- Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon
Kim Hyesoon is Korea’s most important living poet and by far its most imaginative writer. With apologies to Sŏ Chŏng-ju and Kevin O’Rourke, Kim Sowŏl and David McCann, and Ko Ŭn and Brother Anthony, she and Don Mee Choi have become the most important writer-translator partnership in Korea in the new millennium. The volume reviewed here is their sixth collaboration. Not until the beginning of their collaboration, in the new millennium, did I appreciate the significance of Kim’s ongoing contribution to Korean literary history. Already by then Kim had made her mark in English with “A Skin-Deep Life” (one of “Seven Feminist Poems” translated by Suh Ji-moon and published in the September 1987 issue of Korea Journal). Subversively abject, the speaker in this poem portrays her male counterpart as a taxidermist and puppet master. Written during the years of military dictatorship in South Korea, it epitomizes the challenge to patriarchy that has inspired not only writing women in Korea but also their forebears in the Korean oral tradition dating back at least to the Abandoned Daughter myth referred to by Kim in her 2012 Poetry Parnassus remarks. In “A Skin-Deep Life” readers will hear the strong and distinctive voice that resonates throughout Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream.
Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream consists of Choi’s translations of Kim’s 2011 poetry collection of the same title (슬픔치약 거울크림) and her “I’m OK, I’m Pig!” (돼지라서 괜찮아!) series of poems published in the summer 2012 issue of Literary Arts Central (문예중앙). It also includes an appendix consisting of two interviews as well as Kim’s Poetry Parnassus remarks, from which we learn that Kim draws on, indeed embodies, the one stream of Korean tradition that is navigated primarily by women: native spirituality. The practitioner of this belief system, termed mudang— or more formally and respectfully, manshin (“ten thousand spirits”)—is by definition female, and her primary role is to mediate between the inhabitants of this world and those of the next world or, most important, those suspended in the ether because of a premature or unnatural death and/or an aggrieved life. In her poetry, Kim likewise channels women’s voices past and present, breathing life into thousands of years of Korean women’s cultural history. In Korean literary history this achievement cannot be overemphasized given that only in the fifteenth century, with the invention of the Korean script, hangŭl, did women have ready access to a literary language (men utilized classical Chinese); that until modern times women were discouraged from becoming literate and circulating their writing in public; that only in the last few decades have women fiction writers achieved parity with their male counterparts; and that today, in the new [End Page 456] millennium, poetry remains a bastion of male privilege. Reading Kim’s long, surreal, and occasionally graphic works, one imagines her invoking the spirits of the nameless women who left us with some of the most passionate lyrics of the Korean oral tradition, a thousand years ago during the Koryŏ dynasty; the professional entertaining women known as kisaeng, who sang of emotional freedom and yet psychological uncertainty; the well-born women such as Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn, who wrote both in hangŭl and in classical Chinese; the pioneers of women’s writing from 1910–1945, when Korea was a Japanese colony, who were hounded into silence when they attempted to live emancipated lives; a writer such as No Ch’ŏn-myŏng, stereotyped as a practitioner of “delicate” and “refined” women’s writing, who died an early and most likely bitter death after being jailed for collaborating with imperial Japan; and feminist poets such as Ko Chŏng-hŭi, who drowned in a rain-swollen mountain stream, and Yi Yŏn-ju, who wrote of military camptown life and militarized prostitution and ultimately took her own life.
The usual analytical approaches to literature that I recommend to my students—what do we learn from the author’s work about Korean society...