6 May 2019: Kim Hyesoon's Autobiography of Death
Monday, 6 May 2019
I was sick for a couple days last week, but I started to feel better, so I took myself on a walk. On a whim, I visited the Forbes Library (Northampton, MA’s public library). Without a specific book in mind, I perused the new books section and found Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death, translated by her long-time translator Don Mee Choi.
Before I delve in, I should give the caveat that I read this book from outside of the contemporary Korean literary landscape and without a clear sense of Hyesoon’s poetics within her context, so my engagement and interpretation is very much guided by the contextualization provided in the interview and the translator’s note.
I really devoured this book, even more than I have any of her other books (in part because I think this New Directions edition was well-designed). Both on the cover and in the guts, the book features amazing drawings by Hyesoon’s daughter, the artist Fi Jae Lee.
The premise of Autobiography of Death is simple, “[it]…consists of forty-nine poems, a poem for each day that the spirit roams after death before it enters the cycle of reincarnation” as well as a long poem coda called “Faces of Rhythm,” an interview between the author and the translator, and a translator’s note. As my friend Una observed, more translated work should come with this apparatus!
When I began to read this work, I began a conversation with it. I asked it the things that are preoccupying me, like: what I am to make of the autobiographical imperative of trans writing, both as a critic and as a poet (and I tend ask this of books by cisgender authors, too, and authors outside of this gender schema)? Moreover, what am I to make of the trauma imperative of marginalized writers more generally (that thing that Vivek Shraya calls being turned into a trauma clown)? Can I write in response to some of the horrors of my time in a way that doesn’t simply colonize the experiences of others?
Autobiography of Death turned out to be a very generous book to approach with these questions in mind.
Like Caroline Bergvall’s Drift, a section of which deals explicitly with what has been termed the left-to-die boat, Hyesoon was directly inspired by the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster—another tragedy on the water borne of abdication of responsibility made more tragic by a lack of meaningful institutional response.
Hyesoon’s connection seems to be one of proximity (it is explained that she worked near the school the children who died in the accident attended) and a spiritual calling to be the voice of death.
Throughout Autobiography of Death, I’m reminded of the chthonic work of Alice Notley (Hyesoon, from “Commute: Day One,” “On the subway your eyes roll up once. That’s eternity.”), who also unblinkingly declares her spiritual purview and dares us to question it. And increasingly I can’t help but wonder if Notley was writing the same work now, but as a younger writer (or simply a writer without her stature), whether it would be as celebrated, for the very reason that I think of much of her work as involving poetic channeling, mediumship. We are in an era of the strong standpoint, and mediums, by definition, don’t speak for themselves.
Hyesoon’s poetic realm of the roaming dead is a deep weird place. Also Notley-esque is the way she takes death, which you or I might think of as a floor for thought, and relentlessly deepens it further. From “I Want to Go to the Island: Day Twenty”:
It’s midnight and you’re bored. You can’t fall asleep.
You go out on the deck. The vast sky and ocean are a black mirror. It
You think about the sleeping fish inside the black mirror.
You think about the gluttony of the vast mirror that leaves nothing behind,
not even a single shadow.
You ponder, what if starting tomorrow the days without sunrise continue?
Then we’d be inside this black mirror 24 hours a day, and who’d dip a pen
into the mirrorwater to write about us?
I’m reminded of the “The Black Stone into which Dr Dee used to call his spirits …”—this is a mirror that reflects the spiritual world, or really I should stop calling it spiritual, but I don’t know what else to call the nothingness that exists inside of nothingness.
Start to lose my steam, because I’m writing this all in one go and I stop to look at twitter, where Phillip B. Williams has issued an invitation for people to post a poem by their mentor and where, scrolling down, I see “Humanimal [I want to make a dark mirror out of writing]” by Bhanu Kapil, a poem that is actually very much in conversation with Hyesoon’s work. In it, Kapil writes:
Writing makes a mirror between the two children who perceive each other. In a physical world, the mirror is a slice of dark space. How do you break a space? No. Tell me a story set in a different time, in a different place. Because I'm scared. I'm scared of the child I'm making.
