Joel Swann’s epic series of 21 reviews of poetry published in Hong Kong continues with Kim Hyesoon’s short collection.
Kim Hyseoon 金惠順, The Salt Dress Inside Me 我身體裏的鹽裙, trans. Don Mee Choi (Hong Kong: CUHK Press, 2015), 87pp.
One of my students recently gave me a test exam paper which went to unusual lengths, with references carefully sourced secondary material, to emphasise how the ‘I’ of a poem should not be conflated with the ‘I’ of the author. The observation is simple and useful, showing how texts are not simply a transparent communication of emotions; but it probably would not help make sense of ‘I’ in Kim Hyesoon’s The Salt Dress Inside Me, whose more challenging problem is a radical uninterest in the ego as an organizational category.
From the start of the collection, a sense of self seems easily displaced on to other objects or spaces – in ‘Saturn’s Sleeping Pill’, shadows and the soul rove independently of the ego, which also seems readily displaced and overlap with other entities: ‘Saturn has 60 moons / therefore, I have 60 shadows’ (ll. 6-7); and in answer to the question ‘What do you want to be when you die?’ gives the answer ‘I’m going to be something that has no borders / A place where the moons rise continuously continuously’ (ll. 21-23).
The idea of the ‘I’ occupying a place with borders, a self existing in a limited time and place, is described in ‘Birthday’, which describes birth a kind of waking up to the experience of a series of prickling images: thorns that surround the bed, aurally ‘spill out from the speakers’ and ‘pile up beneath my feet’ (ll. 2-6). This onslaught eventually becomes ‘pointed second hands’ that ‘needle me, saying / You poor thing / You poor thing’ (ll. 8-12) – at the end they become ‘cake and candles / made from those second hands’ (ll. 21-22). To be a person is to be needled by thorns, through the senses, the mind, time, and (eventually) celebration: a tolerable pain marked in organic and manufactured terms. In this poem, the needling seems to be a universal condition of being – in poems like ‘Wound’s Shoes’ and ‘Dear Choly, From Melan’, a more local origin of traumatic experience seems to be entertained, but fails to achieve a causal specificity: ‘I shove my feet into the wound / I go around wearing the wound / Or maybe the wound gets around…’ (‘Wounds Shoes’, ll. 1-3).
The titular poem of this short collection (‘The Salt Dress Inside Me’) is one of several that are cautious about allowing an ‘I’ to enter the text at all. It begins with second-person generalizations:
When sorrow is endured, salt gets excreted from your body
Your salty-salty expression
Your animal gaze
like a lonely island hammered by the sea (ll. 1-4)
The admission that this might have something to do with the narrating voice emerges almost reluctantly:
Some days when there is a high-sea warning
seawater gushes in over the short eyelash fences
but the salt’s architecture doesn’t crumble
salt-flowers bloom from my fingertips like stinging sobs (ll. 5-8)
The salt has from the slow excretion of salt from the body (manifest in expression and gaze), to being ‘hammered by the sea’ and eventually to the overwhelming ‘gushes’ of tears – and it is only in that extreme moment that ‘my fingertips’ reluctantly emerges, a personal resonance that stretches out from a minute point of the body. That first-person experience then remains for the rest of the poem, up to include the final, quiet admission that ‘I am wearing the salt dress / inside me’ (ll. 15-16). Overall, this is one of the several poems in the collection that tells a fragmentary stories, whose parts are connected more through rhythm and diction than through sequence. ‘Passengers’ is another similar case, with an obsessive recounting of things ‘hatching’ eventually punctuated with the scream of ‘I really hate it!’: an ‘I’, but emerging only from a cacophony of voices and experiences.
The Salt Dress Inside Me has not been an easy read for this reviewer: these narratives of vulnerability, sorrow, and pain, which nonetheless find a strange strength in their complex relationship to the ego, do not present themselves as waiting for the easy response of identitarian readerly pathos. But even the reader who lacks the emotional or intellectual experiences that render Hyesoon’s poetry readily legible can find in these beguiling texts the crucial questions about the voices of poetry expressed in unusually disconcerting forms.
Joel Swann lives and works in Manchester.