Forty-nine days of the spirit: Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon

The attempt to voice to the experience of reading Korean poet Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death echoes the challenge she found as the project began to take form for her. Death, as much as we may wish to avoid thinking about it, is a fundamental and natural part of life. But sometimes death arrives in unnecessary, violent, and horrifyingly tragic forms. Or simply when it is unexpected, or worse, unwarranted. The forty-nine poems that comprise the core of this work—one for each day during which the spirit wanders before re-entering the cycle of reincarnation—were written in response to those moments when Hyesoon felt the presence of death in some way. Although her intense reaction to the catastrophic collapse of a ferry carrying high school students bound for an island field trip—an event in which the crew escaped in lifeboats while the youth, ordered to their cabins, drowned—was a trigger, Korea’s recent history is rife with unjust deaths. How to reconcile all this? As an assembly of poems began to take form, she came to understand that her existence begins with death, not birth, and that we live our lives within the structure of death:

I thought to myself that I needed to sing to death, perform a rite for death, write death, then bid farewell to it. The way to send death away was to sing with my own death all the death in the sky and on the ground.

In essence, to sing to death, she had to allow her own death to take the poetic voice. To let it tell its story. How then are we to hear the songs gathered here? Quite simply, to read this book, is to listen.

As one might imagine, the language and imagery is not always easy to encounter.  Heartbreaking, often disturbing, death does not necessarily come gently, and the spirit does not effortlessly shed its fleshy anchor. Verses infused with sad and tender tones mix with horror-filled prose poems and gruesome nursery rhymes, while songs of mournful remembrance turn strange and surreal. To move through this post-death journey is an odd and deeply compelling experience. At moments it is even exquisite:

Like the failing frail twilight and
the rising frail dawn
certain light caves in, certain light soars and embraces

Something like the silvery alligator in your throat
Something like the silvery mosquito on your face

Something like the abrupt opening of the windows of the sea after waking
.                 up from a lifetime of sleep

You’ll see the mornings of the world all at once

– from “Naked Body” (Day Sixteen)

Death is a bodied, intensely physical presence in this sequence of poems. Visceral and graphic at times. Certain images reappear throughout including water, dolls, winged beings—birds, insects and angels—mothers and children, coffins and burial. The space between death and rebirth is an icy, wintery one. Hyesoon shifts and builds on this imagery as the body is slowly and, seemingly reluctantly shed, transforming and decaying as the spirit is increasingly cut off from the world. The poetic perspective invites an intimate engagement with death:

The shape of a woman appears in the mirror. Now you’ve become toeless feet. Now you’ve become fingerless hands. You’ve become a noseless, mouthless face. Your insides that are so far away yet close, the forest in your hair, light enters the rocky moon, and the sea wavers in your shoes. Birds fly up your sleeves and a horse weeps in your pants.

– from “A Face” (Day Forty-Three)

As the forty-nine day passage draws toward a close, faces lose their distinction. Death erases names and identities. “You” lose the ability to recognize yourself or your place in the world. But who exactly is this “you”? In the conversation with her long time translator, Korean-American poet Don Mee Choi, that closes out the book, Hyesoon explains that she could not call her own death “I”, thus her death became “you”, but not as in a simple second person narrative. It is an intrinsically poetic space, such that “you” was “not I or you or he/she.” She goes on to describe how she began to wonder if the narrator might be a sixth or seventh-person narrator, and the “you” who is being addressed is “my death”—“I” has been killed. This she insists, is in keeping with what she sees as the only way to ethically practice poetry, by practicing the death of “I”. Of course, in reading, “you” also feels like “my” or “our” death. At times, especially with the poems that have a sing-song or nursery rhyme feel, it is not unlikely that one might be inclined to want to sing along.

The collection ends with an extended poem “Face of Rhythm,” a piece born out of meditation during a period of pain and illness. Filled with an aching intensity, it is a fitting follow-up to the forty-nine day sequence of Death, a laborious rebirth, release from facelessness and  namelessness. But renewal is hard won, a slow hallucinatory passage through sickness:

That feeling of my soul getting yanked
I wonder where my soul hides when I’m sick
My heart feels as if it’s getting beat up
Is it because the restless ocean is clumping up?
My heart beats regardless of the pain
It beats spewing out red thread like a red spider
A sinkful of red thread gets submerged in water
My heart beats like a girl marathon runner who only had ramen to eat

Autobiography of Death is a collection that leaves one alternately drained and exhilarated. I find it hard to imagine anyone would emerge indifferent. Translator Don Mee Choi’s strong affection and sensitivity for  Kim Hyesoon’s poetry is invaluable, while the playfully strange illustrations by the her daughter Fi Jae Lee contribute to the power and magic of this new work from one of Korea’s most important poets.

Autobiography of Death is published by New Directions.

“I had a dream”: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

“Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside. A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked into my skin.”

