Contagious poetry

A review of 'Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers'

Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers

Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers

by Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi

Action Books 2008, 80 pages, $12 ISBN 978-0-9799755-1-6

The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others but also to touch and to violence. The body can be the agency and instrument of all these as well, or the site where “doing” and “being done to” become equivocal. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own […] [V]iolence is, always, an exploitation of that primary tie, that primary way in which we are, as bodies, outside ourselves, for one another.
             — Judith Butler, Undoing Gender[1]

I want to shove a finger into the silence and make it vomit (Kim, 45)

Kim Hyesoon’s poetry is hungry. In saying this, I don’t offer hunger as a metaphor for passionate engagement, heightened physicality, or uninhibited desire — though these qualities certainly fill her words, breeding with one another till their progeny creep to the margins of each page. No, the hunger I mean is a great deal more literal. Her poems begin inside the gut. They emerge from the point where the body confronts its own most intense dissatisfaction, the gut emptiness that signals the need to devour. Since that point of emptiness propels mouths and teeth into world-consuming action, her poems reside at that place where the body’s innermost recesses paradoxically present themselves as its outermost limits. If I am hungry, I am hungry at the edge of me, at a place where I almost am not, where I seek to eradicate what I am not by making it me. Poetic appetite is the body’s desire to reach beyond itself, to eat, absorb, expand, and assimilate. Kim’s poems, whether lineated or in prose, whether mythic or idiosyncratic (though rarely only one of these for long), reside at precisely those places between what the body is and what it is not, between the corporeal machinery by which meaning is generated and the meanings which thus emerge, tethered to the body by a string of cat guts and vibrating words.

Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers is preoccupied with the dual actions of burrowing and broadening, marrying those deep recesses of hunger with the outward reach of consumption. As titles like “Inside Inside Inside of a Dream” and “A Hole” suggest, Kim’s poems relentlessly pursue the interiors of things, persons, and, especially, bodies. The result is as philosophical as it is personal: “The you inside you pulls you tight into the inside, so your fingernails curl inward and your outer ears swirl into the inside of your body you would probably leave this life the moment the you inside you lets go of the hand that grabs you” (70). At the same time that these poems shove a curious nose into the warm strangeness within the body, they also portray bodies that bleed out around the edges, expanding and invading the space beyond. In poems like “To Patients with Contagious Diseases,” the verbal matter of Kim’s writing tests the coherent bodies of individual words, as rendered in Don Mee Choi’s translation:

Life, leavesthenreturns, departsthenarrives, and, the, sick, body, burns, up, then, takes, on, life, and, runs, out, again! Look, over there, there. Happiness, painted, in oil, is, inside, a frame, and, now, sa. ccha. rine. Of happiness, flows, like. a. ri. ver. Into, my, blood. If someone, asks, Is anyone alive? Break, your, head, open, and, show, your, ten, ta, cle. (51)

The patient’s disease threatens to reach out beyond the body and invade others, moving with the force of a river that cannot be dammed even when the word river is carefully broken up. Meaning manages to leak out even in the face of verbal mutilation and constant interruption, so that the poem operates by a contagion that spreads among words and makes collective sense of them.[2] Poetry is a virus, its semiotic contagion infusing bodies and connecting us to one another and to the language with which we are infected. Viewed in this way, poetry is both an intimately corporeal act and a guerilla-style revolution in the politics of expression.

Most powerful are those moments in Kim’s poetry that reach out from the body and into it simultaneously. Some of these moments are mournful and intimate, as when the speaker of “Face” reflects, “The you inside you is so strong that the I inside me is about to get dragged into your inside” (70). The act of negotiating intimacy around the boundaries of bodies in flux similarly informs “When the Plug Gets Unplugged,” which chronicles the interactions between two people whose bodies rot around them, exposing their insides to each other’s view (32).

Kim, a major figure in the South Korean feminist movement, is quick to connect this digging into private bodies with the individual’s psycho-physical binds to the state. In “Asura, Yi Je-Hah, Spring,” Kim’s multidirectional bodily drive, both inward and outward, appears alongside references to the suicide pact of twenty-four North Koreans whose submarine crept into South Korean waters in 1996. In Kim’s poem, the speaker’s body pushes hard at its own edges just after this geographical border crossing:

At once the tunnel explodes black like a black aquarium. There is no mountain or tunnel. There is no road or sky. My entire body wants to shoot out of my face. I want to lie down. A scream floats up from somewhere inside of my body like the way a frog flattened in an illustration swells up into life. That thing, that slippery green light, that thing with thousands of heads, that thing with ten thousand fingers closes my eyes and ears and licks my face with its tongue. With its other tongue it licks my hair. It licks my chest. Its several hundred hands strangle me as it plants a heavy kiss on my eyelids. I let go of the steering wheel and clutch onto that thing. I bite into it. (34)

Kim HyesoonThe speaker’s comments operate like palimpsests, each piled onto the one previous, nearly contradicting at every turn yet holding together. The speaker is somewhere and nowhere, is active and passive, desiring both bodily projection (“My entire body wants to shoot out of my face”) and corporeal resignation (“I want to lie down”). The surrealism slips almost imperceptibly into comical absurdity, as when a simile frog comes to life, grows heads, and tries to devour the body that gave it birth.

