'Meme is a lone tree that got planted in a bed'

Towards a surrealism of old age: Kim Hyesoon's 'An Old Woman' & 'Princess Abandoned'

Kim Hyesoon & Don Mee Choi, February, 2009, Chicago AWP bookfair

Among recent notices on my Facebook feed was one for the new issue of Big Bridge, in particular a feature on “Neo-surrealism,” edited by Adam Cornford.  Cornford’s expansive introduction to the feature, which looks back to the history of surrealism and forward to his selection of living poets, includes this definition of his subject: “What defines a Surrealist poetry today, then, is what has defined it from the outset . . . Surrealist poetry can only be ‘a cry of the mind determined to break apart its fetters.’ It must contribute, intentionally or otherwise, to the liberation of the mind ‘and all that resembles it.’” I’m not here to argue against the mind’s liberation, rather to suggest that newer forms of surrealism can be used effectively to record what occurs before the imagined line break in Cornford’s phrase, “the mind determined to break apart / its fetters.” The breaking apart of a mind, most familiar to me as a product (or anti-product) of dementia and Alzheimer’s, can be tracked through what I’ve elsewhere called “documentary surrealism.” In the blog post to which I just offered a link, I wrote:  “To say that dementia is a surreal condition is probably not to say anything anyone doubts who has confronted a relative or friend with Alzheimer’s disease. More interesting, on a literary level, is the way in which writing about dementia creates a hybrid form, documentary surrealism. If documentary poetry combines the strengths of historical writing, journalism, collage, and the lyric, then documentary surrealism opens up the field to the ways in which the imagination is actualized by mental illness or other extreme states (such as the post-traumatic syndrome Andre Breton dealt with during WWI when he treated soldiers off the battlefield).”

The surrealism that western readers know comes from Europe by way of African influences; it spread to the Caribbean and the United States.  The line-up of Cornford’s feature in Big Bridge is all American.  But there’s a surrealism less well known to western readers, which comes to us from Asia.  Some of its purveyors, like Linh Dinh, write in English.  We’re made aware of others through translation.  One of the best contemporary surrealists is Kim Hyesoon, a Korean poet whose work is translated by another poet, Don Mee Choi.  Their newest book is All the Garbage of the World Unite! (Action Books, 2011).  There are so many potential ways to read this book, as critique of empire (a method more than suggested by Choi in her brief preface), as feminist poetry, as an investigation of insides and outsides (and inside outsides), as surrealism.  But I want to turn to a single poem, “An Old Woman,” to illustrate the way in which this poet’s surrealism works to describe the realities of old age.  The old woman of the poem is a tree, the tree a “meme.” No accident that, I presume.  This tree, like any tree, can’t move far: “She’s a tree that can’t even turn over or rub with her fingers / when the first butterfly she has waited for tickles with its thin toes / the spaces between the grooves of her lips” (65).  Because she can’t move (physically, psychically), she must be cared for:

meme’s waist is so wide that she can’t bend
over or lie down by herself
Someone must come and change
her underwear and diapers

and then a few lines later:

No one can walk beside her with head held up in the air
because of the stench she gives out when she cries before the first leaves
of the season sprout and the dogs lift their legs and piss on her lower
trunk and take off

Like so many of Kim Hyesoon’s symbols, that of the tree is at once abstract (this old person, like a tree, can’t move) and literal (both tree and old woman stink).  Both trees are planted in beds, though the “planting” and the “bed” are different images and acts, indeed.  Her images tend to hover, waver between fact and sur-fact, between our ideas of the thing and the thing itself.  Yes, old age is an idea, she seems to be telling us, but it is also smelly.  Even that smelliness is unstable, as Kim makes clear in the final stanza of this poem:

memememe is a lone big tree
Her stench of sadness when she cries before the first flower of the
season bloom
is so unbearable that my family members carry a bowl of medicine
and hold their noses outside the door     (66)

Now it is her sadness that smells, the actions of her family that make a louder stench.  The meme can be read as “me me me me,” or an acknowedgement that we are all — if we’re lucky — headed for this condition of stinky paralysis.  Noses will be held outside our doors, not those of an old woman who stands in for all old women as meme.

Kim is such an effective poet of old age because she knows that life is always already entangled with death and dying.  In her recent Tinfish Press chapbook of three short essays, Princess Abandoned, also translated by Choi, Kim writes of her poetic practice, a “poetry of hearing”: “The performer cannot develop her body and soul, her life as the performer of the Abandoned, without making contact with ghosts . . . making contact with her own spirit allows her to communicate with other spirits through the bodies of the others and enables her to guide the spirits of the dead to a safe place (?) in the netherworld at the request of her regulars” (np).   The poet is a midwife, in other words, who pulls bodies out of life and into death, or who performs the opposite task.  This activity also pulls the reader into the text, “incorporates” that reader.  No mistake that this poet is also obsessed with bodies eating other bodies, whether they are cats consuming rats or persons swallowing tornados.  In the poem entitled “To Swallow a Tornado,” Kim writes an elegy for the Abandoned, using the metaphor of consumption again.  Perhaps this amounts to an over-reading, but Kim herself suffered from tuberculous pleurisy, or “consumption” as a child, hence knows what it means for one’s body and one’s spirit to find themselves at odds.  And so, “When my body becomes tight as a bow I can see everything”:

My beloved, the last skeleton beneath your hair is already dead
The rake-like smile of the wind spreads
on the backs of the pedestrians walking hurriedly
God has clawed and gathered up the empty blankets
of those who have departed this world
and lit a blue fire far up above
The world is like transparent silk underwear
you can see right through it      (61)

For Kim, the act of hovering between life and death is explicitly feminine, and writing about this state is feminist.  Meditating on the “woman-poet,” she notes: “at some point she realizes that she must embrace the inside’s death; unless she accepts it, she will not be able to accept her own reality.  Then she reaches a point where she can name her death.  She accepts the conception of death with its intensity akin to painful childbirth.” Identity is transformed in this “connection with death.” Whether or not this is true for all of us “women-poets” and “men-poets,” Kim has arrived at a beautiful approach to writing about old age and death.  For, despite her poems’ astringency, their brave confrontation with the “holes” that surround us, they come out of a deep “merriment.” “Without merriment,” she writes, “poetry remains on a singular plane. In order to achieve polyphonic planes, my poetry needs to be merry — inside things, between things, inside the multiple ’I’s’ and between the multiple “I’s’” (Garbage x).  It’s this “merriment” that brings together the twin connotations of freedom and loss in Surrealism’s notion of “mental liberation."

Notes for further reading:

Kim Hyesoon’s books, translated by Don Mee Choi, can be found at Action Books.  Tinfish Press has published two chapbooks by Kim Hyesoon, here and here.  Don Mee Choi’s book, The Morning News is Exciting, was also published by Action Books.

Jessica Lawson’s review of Mommy Must Be a Mountain of Feathers, by Kim Hyesoon, Don Mee Choi, trans. is at Jacket2, here.

Kim Hyesoon was interviewed by Ruth Williams.

Some new work by Kim Hyesoon.