Another kind of surrealism, another kind of sincerity: Susan Schultz on Kim Hyesoon

by on Jun.13, 2012

Susan Schultz has an interesting, insightful article up on the Jacket web site about Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, a poet I think is among the essential, most important living poets:

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.”

“Documentary” invokes of course the “documentary poetics” that has been popular over the past few years, but I think “document” is more important in this case (after all stylistically Kim is as far from “documentary poetics” as possible, loaded with feverish vision, kitschy metaphors and beautiful, startling images).

Here are some meaning of “Document” from

1. a written or printed paper furnishing information or evidence, as a passport, deed, bill of sale, or bill of lading; a legal or official paper.
2.any written item, as a book, article, or letter, especially of a factual or informative nature.
3.a computer data file.
4.Archaic . evidence; proof.

I think one key to reading Kim’s work is as engaging with “writing” and “media.” Joyelle coined the phrase “body possessed by media” to describe the artwork of Kim’s daughter, Fi-Jae Lee, but it’s also an apt description of Kim’s poetry (as I’ve described it before on this site):

The Korean artist Fi Jae Lee’s work operates in this zone of contamination, inflammation and metasization. Her work is multimedia, but with none of the technophilic, flow-chartish nicety and expertise that term has begun to imply. There are too many media here, too many, even, for the multimedia environment of the Internet—her website has too many images to get a sense of the whole body of work; so much text crowds the text window that the scrollbars must be constantly manipulated to bring more into view; on my screen the crucial scrollbars are occluded. As for her art work itself, it involves sculpture, painting, installation, monologues, her own body and hair, the performance of rituals. As much as they are brimming over with color, texture, scale, activity and sensation, they are also lousy with text, text which is a bad fit for the artwork, in that it seems to occupy a testy, inflamed adjacency.

As, Kim’s translator, Don Mee Choi notes in the preface to Princess Abandoned (Tinfish, 2012), a booklet of Kim’s critical writings, her ideas are also related to Joyelle’s idea of the “necropastoral”:

A key factor of the necropastoral for me is not just the way it manifests the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classical pastoral— ie the most celebrity resident of Arcadia is Death—but also its activity, its networking, its paradoxical proliferation, its self-digestive activity, its eructations, its necroticness, its hunger and its hole making, which configures a burgeoning textual tissue defined by holes, a tissue thus as absent as it is present, and therefore not absent, not present—protoplasmic, spectral.

In her recent review, Sueyeun Juliette Lee of Constant Critic describes Kim’s All the Garbage of the World, Unite! like this: “…the collection is indeed a cry for us to struggle against—while also dwelling and finding glory in—the minor corridors, abjected detritus, and mundanely overlooked interstices of life. In Kim’s vigorous hands, these spaces are ferocious, strange and gaspingly alive…” Ie very much similar to the sense of holes, passages, media as in Joyelle’s necropastoral.

Drawing on Andre Breton’s “inspiration” in the shell-shocked language of soldier’s at the trenches of WWI, Schultz reads the poem “And Old Woman” in order to “illustrate the way in which this poet’s surrealism works to describe the realities of old age.” This is not the heroic surrealism of liberating the unconscious, but rather more like something more like a mind that, in Schultz’s word, “breaks.”

Schultz’s reading of “this condition of stinky paralysis” seems to me to also echo Lee’s review, where she expresses fascination/confusion about Kim’s seeming passivity:

However, western feminists may have some difficulty making sense of how Kim continually concedes to these violent intrusions. In her poems, though she often complains about these forces and how they work upon her, Kim barely fights them or escapes. For example, in “The Cold,” Kim writes how the act of being gazed upon entraps her in a cold, two-dimensional realm.

I think it’s more than feminists who might be troubled by the way Kim’s speakers are pulled through these violent, media-saturated environments. Americans and American poets tend to love the idea of agency and interiority, and that’s not what’s going on in Kim’s poetry. Rather, I would say it’s something like a saturation by media, a media that is often violent, and a media that disseminates her, moves through her.

Schultz ends by quoting Princess Abandoned:

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).

I think here the “contact” metaphor is key: Like in Cocteau’s version of the Orpheus myth (or like Jack Spicer receiving poetry from Martians), Kim Hyesoon uses media to “make contact” with “ghosts.”

I also think this ties in with what I wrote a couple of days ago about sincerity:

As Durham Peters notes one problem with the modern communication model is that it suggests that what we need is better technology, better “communication” (ie more sincere poetry) in order to eliminate noise. Peters notes about communication: “I take as the project of reconciling self and other. The mistake is to think that communications [ie technologies of communication] will solve the problems of communication [the act of communication], that better wiring will eliminate the ghosts.”

CODA: the strange passivity or perverted agency of Kim’s speakers is quite different from pervasive American ideas of interiority and agency, notions that are key to the overall idea of “sincerity” that we have discussed over the past few days. In some ways we can trace this ideal back to the old classic Plato dialogues, where Socrates (vetriloquized by Plato) speaks out against writing (“documents”) and thus media for the way it takes us away from the direct physical, emotional relationship of the socratic dialogue, for the way it negates interiority, for the way we lose control of the meaning of the text. ie the type of media that Kim brings into her poems (which are media).

But what happens to “sincerity” when there is no interiority? Or if the poet has a damaged mind? Or if you translate a poem? Or if you speak in a second language? Is “sincerity” ableist? Is it socratic? Is it part of a larger discomfort with dissemination, with media, with mediumicity, with kitsch, with ART, with WRITING?

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Lucas de Lima

    Obviously I’m into the S&M-ness of “strange passivity”/”perverted agency,” power bottom poetry at its most heightened. Also, the scenius of the socratic dialogue.

  2. Don Mee Choi

    Johannes, Thanks very much! Wonderful post. I like Susan Schultz’s facebook point about Kim’s seeming “passivity” having to do with the condition of being a shaman. I think of it more as porosity, which I think you and Joyelle have talked about in previous necropastoral posts. I just finished translating a short lecture for Kim Hyesoon’s talk in London-Poetry Parnassus,and she reminded me that in her book of essays, To Write as a Woman, she refers to writing poetry as “doing” poetry.

    Here is another review of GARBAGE by Dugal McNeill, in Australia’s Overland Literary Journal.

  3. Johannes

    I think there’s too much negativity associated with passivity. We always want to have agency and be strong individual etc, but there’s a radicality in passivity. There’s also a gender dimension of course. The mediums of 19th century spiritualism were always women.

    I’m reading a book about it right now, how their bodies were so porous that they would not just hear/channel the dead person but would physically become the person, would have the “ectoplasm” – and even hair and skin! – of the dead person come out through the orifices (nostrils, mouth, vagina). As Joyelle always likes to point out, medium in the occult sense comes from medium of communication technology.


  4. don mee choi

    “there’s a radicality in passivity” — great!

    You may know about this documentary already: Mudang (shaman)

  5. adam strauss

    I’m sure this is really obvious, but I gather that some anxiety regarding passiveness is a concern that it morphs into abuse and stops being a stance but instead becomes a killer.