All the Garbage of the World, Unite! by Kim Hyesoon (trans. Don Mee Choi). Action Books. 70 pp., $16.95.
Hole, my beggar.
Hole, my prince.
Hole, my steel-enforced concrete that allows my body’s movement.
Hole, my distant mandala.
“Manhole Humanity,” the final poem in Kim Hyesoon’s collection All the Garbage of the World, Unite! excellently translated by Don Mee Choi and published by Action Books in 2011, is a poem of such life-consuming, life-barfing, life-giving, life-gulping intensity, I’ve fallen into its hole trying to choose a line or two from which to begin talking about it.
Another manhole humanity is born. Time makes a hole in the baby’s body.
Time puts a manhole on the baby’s head.
So many connotations for “hole” in English, and most of them disturbing. Each hole asks the reader to define it: body cavity? Crude sexual representation? Gaping maw in the physical earth? And caused by what—genetic code? Mines? Bombs? Shovels? Erosion? Is it a grave? A wound? An entrance? An exit?
“Hole” in English is a homonym of whole, and sounds like hold. A manhole covers a sewer, but is permeable, spewing gas and steam and sometimes liquid. Pipes and rainwater and streetcleaners’ efforts send humanity’s foulness in and out. Men and women open them up, crawl inside the city’s bowels.
In her translator’s note, Choi writes that an American journal to which she’d submitted her translation of Kim’s poem, “A Hole” asked her to use an alternate word, because of the negative connotations of the word ‘hole’ in our culture. Choi’s response:
To change “hole” to something else would be to change the world “A Hole” came from. During the Korean War (1950-53), about 250,000 pounds of napalm per day were dropped by the United States forces. Countless mountains, hills, rice fields, and houses were turned into holes. Four million perished, leaving more holes. It is a place that is positively holey. Kim Hyesoon’s hole poem comes from there and so do I.
I lack the necessary skills to read Kim’s work in the original Korean, nor am I a translator myself. That said, what makes Choi’s translation exceptional to me is how directly and intuitively she translates the work, letting the language do for itself what approximation or metaphor could not. It reads like channeling (more on the sensory onslaught of Kim’s poems later). Imagine if Choi translated words like “whitestwhite” as “very white” instead. Imagine if she chose to translate the following line in standard English, with spaces between words:
I’mtoldtopray praywithoutanyrest pleadwithmytears obeyalwaysboey . . .
Clearly the passage would lose power in the strength of its arrhythmia, its uneasy didacticism of recitation and repetition. Translated by Choi, Kim’s poems are tumors and boils. This is not to say they don’t engage the intellect, but that they do so rooting themselves in the messy, uneasy body.
The poems in All the Garbage of the World, Unite! then, are as urgent as they come. Taken as a whole, theydocument the extreme state in which humanity wallows at this moment in our collective existence. In a discussion of surrealism in Kim’s work, Susan Schultz claims that “the imagination is actualized by mental illness or other extreme states.” The extreme state in All the Garbage is a state of nature—both our human nature, and that of the ecologies we exist in and coexist among—specifically defiled by humans, as garbage is created by humans. Kim’s work condenses and actualizes this extreme state of being; it acts as an artistic representation of the “tipping point,” a term coined by political scientist Mortin Grodzins in his 1958 study on race relations in metropolitan areas (the “white flight” phenomenon), and historically used in reference to both race and gender (though now widely associated with global warming).
This tipping point, as with any tipping point, is perhaps rapidly approaching, perhaps now receding into our past, and humanity can’t seem to collectively care enough to put on the brakes. Kim’s multifarious use of the term “hole” encapsulates the sociological and ecological tipping point as a leaky, osmotic condition of 21st century being. Her highly imagistic lines portray the breaking apart, the breaking open, and the seemingly endless consumption, but interestingly, her poems also enact these processes. They are holes full of holes birthing holes and decomposing holes. To read her work is to be in an extreme state, to sense the tipping through imagery and also to be toxic, to spew and ingest and implode. To be the tipping through the actualized imagination.
Which way do we fall, among so much news-hearing, toxin-absorbing, pollutant-ingesting, open-holed wallowing? At what point do we break—down, or in, or out? Isn’t it already happening? Isn’t it always happening, for someones, somewheres? In Kim’s work, definitively yes, —and it is messy, assertive, ugly, desperate, even joyful.
Kim Hyesoon doesn’t resist purification of nature and beautification of language, she exults in defiling it. As Ruth Williams of Guernica puts it, she “defile[s] them with the violent expressions of an oppressed identity.” Nature is violent and animate as well as pastoral and serene:
This bright green sea. I’ll plug all the deep holes. Inside the green there is rotting water, the corpses spew out, the bitterest blue, tannic darkness, red fishiness, lips minty yellow, so I’ll chew and swallow all these deep faraway-sky-grassy-green holes. I’ll crush them all and smear my body with them. In front of the people who tied my hands and feet and threw my meal into a dog’s dish, I’ll mash the fields, mountains, all over my body. What if the flowers bloom? What if the flowering holes of my body itch?
Language is created and intensified to meet the needs of these expressions: “red flowers bloom clamclammy” from a woman’s body in “Red Sunset.” “Squeeze hard and have some honey, a gift from pappa, when I opened the lid of the beehive the wigglewiggling larvae filled each hexagonal cell, ahahahah it was like seeing pappaoppa larvae inside each hole of pp,” writes Kim in the amazing poem, “Double-P, How Creepy” (whose footnote explains a recent custom in South Korea for women to refer to their boyfriends as “older brother” and husbands as “daddy” or “papa”). In both cases, the devastating implication is the infantilization of women, a repression by way of language. Rather than pointing to its insufficiency, however, this weird, icky language becomes a tool Kim twists back onto the oppressor by way of the poem.
“Do you know?” she writes in this exquisitely rendered passage from the title poem:
Antsghostscatseyeballgod. Ratholescatsrottingwatergod . . .
Kim’s experimental language constructs a poetry of the senses. Here, and by way of Choi’s translation, the reader doesn’t merely use our dominant sense of sight to read the words and visualize the images. The reader also hears, tastes, smells, and copulates with nature and with the forces at work in nature: birth, growth, decay, and death. In other words, we use our holes. Kim says of this conflation of language and image, and their osmotic absorption and expulsion: “I put the disease of this world and my sick body together. The grotesque in my poems is the motion I use to put myself and the grotesque world together. So the miserable images I use in my poems are the same as the letters I send into the miserable world.”
So why is there joy in this miserable state of extremity? How is it possible that this book feels so urgently exhilarating instead of depressing? I think it’s because the exultant intaking and outpouring that occurs before death is life, of course. But for Kim, to call it life would be to oversimplify and euphemize the gory, glorious coming together of self and world; would be to cauterize the tipping point when its very instability is the source of its power.
Ellen Welcker is a poet living in Seattle. Her first book, The Botanical Garden, was published by Astrophil Press.
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