The biggest hindrance to American art is the inability to see anything outside our own walls. We’re proud of being a “melting pot,” but when it comes to culture not inherently American (Wendy’s, baseball, crime drama, pop music, fences), it’s hard to convince us that we should care. In literature, as opposed to other media, introducing work to a US audience requires translation, an undertaking that brings with it a bag of problems most profit-oriented American publishers won’t approach unless it’s a ready-made bonanza, like the books of Roberto Bolaño. Imagine, then, the continuum of masterworks we’re missing out on from every language we don’t speak.
In the introduction to Kim Hyesoon’s All The Garbage of the World, Unite!, translator Don Mee Choi recounts a great example of the type of problem translated works often run into. An American literary journal, after showing interest in one of Choi’s Korean-to-English translations of a Kim poem, requested that the word “hole” be replaced with something else, on the grounds that “hole has negative connotations in our culture.” Choi had used the word in reminding her reader that, during the Korean War, 250,000 pounds of napalm were dropped by the American military each day, turning her country into a mass of holes where once there had been houses, mountains, rice fields. She told the magazine she “didn’t have time to think about it.”
Kim is no stranger to stodgy literary types. At the time she began writing, classical forms in the hands of aristocratic men had long dominated Korean poetry. “I often felt as if my tongue were paralyzed,” Kim has said. “For me the vast open field of the unknown and the prison existed simultaneously.” Over time, poetry in her country has slowly opened up with the rise of free verse, feminism, and activism.
Reading Kim’s most recent translated work, Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, one finds a swarming body of imagination and ideas, which, given the book's social context, could hardly be more rebellious. Any traditional mythos of “the woman” has been completely shattered into a body teeming with imagery that mutates from line to line, melding everyday roles such as mother and teacher into phantasmagoric collages of rats wearing black bras, a house with hands buried in chocolate cake, aspirin hatching into more aspirin. The limits of creativity here are so wide that very quickly we find we’ve fallen through the holes old wars blew open, into something like the endless dreams of millions dead.
Two Poems from Kim Hyesoon’s Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream
It runs to avoid a streak of rain that follows like the needle of a sewing machine then
turns at the corner and pulls out red bricks from its body and builds a wall then
runs off with even more zeal when the street lamps come on prick-prick as they chase
listens carefully to the anxious cicadas slicing up the road then
when the windows of the building in the distance are lit up as I get cramps in my ankle
watches the red nostrils of a white cat spilling blood beneath the wall then
coagulates on the whitest white wall that’s like a bolt of cotton unrolled
when the needle enters the body and exits pulling out a tiny vein
the blood vessel swells then spurts unable to hold back one blossom two blossoms then
the thorns poke through every sweat pore ah it’s prickly ah it's prickly then
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
yet the red silk that I step on with a pair of white socks is a puddle of blood
I’m endlessly dizzy after a lifetime of transfusions and so
I wither around the corner
Spurting up red every single day makes me turn blue
—the roses were blooming
but they had spilt blood then left
"All the Rats of the World, Unite!"
As I run towards the school gate, wet from the rain, I hear footsteps behind me tap tap tap
The dark wet metallic mirror shatters beneath my feet and a pack of rats climbs all over
My wrist that myfathermymothermyteacher used to pull, the wrists cling on
and braid their long hair, the pack of rats climb up my pants like barbarians drenched in rain
Even while I’m running in rain a pair of rats mate. My male rat and my female rat copulate about twenty times a day, and if capable the male mates with other female rats. The female’s gestation period is 21 days. 8 or 10 rats are born from a single belly. Give birth then get pregnant then give birth then get pregnant. They give birth twelve times a year. Baby rats give birth to more baby rats, then give birth again, so then I’m able to give birth to myself 15000 times per year.
Black words are written on a white face, K H S scrawled faintly with a finger, my name
in black, the consonants and vowels splashed onto my face by a tail dipped in ink
The speeding bus splatters memories, a schoolgirl in a wet summer uniform lies down in
the bus and weeps. The rat hidden inside her skirt pregnant with a litter of ten, twenty rats
cries like a crazy cat
The smelly pigtails drenched in rain, the raging barbarians
I have enough holes in my body to sink the sky
Tails are attached to countless rain-splattering shoes
The filthy garden beneath the black asphalt fills up with water
Hey kids, don’t gnaw on the wires, turn off the lights in the classroom
When I leave the basementsflocktogether. Storagesflocktogether. Shedsflocktogether. Womenintheshedswiththeirskirtsliftedflocktogether. Sewersflocktogether. Septictanksflocktogether. Garbagebinsflocktogether. Horsestablesflocktogether. Prisonsflocktogether. Disappearedwomenflocktogether. Lungs fly off like rats, intestines slip out like rats, tongues elongate like rats, chins fall out like rats, ears buzz like rats, muscles crumble like a pack of rats. Knees give out like rats and feet run off like rats.
A horde of rats runs spitting out blood after being wacked by a broom woven with streaks
I feel like crying so don’t look at me! I’m a teacher but inside why am I always a
A rat as big as a house lifts and ignites a heart as small as an infant’s fingernail and runs
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