Kim’s poetry is most charged in moments like these, and she acknowledges the marriage of whimsy and critique in her approach to the politics of poetry. “What I wrote about was cooking,” she says, “and my ingredient was death … I tried to turn the heaviness of oppression into something playful and light, so that I ended up with a type of poetry that did not appear to be political.”[3] With her careful balance of playfulness and gravity, Kim harnesses conflicting forces until pressure explodes them, challenging bodily unity and poetic genre, pointing to the violence at work in discourse itself. As a poet who has worked under the threat of governmental censorship, she offers poems in which language itself is a form of violent protest. The speaker of one poem comments, “I want to shove a finger into the silence and make it vomit” (45).

Kim’s poetry has consistently triangulated the act of representation, the politics of her country, and the body itself—particularly the female body. The first of Kim’s poems to appear in the three-author volume Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women offers a portrait of the body exhausted. “Song of Skin” reads:

The open lips find my breasts
though they weren’t told where mine were,
draining sweet water from my body.
They want to suckle again right after they’ve eaten.
First the saliva evaporates inside my mouth,
tears vanish from my eyes,
veins shrivel,
blood fades,
trees and plants collapse,
the Naktong River dries up,
and its floor shrieks as it explodes.
My whole body is pumped out.
Even though you vomit what you’ve just eaten,
your open lips still hang onto my nipples
till my body is emptied
of everything but dry bones and skin,
till the heaven’s castle splits
and the Milky Way shatters,
till I can think of nothing
and my soul withers and dies.[4]

The body in the poem operates as conductor, a siphon, a funneling point. In this parasitic relationship, the “open lips” of the speaker’s counterpart drains not breast milk, but all the moisture that makes up the speaker’s body, and then reaches beyond the body to access both the natural world and the known universe, all through the weary flesh of the mouthed nipple. The body becomes not simply a metaphor for the personal attributes of the speaker that are emotionally drained (leaving her without thoughts or soul), but also the border between her counterpart and the entire world beyond. The body is a physical border between two warring parties, as is hinted at in the reference to the Naktong River, a key geographical barrier to North Korea’s movement against South Korea. As if responding to the thousands of poems which have historically conflated the female body and landscape, “Song of Skin” points to the exploitation of both woman and world that occurs when the body is used as a metaphor, as a means of reaching into the representational beyond.

Kim defines her approach to the body, both as a writer and within her writing, as part of her feminist project:

One of the characteristics of Korean men's poetry is that the poets don't handle their subject matters with their bodies. They handle their subjects with their eyes only. So when they see a landscape, they freely carve out what they want from it. Based on their thoughts and poetic intentions, the men poets carve out what they want from nature despite the fact that nature has its own independent existence from them. After they cut out the part they want, they describe it and then add aphorisms to it […]. But within this powerful male tradition, Korean women poets treat nature in a different way. Women let nature be itself and let her own nature be itself — nature and her nature are left alone as they are. And from that position they speak about the meetings and interactions between them through their bodies.[5]

Kim’s desire to reorient the relationship of the body in poetry is here connected to her response to the masculine poetic conventions of Korea. In a discussion of the experience that eventually led to the composition of “A Very Old Hotel” (which is not collected in Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers), Kim tells Don Mee Choi about the inspiring hotel:

It was so beautiful there that I wanted to write a poem about the place, but what I ended up writing was written from a Korean male perspective with a male language and male poetic sensibility. I captured a scene, a landscape with my eyes and then manipulated it. This kind of language and approach suffocates me, my body. I threw away the poem and wrote another poem in the plane.[6]

Though Kim doesn’t discuss the potential conflation of landscape and body in the quoted passage, the hunt to “capture” and “manipulate” the world through male language has an immediate, “suffocating” effect on her own female body. Throwing away this use of language, the new poem she writes exerts intense Don Mee Choipressure on the metaphoric uses to which the body is put, and the position of the female subject within those metaphors. The speaker’s heart is described as a hotel in which she takes up residence, so that she is physically bound by the metaphor through which her body is described. Within this cardiac architecture, the speaker struggles with her own lack of control: “The room keys of the hotel in my heart are kept at the front, and I have a bundle of invisible keys in my pocket, but I can’t freely open the rooms of the hotel inside my heart.”[7] Her relationship with her counterpart is less clear than the relationship in “Song of Skin,” but it appears similarly one-sided, centered in the exploitation of the speaker’s body-as-metaphor. “When I open all the windows inside my body, beneath the gable roof, you stick your head out from every square as if appearing from graph paper with a roof attached — that kind of hotel.”

