Autobiography of Death
by Kim Hyesoon
translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi
Art by Fi Jae Lee
I first read this book in winter, in a smoky café that had its Christmas lights up. I then read it again last week sat under my air conditioning unit when it felt too muggy and hot to move outside. The experience of reading this collection of poems is unsteadying: it seems like a winter book, but reading it in summer is de-centering in an utterly different way. This book, the International Winner of the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize, feels holographic when you read it: different lights cast different colors, and it’s always moving.
I’m concerned that this review will be too short, but I’m honestly afraid of saying too much about the book: it would be easy to ramble and postulate, but the fact is, one must simply sit and read it. What I will say is: Kim Hyesoon penned these poems, which number 49 (one for each day that a soul must wait after dying to be reincarnated), after the 2014 sinking of the Sewol Ferry, which killed 304 of the passengers aboard, many of whom were secondary school students. With the capsized ferry hanging over the collection, the poems are sodden in, above all else, despair. The collection, itself a stationary object, is a moving-through.
The collection is preoccupied with nightmarish impossibilities captured within objects, with movement within stasis. Witness:
In the morning, filthy flowers bloom inside your eyes!
They burrow through your black pupils
Creepy pistils and stamen protrude through them!
What’s the point of flying when the sky is the inside of a grave?
So many times in this collection there are horrifying moments, nightmare-like fantasies that we, relieved, push away on waking. It cannot happen, we say, it will not happen: but it can, and that is where the horror, and the despair, burst from. How could this happen? Kim Hyesoon asks. “So, where are you going / with a red foreclosure notice stuck to your back?” Our bodies are never truly ours, so how do we pay taxes on them? Death is the where, death is the why, and for us, it is cruel and it is senseless.
The collection grasps at reality. The reader is arrested by the doubling that takes place in the lines, in the mentions of things that are brightly bright, of enormously enormous envelopes, and
don’t go don’t go don’t come don’t come
you bark kung kung at your own name that’s running away
like a dog barking at the moon
The doubling, here, ensures and sets the magic and the movement, while also pegging the lines into place. We are reminded that “pain is deep, death is shallow and made ridiculous by pain”—this is the answer to that ridiculousness, to the despair that our little bodies cope with.
Throughout the collection, devastatingly rendered into English by the wonderful Don Mee Choi, the reader is broken down over and over again. It’s a beautiful breaking down, and a wondrous rendering. The English here is exhausting as much as it is itself exhaustion (“Please give me the there / the arrival after arrival,” a begging for stability), the translation is itself as inevitable, terrible, and beautiful as the doublings and holograms cast by the lines. Another beautiful part of the text is that which is not text, but the artwork by Fi Jae Lee, which is peppered throughout. At first appearing bubbly, the artwork is itself drooping and loopy, sinister and endlessly complex. The drawings are the same trick as a magic eye picture: you must learn the unfocusing that leads to focusing, and the learning comes from the poetry.
If I may, I’d like to recommend companion reads to this one. If you want to be devastated reading poetic prose based in real-life events, I recommend Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, which beautifully weaves together many instances of stomach-jerking, rug-out-from-under-your-feet events that leave the reader reeling; and Human Acts by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, rooted in the Gwangju Uprising and massacre. Human Acts, too, is rooted deeply in senseless death of young people, and starts with a dread-inducing view of a drifting afterlife. All three of these books kicked me in the stomach, and they all have a deep hold on my heart and my guts.
Why is your soul human when your spine is a pen and your shadow is a hen?
Is it true that poets see a piece of filthy paper at the time of their death?