution, mechanism, and authority.” Kim envisions this rebellion as a bird flapping its wings in flight.
Translation has a peculiar capacity to reframe an artist’s œuvre: an old work becomes new in another language and time. “Phantom Pain Wings” was published in Korea, in 2019; its English version took shape during the pandemic. I visited Kim’s translator, Choi, in 2021, at her home in north Seattle. Her desk was taken up by a large computer monitor (for working in two languages, side by side) and thick Korean and English dictionaries. I pictured her sitting there, bird-watching through the window, as she mastered Kim’s ornithology. Choi kept a diary, which serves as a translator’s note at the back of the finished book:
KH sent a large box of KF94 masks . . .
A nuthatch has returned.
Choi told me, “Not only was this book difficult to translate but I felt a great deal of grief myself while translating. It’s not only about her father. In that long poem, ‘Community of Parting,’ she’s also addressing the source of her sorrow, and it goes all the way back to the Korean War.” A twentieth-century war, a twenty-first-century pandemic—overlapping eras of mass death. There’s also a poem eerily relevant to post-Roe America called “Abortion Boat.” It features Varda’s film “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t,” from 1977, about two friends in France who must travel abroad—one to Switzerland, and one to Amsterdam—to get abortions. The speaker of the poem is in, or next to, a tunnel—the Dutch canals, the birth canal, and the tubular branches of a tree:
As I run, the tunnel runs beside me like a dog
The tunnel cries and follows me, becoming very long
The woman who just had an abortion but still has a baby runs
When she exits the tunnel, her baby comes out
but when she enters the tunnel her baby sticks to her again
Kim has described her process with Choi as one of exchange. “I don’t edit her translations,” Kim told me. “I answer her questions. Translating poetry is the hardest thing in the world.” For “Phantom Pain Wings,” Choi asked more than usual about subjects and objects. The syntax of Hangul leaves much unsaid: subjects are implied; pronouns are rare. (Verbs, though, especially in Kim, are abundant.) Choi’s inferences weren’t enough. Who was doing the thing, and to whom was the thing being done?
‘Grief Guitar’: Once again, I wasn’t clear about who the speaking subject was when KH used 서로 = each other and 우리 = we/our. . . . She explained that the guitarist is referring to his/her guitar as 너 = you.
Kim did not always have an answer to Choi’s probing questions. She had to think, and decide, before writing back. The English version became more than an update of the Korean original: it was its own, new thing.
Kim’s responses sometimes created new problems. How to lasso multiple perspectives, and subjectivities, into a single term? In Korean, she could get away with ambiguity, but, in English, the doer had to be named. For a couple of poems, Choi told me, the fix was an equation. In “Girl, Your Body Has So Many Holes for Straws,” the subject is “I + bird + music”; its actions include speaking, vomiting, and lying “prostrate like a corpse, hiding at the bottom of a lake.” In “Straitjacket,” parentheses achieve the same clarification. “Why does apple (I) need to apologize to apple (you)? / Apple (you) and apple (I) are apologies (for what)?” These markings echo the playful, mathematical vocabulary of the Korean modernist poet Yi Sang, also known as Kim Haekyeong, whom Kim adores and pays tribute to in the book. One poem is titled “Again, I Need to Ask Poor Yi Sang.” In another, Yi’s pathbreaking “Crow’s Eye View” becomes “Crow’s Eye View 31”:
13 birds keep flying up till they can’t be seen from below
. . .
I want to keep writing ruthlessly about all 13 birds
but that wouldn’t be polite, for they’ve been endlessly patient
and it wouldn’t be polite to Kim Haekyeong either who wrote the same
line— . . .
I don’t understand what these phrases specifically mean. (It’s reassuring that Kim occasionally had to mull her own intentions.) But they have an additive effect.
There is no thematic break or stylistic rupture in Kim’s poetry, despite the length of her career. The kitchen remains bloody and agonistic, demanding the preparation of yet another family meal. Knives and carcasses and dark orifices exist in otherworldly spaces. “Moon is shining like the lens of the patient’s eyeball / and I’m sitting on the white of his eye / examining his sadness,” she writes. Objects are extruded and sheathed. “A pair of fish-bone-shoes you can slip onto bare feet.” “Spiky sprouts burrow through your teary eyes.” Animals, real and mythological, fit inside one another, like turducken: “A rat / devours a sleeping white rabbit . . . . A rat devours a piglet that has fallen into a pot of porridge.” She captures the anger I detected in Seoul, which every woman has learned to gulp down. We are better off than we were when Kim started to write, no doubt. Yet we are still that rabbit, that punctured foot, that floating object compelled to reproduce.
One day, Kim and I rode a “village bus” (the rickety public equivalent of a hyper-local dollar van) up a steep incline to Gilsangsa, a Buddhist temple in Seoul. Gilsangsa is small and new and used to be a barbecue restaurant before coming to house an order of robed vegetarians. Kim and I walked the verdant grounds. We admired the low walls of ceramic tile and clay and circled a seven-tiered stone pagoda. Rain arrived, first in droplets, then in blocks, overwhelming our umbrellas. As we scampered downhill in muddy shoes, we were splashed by luxury S.U.V.s pulling up to gated houses. (The area has long been home to chaebol executives and retired authoritarians.) My Korean became more tentative in the din of the storm. “I like your accent and the mistakes you make. You sometimes use the wrong word,” she once told me. I was mortified, but convinced myself that it was actually a compliment—a poet taking pleasure in the jagged accidents of language.
We last hung out in late September, when she and Choi did a reading at the Seoul International Writers’ Festival. Kim spoke into a microphone as Choi’s translations were blown up on a pink-tinted screen behind her. The poet Kim Haengsook and several friends from the publishing world were there, as were Kim Hyesoon’s daughter and Choi’s husband. All but two of us were women. During Korea’s #MeToo movement, “there were so many accusations made and so many men who disappeared,” Kim had told me, that “when you open a literary magazine today, everyone’s a woman. Even the novelists.” This felt very true. The writers winning awards, getting buzz, and getting translated were mostly women, and often quite young—a second generation influenced by Kim. I thought of Lee Soho, whose raw début, “Catcalling,” was published in English, in 2021. I could imagine Kim dispensing the advice that appears in one of Lee’s poems: “You know I read a lot of debut collections these days. Listen, being a poet means going crazy. . . . Kill all your literary heroes and jump over our dead bodies. . . . hang on the edge of poetry. Then take another step forward from there.”
Our post-festival group walked to a Japanese restaurant for dinner. We sat at a row of tables along a linguistic gradient: the native Korean speakers on one end, then Kim’s daughter and Choi and me, then those who were English-only. We clinked tiny cups of sake and shared donburi bowls of silken eggs, braised meat, and seafood over rice. Kim was the doyenne of the festival, the mother of our feminine chatter. I remembered an old poem of hers, “The Story in Which I Appear as All the Characters 3.” The speaker of the poem is a forty-year-old woman, a child not yet born, and an old woman—all of them Kim. The poem ends:
We are stacked like three spoons
On top of a pillow
we turn our faces together
The forty-year-old-me in the middle
grinds her teeth saying,
I’m scared I’m scared ♦