Notes from Korea: Jeongrye Choi

by on Nov.19, 2012

A while back I was in South Korea for a week as part of an international literary festival. It was a surprisingly intense experience for me, and as a result of this intensity – the art, the poets, the food, the Korean beer, the smell and, not the least, the jet-lag that kept me up all night – I was kind of undone and wrote notes for what I realize now is a book, blending such genres as Strindberg’s hilarious Occult Diary, 19th century travelogues, poetry, literary criticism and translation studies.

Anyway, I thought I would post some of the notes from the book as I sort through them. Many of them are embarrassing and personal, but I thought I could at least post perhaps the more constructive, less insane intries, such as this analysis of Jeongrye Choi’s book “The Smell” (Which can be found in Instances, trans by Brenda Hillman and Wayne De Fremery, Parlor Press 2010).

I got to know Choi quite well on the trip, and we talked a lot about everything from American and Korean poetry to parenting and poetry and translation (She’s working on a translation of James Tate’s poems into Korean). She is a very inspiring person. Here’s her poem “The Smell”:

The Smell

The smell escapes from itself
and looks at its body for a long time.

Without revealing its wings
or the sound of their flapping,
it’s the bird the body lets fly out.

Smell is the guide
for the underworld of the thick darkness.

I just baked mackerel.
THe whole house smells.
It hovers
over the kids doing their arithmetic,
and over me, doing the dishes.

I open a window to shoo it away
but it sneaks inteo the cracks of the dresser drawers and the chink to hide.
It’s so quiet.
It’s so stubborn.
It won’t show the tips of its extended wings after all.

A lead-gray belly blinks as it crosses the ocean –
smell, in the end, flies off.

A coal-like lump flies out
beyond the evening lights.
A dark sky is not far away,

Here’s from my notebook:
I love how in this poem, the “smell” is constantly disrupting and disturbing borders – like Kristeva’s idea of the “abject.” The poem begins when the “smell” “escapes from itself” – and has to go looking for its own body. But it’s only by escaping from itself, that the smell has a body to begin with. And it’s a bird body at that.

Jeongrye later explained to me that the word for bird is basically the same as the word for smell but with an extra sound. It seems that the language itself generates this “wing” of a sound that comes out of the smell and makes a bird. The smell translates itself into two: a sound and a bird.

The result is a “thick darkness” – an odorous absence of light – that is the “guide” to an “underworld” of blindness. One might think that lightness would help one out of the underworld, but here its’ the thickness of the bodily odor that guides. In difference to light, one can expect that the thickness will not “guide” the person up, toward the light, away from the underworld, but instead lead, saturate, drown the person further into the underworld.

Interestingly, the “mackerel” inaugurates a “turn” in the poem. Up until this point, the poem has existed in a hypothetical place turned “underworld”, but the mackerel brings the smell into the domestic space, where the speaker does dishes while her children do their homework. It is in fact from this supposedly peaceful domestic scene that the smell emanates. It is from this site of the hem/home-ly that the hemligt/uncanny smell that disrupts boundaries erupts. When we find out that the smell comes from “mackerel”, the poem turns the bird-smell into a fish-bird hybrid; even the smell itself is constantly disrupting its own identity.

The speaker tries but cannot get rid of this pervasiveness of this bird-less bird of a smell, this disruptive formless force of the abject, until she turns the bird into a “lead-gray belly” that “blinks as it corsses the ocean.” When she turns the smell into a plane going to America, she can finally get rid of the smell. But shockingly, in the final stanza the speaker is still with the “coal-like lump” that somehow despite beign a coal-like lump manages to fly away. The speaker is on that plane: she can only get rid of the smell that ruins her home by removing herself from the home, by crossing the ocean in Art, by becoming a foreigner. This “lump” will probably fall down.

[Another note: JC’s new poetry is quite different from what I can tell, and from what she told me, and it seems super interesting, in many ways influenced by her process of translating Tate.]

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