Compared to “Song of Skin” and “A Very Old Hotel,” those poems collected in Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers would seem to constitute the body’s revenge. The unidirectional exploitation of the body is here replaced with a body no longer confined to the borderline between persons, but instead a body enveloping the fluid interplay between people, ideas, and corporeality itself. In the poem “Inside Inside Inside of a Dream,” Kim writes:

The moon enters the depth of my eyes
and strokes the fish flowing in every blood vessel
because it wants to touch the bones beneath my flesh
This must be the inside of Mommy’s dream
The wave that rises and falls
The wave that is giving birth to a sea in a sea
The inside of Mommy’s dream that gives birth to me like a rising tide
then embraces me like a receding tide then embraces me again like a rising tide
My body that will be swathed in the red fluid of the womb when the sun rises
When I lay my head down on my fluffy pillow on top of Mommy’s and Mommy’s and Mommy’s ripple (21)

In contrast to the speaker whose body is the point of access for the heavens in “Song of Skin,” this speaker is physically entered by the heavens themselves, and this entrance yields not existential absorption but corporeal contact. A key difference, here, is Kim’s shift toward the maternal body as the governing metaphor for this interaction. This speaker’s body is under considerably less duress when safely “swathed in the red fluid of the womb.” The mother’s body is one that already incorporates two subjects in one, emphasizing both their distinction and their interdependence. The self-within-the-body-within-the-self that appears in “A Very Old Hotel” is transformed here by a cooperative approach to bodily containment, which allows the subject to both hold and be held without constraining its agency. The architectural structures that govern the body structures in “A Very Old Hotel,” rendering its interior inescapable, reappear in the title poem of Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers:

At Mommy’s house, the floors are also mommy, the dust that floats around the rooms is also mommy, when you open the door of Mommy’s house I’m under Mommy’s feathers like an unhatched egg. All the dreams that are dreamt in Mommy’s house come from Mommy’s fountain, the fountain at Mommy’s house is never dry. (19)

The envelopment of the fetus by a pregnant mother’s body is here extended to a maternal body which encompasses everything, enfolds every corner of the metaphor, so that the house no longer stands for the body but is engulfed in the body, housed in Mommy. Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers, as a collection, is similarly swaddled in the body of the constantly present “Mommy.”

Kim’s repurposing of the body, so often through recourse to the maternal in this collection, is not without its own dangers. Violence is not eradicated from this vision of the body; it is, in fact, nearly as omnipresent in this collection as the body itself. Violence colors the speaker’s relationship with both herself and with the act of metaphor in “Boiling”:

I almost dip my hand into the boiling water
for the boiling water looks so cold
Instead I dip my head inside the pot and say something
Are thousands of layers of ear membranes boiling?
Or are they a metaphor for birth and death? (76)

The grotesque image of a body losing its layers to boiling water not only sets Kim’s poetry apart from the “‘pretty’ language” expected of yoryu sinin (female poets, as discussed in an interview with Don Mee Choi), but offers itself as a potential means of understanding the act of representation itself, of decoding “birth” and “death” through this visceral “metaphor.” Another image of bodily mutilation similarly brings birth and death into conversation in “This Night”:

A rat devours a piglet that has fallen into a pot of porridge
(now, chunks of freshly grilled flesh inside a vagina,
babies that shiver from their first contact with air,
fattened chunks of flesh,
tasty, warm chunks that bleed when ripped into)
A rat devours the new baby in the cradle
Mommy has gone to the restaurant to wash dishes
A rat slips in and out of a freshly buried corpse (24)

In the absence of the mother, the violence of the rat highlights the vulnerability of the body in the act of birth, showing babies that are devoured before they have fully exited the vagina and entered the world. In fact, these babies have not even fully entered discourse; Kim separates them from the sentence by cradling them in parentheses — grammatical labia that echo the physical ones. The violence Kim describes is as frank as it is morbid, and this poem neither offers a clear protest against it nor a perverse celebration of it. In so many of her poems, the body itself seems to breed these moments of bloody evisceration. Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers both asserts the body’s inescapability, giving voice to the corporeality that is left out of Korean men’s poetry, while at the same time emphasizing the violence to which the body remains vulnerable even when sheathed in language, because language itself opens up new paths to violence. These two qualities of Kim’s poetic bodies do not necessarily work at cross-purposes, but rather suggest that violence is, as Judith Butler puts it, “an exploitation of that primary tie, that primary way in which we are, as bodies, outside ourselves, for one another.”[8]


1. Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 21–22.

2. This poem is also collected in Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women, by Kim, Ch’oe Sung-ja, and Yi Yon-ju, trans. Don Mee Choi (Brookline: Zephyr Press, 2006). This edition indicates using facing-page translation that the punctuation is Kim’s own, not a feature of Choi’s translation.

3. Don Mee Choi, “Korean Women — Poetry, Identity, Place: A Conversation with Kim Hye-sun,” positions: east asia cultures critique 11.3 (2003): 539.

4. Kim, Ch’oe Sung-ja, and Yi Yon-ju, 69.

5. Choi, 535.

6. Ibid., 533.

7. Kim, Ch’oe Sung-ja, and Yi Yon-ju, 105.

8. Butler, 22.