Kim Hyesoon’s SORROWTOOTHPASTE MIRRORCREAM: a conversational review

Photo by Myleen Hollero

Candice Wuehle: Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream is a mystic book for me in many ways. It uses incantatory language, possessed and possessable bodies, contains recipes that rupture into spells, and engages with the repetitious quality of time. This is a book of poetry, but it also a book of poetic application. I suppose when I say “mystic,” I mean that once the words of this book act upon the body, they can’t be taken out of the body. Action Books includes a wonderful appendix in which Kim Hyesoon discusses her thoughts on shamanism embedded within a discourse on Korean women’s poetry. She addresses some of the critical and poetic framework for what I am calling the “mystic” qualities of the book, writing, “… there is one myth in which women do not disappear. This myth is about an ancestral shaman …” Kim proceeded to explain, “Women may play a bigger role because in the shamanic realm the emphasis is on performing songs and dances and being possessed by spirits.” I love this idea that culturally, women “perform” as the spiritual vessel of poetry via dance, song and also possession. To begin our discussion, let’s think about how we see shamanic possession manifested in Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, and also how we might or might not experience a shamanic journey as readers.

Meredith Blankinship: This question makes me wonder about how the refusal to disappear is also the admission of trauma, something that can be prepared for and processed ritualistically but not guarded against. Perhaps to accept this is to signal a mystical readiness, a shamanic power that holds the weight not just of one person’s journey, but of a whole group. Kim writes the poem “Dear Pig, From Pig”:

I’m raised to be your sorrow, your tears, your anxiety, your fear, your defect,

Or, exclaims in “Dark Giggle Club”:

Why, everyone’s confession in the world is ultimately the same!

Maybe this accounts for some of the ability of the speaker in these poems to rise again and again, to take on the devastating(ly felt) abjection far beyond the individual.

In these poems, trauma (continual, instantaneous, relentless) discharges its residue, lubricating the conduits. Fluids of the body purged in health and illness—blood, sweat, shit, milk, pus—become necessary to prepare a body to become a vessel, a vassal acting on behalf of unseen forces. The speaker opening herself to the trauma of the people whose bones (and blood and shit, etc.) she adopts and therefore feels equally the weight and immediacy of their trauma. She makes herself an open house to guilt and shame and failure to be what was expected—stinking, rotting eggs, rats running underfoot. Opens herself to being inhabited by others, but does not resign herself to their power. To be porous is to admit gaps in her armor, to be borderless is a terrifying erasure. As Kim says in a speech to Poetry Parnassus in 2012, “For me, the vast open field of the unknown and the prison existed simultaneously.”

Ashley Colley: I do think a lot of channeling is happening here. Kim’s “I” is immediately set up as a “vacant” frame acted on and through by various external forces. In “Glasses Say,” she is literally a pair of glasses frames that “don’t see, feel, or think,” only consume:

I shave a large piece of ice to make lenses.
I put the lenses in my mouth.
It’s raining in the sea.
The sea says.
I keep my eyes open,
for I’m a pair of glasses.

Eyes and mouth propped open, Kim’s speaker passively ingests the world, digests it, and spits it out more gruesome. The sea says it’s raining, but later the rain becomes coffin lids being hammered shut, “tap tap tap tap.” A yellow butterfly becomes a throbbing yellow molar tooth, the plucked bird on the cutting board a “just-born infant.” The world’s runoff—its melancholy discharge—is also consumed, as in “Horizon Scratch”:

I open a black umbrella when you frown
for everything around me is like a broken mirror

I open a black umbrella under the broken mirror
for I need to hold up my shattered self

When your spit splatters onto my face
When my younger sibling keeps vomiting in a faraway place

Sorrow is explicitly gathered, not deflected in these poems. At the same time, the speaker’s grief is objective, external: “Melan is a Frag, Choly is a Ment / Melan is a Dis, Choly is a Perse / My skin cracked like a jigsaw puzzle.” Pain acts on or through “I” but doesn’t originate from her, and she seems to endure it passively, as in “Wound’s Shoes”: “I shove my feet into the wound / I go around wearing the wound.” Also, while the speaker often seems to contain a communal misery, as in the poem “The Salt Dress Inside Me,” she is sometimes depicted as a godlike figure looking down on miniature civilizations: “Alone all alone everyone I know is so tiny down below / but I lift my face bigger than the moon above the dark forest / like a lime-yellow bog soaring into the air.”