The Vegetarian, a novel by Korean author Han Kang, confidently translated by Deborah Smith, met with resounding critical praise when it was released in the UK early last year. Despite being available in Canada in the UK edition, the book has received relatively little attention on this side of the Atlantic. However, its American release from Hogarth in a slightly different translation, should encourage a new round of well deserved attention.

vegetarianThis haunting allegorical tale of a woman’s gradual descent into madness that cracks and shatters the carefully composed order around her, starts out with a certain clean, almost antiseptic atmosphere of emotional detachment. It passes through the lens of an eerie erotic account of artistic obsession and ends with the force of an unbridled mountain creek, crashing and rolling down a steep rocky channel to a wildly uncertain end.

The opening chapter, “The Vegetarian”, is narrated by the moderately ambitious Mr. Cheong, a Seoul businessman who sets the bar fairly low and is intent on a smooth life, devoid of excessive stress or excitement. He marries accordingly, choosing the perfectly average Yeong-hye. Not exceptionally attractive, her quiet resourcefulness, and competent housekeeping and cooking skills please him. Yet he is, once his measured existence takes a turn for the decidedly strange; a man who proves himself remarkably self-centred. In his world it is all about him, even as it becomes apparent that his wife is struggling with something dark and troubling.

One morning, without warning, Yeong-hye is discovered, by her husband, standing in the glow of the open refrigerator at 4:00 AM. She is oddly lost, curiously absorbed by whatever it is she sees there. Her only explanation, when pressed, is “I had a dream”. Later that day, Mr. Cheong arrives home to find his wife removing and discarding all of the meat in the fridge. From that point on she becomes a committed vegetarian, much to her husband’s horror, dismay and shame. But this is not an effort to embrace a health trend, she becomes thinner and more withdrawn over time. Still he rationalizes away her behaviour, preferring to maintain a facade of normalcy. As readers we are afforded brief glimpses into her horrific dreams and visions. However it is not clear whether she actually makes an effort to try to talk to her husband – or if he would listen.

Finally, more out of frustration for what she is doing to him than concern for Yeong-hye’s well-being, Mr. Cheong seeks the support of his in-laws. They respond with an attitude of extended shame. When an ill-conceived attempt to stage an intervention at a family gathering fails, Yeong-hye’s father resorts to force and violence. In response his defiant daughter turns the drama of violence on herself.

The second part, “Mongolian Mark” adopts a third person perspective. The video-artist husband of Yeong-hye’s older sister In-hye takes centre stage. Time has passed and Mr. Cheong has filed for divorce. The vegetarian is now on her own, but her brother-in-law has developed an erotic obsession inspired by the knowledge, gleaned from his own wife, that Yeong-hye has never lost her Mongolian Mark, a birthmark common to darker skinned babies that generally fades a few years after birth. He is haunted by images of naked men and women, their bodies painted with luscious flowers, engaging in sex and ultimately he reasons that the only way to purge his fixation is to realize his artistic vision. But who to paint and film? The true source of his obsession, of course. As this chapter unfolds it becomes apparent that Yeong-hye has moved beyond the realm of normal grounded emotion. To satisfy his growing need to permeate her implacable surface, her brother-in-law will ultimately risk his relationship with his wife and child.

“Slowly she turned to face him, and he saw her expression was as serene as that of a Buddhist monk. Such uncanny serenity actually frightened him, making him think that perhaps this was a surface impression left behind after any amount of unspeakable viciousness had been digested, or else settled down inside her as a kind of sediment.”

The final section of The Vegetarian, “Flaming Trees” follows In-hye several years on again, her own marriage now dissolved, on her way to visit Yeong-hye at a psychiatric hospital in a remote mountainous area. The demands of running a business, caring for her young son, and attending to the needs of her sister have taken a toll on her. She is haunted by doubts, regrets and voices. Meanwhile Yeong-hye, convinced that she wishes to become a tree and is therefore no longer in need of any nourishment beyond water, has been slowly wasting away. By this point the narrative, at once so controlled and self assured, spirals into a dark, increasingly surreal tunnel from which it is not clear if anyone will emerge intact. The threads that have led the two sisters to this point are spooled back to earlier moments in their lives; casting light on the insistent destructive power of obsession, pride, and shame arising from the rigid social strictures that confine and restrict the individuals caught within them.

There is no question that this is a powerful work. The structure of the shifting perspectives is interesting and effective. However, if there is a difficulty for me in this book, it is a lack of clear cultural context. Elements of Korean social expectation and custom play a significant role in the way that Yeoung-Hye’s family respond to her increasingly bizarre behaviour but I would have liked to have had that aspect fleshed out a little bit further. Too much seemed to rely on what is assumed. The environment, that is a sense of place – save for that of the final section – seems largely unremarkable, generic. This is my first experience of Korean literature, but I tend to find the same challenges for me, as a reader, with much Japanese writing, so this may be more a question of personal inclination on my part than a specific shortcoming in the work.

Finally, as a mental health advocate, I did find the depiction of mental illness a little too out of step within what is clearly an allegorical tale, as if it was trying to be both surreal and authentic at once. By the end I could not help but imagine it as a Korean version of Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows; in both books one sister is faced with coming to understand or at least respect her mentally ill sister’s desire to let go of life, albeit one with restrained horror and the other with humour. Both novels, at heart, confront a brutal reality that is difficult to forget.