"… inside, a frame, and, now, sa. ccha. rine…": Kim Hyesoon, Kara Walker and Kitsch Allegories

by on Apr.15, 2011

1. Today I’m sick in bed and thinking about Kim Hyesoon (and Camille Rose Garcia, Kara Walker, and others), gothic wallpapers and allegory, kitsch, and atrocity kitsch.

2. Here’s a quote from Joel Scott’s review (which I posted in a comment below). I thought it might lead to some discussion about Kim Hyesoon’s work and the role of kitsch.

“To this end, both poets frustrate certain tendencies in mainstream Anglophone poetics. Kim’s poetry may grate against English-language readers who expect poetry to be at all times ironically self-aware. Which is not to suggest that Kim’s poetry is in any way naïve; in fact it is erudite and critically engaged (I can’t help but read her ‘Feather is Heavy, What do I do?’ as the most astute parody yet of Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence). But at times it allows itself to be read in an overly allegorical fashion, such as in ‘Conservatism of the rats of Seoul’, or a kind of kitschness, as in the title poem, through the recurrent animal voices and childlike tone, which if read on a single level, seem cringe-worthy. Likewise, a scatological element, or to be more precise, an excruciating corporality to many of the poems, is alien to a lot of contemporary English poetry.”

3. I was just re-reading this fine review and it seems he captures something interesting here: the connection between kitsch, allegory and the body. To many “anglophone” readers of poetry, I think it’s true that Kim’s poetry might be “cringe-worthy”, in part because it doesn’t offer the kind of “depth” that for example literary references provide, the kind of relief they provide from the cringe-i-ness. But it’s also “allegorical” – ie not the “materiality of language” that has become such a mantra in American poetry. And it’s both of these things that make it cringe-worthy, kitschy. It is both too present, visceral, and counterfeit.

4. In this kitsch-allegory quality, Kim’s poems might be said to have more in common with horror movies (if a whole lot more interesting than most of them) than a lot of American poetry: both visceral and allegorical.

5. She also has something in common with her favorite movie director, David Lynch, who tends to use psychoanalytic narratives as surface, as plot. That is to say, the castration complex in Blue Velvet for example, is not something we get at by digging deep into the movie, by analyzing puns etc. It’s all there on the surface.

6. This makes me think about Coleridge’s distinction between symbol and allegory: the symbol is organic, while the allegory is arbitrary, which makes it decorative and fanciful. We’re back in the gothic wallpapers I wrote about a while back. Allegory as an infected decoration.

7. This kitschy allegoricalness and these bodies that are constantly opened up and devoured might also have something to do with Kara Walker’s atrocity kitsch, where people are constantly eating each other or spilling each other’s guts or shitting:

8. Here is a quote from Jessica Lawson’s review of Mommy must be a fountain of feathers:

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. 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.

9. The yellow wallpaper infects the narrator.

10. Here’s the quote Lawson uses from Kim:

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.

11. And also, Lawson’s epigraph from Judith Butler:

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

12. I know, I haven’t really tied these things together, but that’s what I’m thinking about right now, in my feverish mind.

13. The bodies pile up: porn, horror, allegory, wallpaper.

5 comments for this entry:
  1. adam strauss

    “not something we get at by digging deep into the movie, by analyzing puns etc. It’s all there on the surface”: interesting, I tend to think of puns as indicative of the surface—surfacedepth perhaps; personally I’m a fan of rendering the surface so richly that there is no interior, no deeper dynamic but rather all is in almost comically plain sight. Delueze and his baroque I guess. I am massively weary of deepness; I love the surface because it can bring the depths up into view, make atmospheres which cannot be survived–too much pressure at 90 feet beneath the surface for human ears to stand etc–one which can be experienced.

  2. Johannes

    Yes, puns in your sense would be part of the skin. But I’m thinking the way Freud analyzes puns to get at this hidden narrative of castration etc.


  3. Joel Scott

    Thanks for these thoughts, Johannes, they remind me of Benjamin’s ‘Some remarks on folk art and kitsch’. He starts out “Folk art and kitsch ought for once to be regarded as a single great movement that passes certain themes from hand to hand, like batons, behind the back of what is known as great art”. He ends with the pithy lines, “Art teaches us to see into things. Folk art and kitsch allows us to see outward from within things”.

    I think this speaks quite well to Kim’s feminist poetics which she describes in this recount, which Lawson quoted in her review:

    “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… Korean women poets treat nature in a different way… they speak about the meetings and interactions between them through their bodies.”


  4. Johannes

    Thanks, I haven’t read that Benjamin essay. I’ll have to check it out.


  5. don mee

    Thanks for this post, Johannes.

    For now, I wanted to give you this link to a site that Joel Scott curates. I thought you would be interested: http://whenpressed.net/work/joel-scott/introduction/