Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi
Action Books, 2014
Reviewed by Lisa A. Flowers
Since her debut Mommy Must be a Fountain of Feathers, Kim Hyesoon (via the superb ear and musicality of her translator, Don Mee Choi) has been conjuring up poetry that positively shrieks with highly girlish poltergeist activity. Her third collection, Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, is no less of a boisterous ouija wifi hot/coldspot, with many of its entities seeming to hail from the great, lost, surrealist age of Looney Toons. Ideas seem to fly out of pages in particles or wallops, embedding themselves into readers’ eyes or planting lipsticked peelable cartoon kisses on their cheeks. Haunted houses go insane and begin sucking up their inhabitants through long straws, ice cream soda-like. Possessed water starts barking, and molars extract themselves and go flying off into the sunset. Souls, formed or deformed like hail into glass beads, clatter from heaven to asphalt, and the ancient, lonely moon decides to efface herself with vanishing cream—leaving the world, by implication, in perpetual darkness.
Aging itself, in fact, is a recurring theme in Sorrow. As girlish as the book is, it also teems with the voices of deceased matriarchs who have ascended to a hive-busyghosthood, and who are adjusting to the transition much as their young granddaughters back on earth are adjusting to the onset of puberty, menstruation, etc. One poem whizzes by in the form of “the feeling of wrinkles/on top of a flying discus,”while another‘s protagonist laments her
Eyelashes trapped in my retina for the last time when I die
Like a Christmas tree deserted years ago in a vacant house
In “High and Deep,” heaven and the underworld go up and down like mood swings, and ages of maturity and development switch back and forth:
The head of the newborn that has arrived from the blackest “high”
is like a rice cake covered in honey
The infant that has seen its mommy’s face in color for the first time cries loudly
Grandmother her nails painted with red nail-polish left for the “deep”
someone banged bang bang bang on the door of the world in color
I received a letter and a black and white photo from the grandmother who
became a citizen of the “high” country saying that she’d become a student in pigtails
Everyone, in other words—alive or dead, young or old, inanimate object or sunset—is growing up here; or, at least, growing into something. In “God’s Obsession Regarding Cross-Stitch And Lace,” the question of baby lace’s fate—whether it will “grow up to be a bloodied undergarment” or become “an outfit worn in the ground below”—is anybody’s guess. Even roses eventually start menstruating, trailing “blood-filled stems” as they go.
The influence of horror cinema (as is usual with Hyesoon’s work) is central. Suggestions of The Eye drift by in the image of “the scream of a pair of slippers passing by with an IV bottle hooked onto a pole [echoing] along the hallway tap tap tap.” In another poem, George Clooney leaps out of Up in the Air and turns into the Cheshire Cat. More than anything, however, the book is the pitch-perfect companion piece to Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s joyous, spurty, demented Hausu; that film’s self-insanguinating feline painting even makes an appearance as “the red nostrils of a white cat/spilling blood/coagulating on the whitest wall,” and, as in the movie, a girl is attacked by malevolent bedding, her face “white as the ripped comforter with its strewn filling/inside [a] damp lace grave, her mouth filled with white foam.”
Hyesoon is also—and perhaps even foremost—a political writer, however, and Sorrow is thick with political texts and subtexts. The 18 page epic “I’m OK, I’m Pig!,” which appears at the end of the book, is a grotesquely brilliant manifesto about all sorts of social issues/atrocities. But, far from distracting us from the gravity of such concerns, Hyesoon’s surrealism only forces us to pay closer attention. Her images come at us at so high a velocity that to drift off for even a minute is to find oneself covered in tar, glitter, duck feathers, bone fragments, and the pureed consequences of the world’s actions: the world a bashed open piñata, its consequences flying everywhere.
In other words, linear meaning here is ultimately less effective than visceral response. Indeed, Hyesson herself seems to be mocking the folly of naming (or at least noting the impossibility of it) with lines like “Maybe the name ‘bird’ is the illness of the name ‘bird’) … a possible variation on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s observation that “birds born in a cage think flying is an illness.”
Sorrow is also a foodie’s delight, as if it were a puree of Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover all tussed up in a Nutri-Bullet. The culinary, in fact, is the preferred “host image” for transmigration gone both good and bad, as in “Pensive Bodhisattva Touching His Belly Button”:
When I lifted the belly button of an odd-looking pot lid
a huge aluminum temple came up attached to the lid
old bald-headed monks roaming
when the monks saw my face looking down as I lifted the temple lid
They screamed, Floating soul! Floating soul!
They were like black dumplings
At other times, the culinary joins Meret Oppenheim:
I wonder who squeezed me
Like white cream onto a green furry plate
The “turned” side of nourishment is also a concern, as in “Kitchen Confidential,” where a speaker’s Adam’s Apple sits “ready to decompose like a rotten oyster,” and “the end of autumn is always the kitchen of every house.” Other characters wander around in Greek mythology punishment-like “shoes that have become hot as a rice sacks,” shoving their feet “into pots of perfectly cooked rice.” In the book’s appendix, Hyesoon describes poetry’s “vast outer side” (aka “the other side of cognition”) as a “cloud mill … a place cloud (poetry) knows but poet (me) doesn’t know.” And in “Umbrella,” uncontrollable cascades of poetic ideas, themselves, are “noodles[spilling] out at the cloud mill …”a night of sobbing and jostling through the noodles.”
With its cartoonish freakshowery, fantastic surprises popping up around every corner, and simple but fabulously bizarre diction, Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream is a collection that intelligent children and adults alike will trip on and all-up-into. It’s the kind of book that’s as suited for DMT/LSD as it is for a vividly imagination-stimulating preschool storytime; and, of course, it’s a must for any occult-obsessee. “What do you want to be when you die?” Hyesoon asks us in “Saturn’s Sleeping Pill.” “I’m going to be something without borders.” If this is her goal, her mission has certainly been accomplished with flying colors, in poetry and maybe even (who can ever tell, in this life?) in the afterworld, as well.
Lisa A. Flowers is a poet, critic, cinephile, ailurophile, and the founding editor of Vulgar Marsala Press. She is the author of diatomhero: religious poems, and her work has appeared in various magazines and online journals. Raised in Los Angeles and Portland, OR, she now resides in Colorado. Visit her here.