Review: I’m OK, I’m Pig! by Kim Hyesoon

 Katherine Stansfield reviews Kim Hyesoon’s I’m OK, I’m Pig!, translated by Don Mee Choi (Bloodaxe, 2014).

I'm OK, I'm Pig

Since her poetry debut in 1979, Kim Hyesoon has published ten collections in her home of South Korea. Three have been translated into English and published in the US, and it is selected work from these books – Mummy Must be a Fountain of Flowers, All the Garbage of the World Unite, and Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream – that make up I’m OK, I’m Pig! from Bloodaxe, covering the period 1981 to 2012. The Bloodaxe edition also includes a preface by Hyesoon, transcripts of two fascinating interviews in which she discusses her work and poetics, and an essay by translator Don Mee Choi.

In one of the interviews Hyesoon lists what she considers to be the key words of her poetry: ‘Death, Woman, [South] Korea, You, Seoul, Absence, Illness, Rats, Poetry’. A good example of these themes at work is ‘Seoul’s Dinner’, in which South Korea’s capital is depicted as an insatiable woman:

Pigs enter. The pigs oink and suck on Seoul’s lips. She dips the meat from the pig’s neck in pickled shrimp and eats. Her squirming throat is omnivorous.

The city consumes and digests; she is a powerful, physical presence. Many of the poems are concerned with the body. It is used as a site – often of epic proportions – to explore physical functionality: digestive and reproductive systems, as well as injury. Vomit, shit and rot return again and again, often coupled with violent imagery:

That woman who has worms coming out of her mouth
please don’t hit her too hard
One sack, two sacks of worms fall out of her mouth
because she gets beaten every single day
Later she even pukepukes out her intestines
and her empty body gets mashed
Oh the stench (‘Rainy Season’)

This inversion of the body – puking up the intestines – demonstrates another recurring trope: a concern with entrance and exit points. In ‘Seoul’s Dinner’ the city ‘eats and shits through the same door’. Such notions of inside/outside are central to Hyesoon’s feminist poetics which engage with the gendered history of Korean poetry. Her preface describes the marginalisation of women in Korean’s poetry and its myths but draws attention to one practice that does give women a dominant role: the shaman’s ritual, where ‘the emphasis is on performing songs and dances’. By taking on the mantel of shaman, the poet is able to inhabit a netherworld – conceptualised as a ‘blackened realm’ linked to state censorship by her translator – in which a woman ‘redefines herself, retranslates herself’ in reaction to patriarchal systems. In writing poetry a woman is both inside the ‘blackened realm’ and breaking from it. Though this can mean she is ghost-like, ‘erased’ by the act of writing, this negation isn’t negative but is actually key to participation. In one of the interviews Hyesoon states that ‘regardless of a poet’s gender, poetry is where night is, where absence is’.

The form of Hyesoon’s poems reflects her engagement with the shamanistic tradition. There isn’t a great deal of lyricism but the poems can be incantatory, with chant-like repetition of lines and words that build to crescendos:

The fact that even the whistle stops to talk
The fact that the whistle stop wakes up from sleep, sweating from fever
The fact that the whistle stop even goes for a walk along the tracks deep in the night
(‘Trainspotting’)

Many of the poems are dreamlike, presenting detailed and surreal narratives. Whilst they are undoubtedly powerful I wondered if a symbolic language was in use that I was failing to decode, such as the repeated references to camels. These symbols might be personal or they could be culturally-specific to Korea, or they might be neither. They didn’t detract from my reading of the work but I felt my engagement with it was perhaps partial as a result.

It is difficult to comment on the success of the translation of Hyesoon’s Korean into English, given my lack of knowledge of the original language and the distinctive style of the English-language poems. In one of the interviews, however, Hyesoon explains that Korean is a phonetic language ‘which allows for possibilities of rhyming through countless homonyms’. She notes that in translation it becomes difficult to share such wordplay. Choi’s translations, therefore, must be taken on their own terms, and as such I would argue that assessing their ‘smoothness’ of English isn’t appropriate here. The chaos of the poems’ subject matter, the lack of punctuation and words running into one another all successfully contribute to the surrealism of the work and its sense of urgency.

In terms of Korean history Hyesoon’s poems do not provide a history lesson, yet as a western reader who knows little about the country beyond war, the division of North and South, and brutal dictatorships, it’s tempting to read the violence of many poems as relating to these traumatic events. But should we? Just because the poet is Korean doesn’t mean her writing should be defined by her country’s history, but in places it is clear that real events lie beneath Hyesoon’s surrealism. For example, the book’s title poem is a sequence that takes as its starting point a foot-and-mouth crisis in 2011. Hyesoon informs us in one of the interviews that three million diseased pigs needed to be destroyed but due to ‘difficulties’ in killing them, many were buried alive. Hyesoon saw comparisons with the treatment of human bodies during the years of the dictatorship which subsequently informed the poem. The sequence is compelling and unnerving in equal measure without that information but it’s even more powerful with it.

Hyesoon’s poetry is like nothing I’ve ever read before. This, of course, is a compliment if you believe that poetry should surprise and test a reader, as I do. It might leave you somewhat baffled if you don’t.

 

Katherine Stansfield’s first poetry collection, Playing House, is published by Seren. She lives in Aberystwyth.

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