This fear permeates Hyesoon’s work, too. Fear for children, fear of them—or at least awareness that they will consume the body of the mother, as in “Dinner Menu: Day Twenty-Nine”:
There’s no rice in Mommy’s rice jar
There’s no money in Mommy’s purse
There’s no fire in Mommy’s kitchen
Today, Mommy cooks pan-fried hair
Yesterday, Mommy cooked braised thighs
Tomorrow, Mommy will cook sweet and sour fingers
In the interview, Don Mee Choi asks, “Why is death your primary ingredient?” to which Hyesoon gives a reply which initially takes on the depiction of cooking in her work as a feminist literary issue, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could cook with raindrops, wind or clouds like my country’s male, lyric poets?” but then, in the spirit of her poetry, goes someplace even deeper, “However, in my poems, it’s death that’s doing the cooking. Empty cooking—emptiness cooks the empty.”
Bodies emptied of life are also emptied of the attributes of life so (stay with me) the deeper into death I followed Hyesoon, the more I felt gender being stripped away. In the interview, Hyesoon talks about “women’s language” and I think of Cixous’s écriture féminine.
Women’s language is a language of death. The body of a woman poet is a form of text. But it’s a text of the deaf, mute, and blind. That’s because the mother-tongue sits on men’s tongue. Listen to the body’s speech—you hear the hiccups, coughs, phlegm bubbling up. It may be that women’s or death’s song is sung only in vowels, without the consonants. They say the name of Father, God, is made only of consonants, but the language of women, death, is made up of sounds that come before or after language. The sounds of vowels can be made with lungs, diaphragm, kidneys, anus, genitals, and heart. Vowels are connected to the holes of the body. Women’s body, the body of death, interacts with other bodies, endlessly changing and becoming. It does not objectify other bodies; instead, it wants to mix with them. It wants to multiply, longs for assemblage. At the place where the body becomes anonymous, disenfranchised, and expelled, is where the language of death, women’s language is born—language that grapples with the language of anonymity, negativity, non-gender specific language. The kind of writing that has definite subjects and objects, that depicts its objects in detail, objectifying them, then adding grandiose aphorisms to them is, of course, masculine writing that has been preserved in Korea by History. But the feminine writing of death begins from a place of emptiness/nothingness, a place that’s full of the presence of absence. In that place, there are sounds that are considered embarrassing to the world of meaning, but not at all to the world of body (sound). In the end, what the poems in this collection want to reach is sound.
The emphases are mine. I’m so fixated on this passage that seems to present such an image of gender as being so rooted in the body, which I read with suspicion, being so used encountering mother as a metonym for woman. But I get the feeling—or I want to get the feeling—that this is a space I can know and be a part of. Have known and have been a part of. And Hyesoon seems to confirm this, “At the place where the body becomes anonymous, disenfranchised, and expelled, is where the language of death, women’s language is born—language that grapples with the language of anonymity, negativity, non-gender specific language.”
Re-reading this piece so far, at this point it starts to seem as if I am trying to insert myself where I don’t belong. But really, it’s the opposite. I am already at the place Hyesoon describes (which is why I read her book so ravenously and felt so intuitively connected to it) and I am working my way back through to understand why I feel myself to belong there.
In her translator’s note, Don Mee Choi clarifies:
The new tongue Kim invents, based on the long tradition of poetics and politics of expulsion, can be called expelled tongue. Autobiography, its multitude of death, its multitude of you, speaks expelled tongue. As an expelled child, I also speak it and translate it. I refuse to rot. For a child-translator, translation is an act of autogeography.
Continuing on the next page to say, “A child-translator’s special responsibility lies with remaining small, keeping her ink-stained fingers nimble enough to trigger a butterfly’s dainty legs. Autogeography is an act of autotranslation.”
Reading this, I think to embark on my own descent, which begins:
I wanted to write as a
woman but while I figured
out my options, the passwords
had been changed
In my notebook, my notebody,
I clarified for who would come
after me, the star meant
the morning had been crossed
the pages had been crossed out
which had its own tongue
had been crossed out as had
but the crossed out words were
the shape of my letters contain
a pitch or proposal submitted
for consideration in themselves
while the lines dig below
The password to the ground
Dread a friend says and I
know who she means
Dread who walks
who wears one shoe
with the appearance of a
real threat with vague
whose other moniker is the
the milky coffee cools in the
cup, developing a skin
The skin loses its glamour
once we heard about the micro-
Different parts of our same
old bodes become briefly
in the cave I imagine walking
into the resignifications of
my kith earn us the moniker
this cave seems vulvic
originary billboards say
it’s the oldest place in town
but I can’t stop there
I’m going someplace earlier
than genital logic I say
trepidaciously to the panel
There’s no place lower that
doesn’t just lead you back to
the mother but to prove it
to me, one of them
moved to pull the lever
But, as yet, I have only begun to descend.