I agree with Mere that the speaker-as-Shaman in this book is metabolizing a people’s trauma as opposed to an individual’s, and that the grossness of that digested trauma is generative—Kim’s way of commanding attention to “the community of all things discarded” (see “Excerpt from an interview in Munyejungang” in the book’s Appendix). But I’m also interested in Mere’s distinction between porousness and borderlessness and wonder if Kim’s speaker is threatened with total erasure here—and what the implications of borderlessness are. In “Passengers,” she seems to fear being replaced by a repeating body: “Mommy hatches inside the infant’s crotch … I hate the circle I hate circulating I hate the day then the night.” Perhaps because bodies that look alike are easily commodified, easily eaten: “Daddy pig eats numbers and buttocks dangle from the cheeks of mommy pig / … Me me me me die but mommy and daddy live forever.” Is cannibalism a consequence of self-erasure? Where does this repeating body come from, and how does the speaker of these poems avoid getting sucked up into its “gigantic black envelope”?

CW: Yes, I’m so glad you brought up “Passengers.” It is actually my favorite poem in all of Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream—it contains what I feel to be many of the thoughts we’re parsing in this question, as well as a line that completely arrested me: “My spectre that has not fully hatched smells like gills.” This line also makes me think of Mere’s comment that “To be porous is to admit gaps in her armor, to be borderless is a terrifying erasure.” I think you are also dialoguing with this, Ashley. I think your thoughts on the repeating body, commodification and fear of consumption are fascinating! I had not gone there at all, but I can certainly see how this sort of affectual anxiety could also resonate on a syntactical level throughout the book in the manner Kim repeats words, phrases and somewhat obsessively returns to images and themes as the book circles and circles. The word that returned and returned to me to describe this book’s poetics appears in the first couplet of “Passengers”: “Round coffee round soup round noodle / round samsara I feel nauseous whenever I see anything round.”

I thought of this book as the cycle of samsara—the life cycle which won’t end until one perceives “reality” and perhaps part of the “nausea” (terror or anxiety or grossness of repeating cattle) of the experience of living or repeating this reading experience is how unreal it is. This explains a lot of the artificial imagery for me, and it is a fascinating way for me to look at the alienation of what Pam Brown calls the “feminist surrealism” Kim presents. I suppose what I mean by that is that if perpetual samsara places one in perpetual pursuit of the “real,” perhaps the samsara cycle is inherently surreal.

This brings me full circle to the original question of the female shaman, the figure who lives on a potentially borderless zone in which, I think, the subjectivity of others can cross. When I consider it this way, Kim’s remark, “For me, the vast open field of the unknown and the prison existed simultaneously” becomes more understandable. I think it means to be the ultra-body or ultra-psyche which can hold all other psyches. I suppose if you are a shaman who is frequently journeying through the psycho-depths of others—singing, dancing and chanting publically about it and then opening your own psycho-orifices for their soul’s releases—there is no prophylactic that can keep you clean, or free from every kind of bind. It seems very ecstatic and also very specifically female in regards to hatching, gills and the spectre. In that line all seems contained: a spectral presence observes its own creational capacity.

MB: When I went to the library to pick up Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream the librarian, a gal about my age with pale pink nails sharpened to just the threat of claws said, “Ew, this sounds gross” as she handed me the book. Disgust is invoked in important and dynamic ways in this book, so her reaction was perhaps more spot on than she knew. Imagine the word “disgust” spray-painted hot pink, dripping in flowering cursive on the side of an underpass, with little star-twinkles in the corner like a car wash ad. Sorrowtoothpaste is filled with “disgusting” things—myriad bodily fluid discharge, disease, decay and rot, pigs, shit, filth of all kinds—that seem to activate a physical horror at bodily and worldly breakage, or catastrophe which unhinge or displace the sensical workings of space and time. An energy is generated, exciting other elements. “It reeks but we are good friends,” Kim writes in the poem “Ostrich.” How did you both read the workings of these fluids and decompositions throughout the book and/or how did they affect/infect you/r reading?

CW: The secretions become greater than what secretes them, and that’s their power and also perhaps the reason the secretions (or affects/infections) must be “managed” or “named” as the book proceeds. In the poem you mention, “Ostrich,” this happens in the two images of “the magnifying glass.” At one point, Kim writes:

You have to look at them with a magnifying glass, but you could say they’re like my heart which has dispersed like dust inside me, couldn’t you?
(like an organism anxious to eat me up after I’m dead)

and in the last image of the poem she leaves us with,

nested into your nostrils/ with a magnifying glass as big as a house!

This image of the magnifying glass “as big as a house” which is used to inspect the microbes and dust inside the nostril is such a clinically grotesque image in which a small cavity of the body is probed by a large clinical instrument of surveillance. I think you are completely right to note that there is a type of “horror” and “unhinging” enacted in these poems at the point where the secretion/infection overtakes the body, but I often feel that the secretion is of a sort of amniotic nature as well and that is how it impacts me as a reader. I mean that these fluid secretions support and feed the poems, and in a way the poems themselves exist as the unformed element at the service of their own secretions; they are perpetual embryos. This is manifested for me when the poems perform what I think of as “ultra-utterance,” on repeated words in phrases like “spill-spill” on the line “Lumps of concrete spill-spill out” in “The Ocean Came and Went,” and it also helps me to think about the way the book circles and re-circles phrases and ideas. So, I suppose I am saying I think the horror, the disgust, the pink claw nails, act as instruments, aids of opening by which we examine, expand and ultimately live and swim in the as yet unformed world.

AC: “The secretions become greater than that which secretes them.” Yes! The book’s “disgusting” content comes alive—and language is the life force that sparks it. Candice, your thoughts on “ultra-utterance” seem to get at this. For me, the “amniotic nature” of Kim’s language is most apparent in the poem “Eyelashes”:

The body that has been soaking in shallow water for a long time must be hatching
Milky breaths bubble up non-stop
Soon, a pair of eyelids that has submerged the body in darkness soars
A hinged yellow door flies away
A ripple is scooped up with a skipping stone
It breathes, fluttering

That thing as yellow as my molar tooth is flying away in the sun

I write that I want to spit out the throbbing yellow

The whirlwind of sleep and waking

As Candice mentioned toward the beginning of our conversation, this is an “incantatory language.” Images are born via word associations—like the hinging of rippling-fluttering-flying-throbbing-blinking, as if one oscillating subject spurs the next into being. At the same time, everything in this poem literally “hatches” out of a corpse, bringing us back to Mere’s point that “bodily breakage” is an important generative source here. In the Muyejungang interview, Kim addresses the role of both language and death in her poems:

I live in a world full of death, I head towards death, what is spoken and I are erased simultaneously by silence … If you follow the language of poetry, you can hear things even in a death-like space and image patterns emerge. Each blotch of sensation spreads into a different pattern. Then you follow that pattern and another image blooms …

Like blood in the poem “Blood Blooms”—which courses through the streets but also “pulls out red bricks from its body and builds a wall”—Kim insists that poetic language, too, is an independent force that can “bloom” through silence and death. Still, death seems a necessary precursor: “If you kill ‘me,’” Kim says, “Only then language merges into silence, to volunteer.” This is maybe why Kim insists on a self-erasing speaker, despite the risks we talked about earlier. In order for language to speak, the speaker needs to get out of the way—a figurative suicide perhaps indicated in the last lines of “Eyelashes”: “The thing that submerged me was just those two clumps of hair / The pair of eyelashes is flying away all by itself across the lake / leaving its body somewhere behind.”

MB: You both have great ways of putting it! It felt like the secretions accrue into a solution in which the poems’ speaker(s) are suspended—a shadow world between the embryo and the eggshell that does not protect so much as diffuse or filter trauma. As Kim says in “Key,” “Inside the hole is the outside world.”

AC: Despite the fact that there is a lot of yuck and a lot of death in Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, I mostly laughed while reading it and wonder if humor plays an important role in these sorrow poems. Take a profoundly sad poem like “Black Brassiere” that begins “On a very very boring day / like a waterfowl with its lips buried in its chest / I wanted to taste my own breasts.” Or “I’m OK, I’m Pig!,” which documents the mass slaughter of Pig then ends with a joke. In “Poetry or Letter To the Other of My Inside-Outside” (another interview in the book’s Appendix), Kim says, “I frequently imagine civilization as a makeshift stage or art installation, and a scene in which it all collapses. But lately, I think about living out the rest of my life laughing meaninglessly a rhythmical laugh.” Has Kim given up on the revolution-apocalypse, or is there something subversive in her jokes?

CW: These poems really are very funny and I felt that the book especially tried to begin on a note of hilarious friction. I think that via the breakage of a title such as in the first poem “Dear Choly, From Melan” which is so tonally directive for the entire book, we get a sort of indication that Kim is dealing with collapse. As we’ve already discussed, this is a poem and, an entire book, which is in part dealing with melancholy, loss, void, and porousness. But I feel it is by no means consumed by it. It is very resilient to it and is not it. In other words, the title of the first poem is not “Dear Melancholy” nor “Melancholy,” rather it is another poem which opens itself to other’s entities. I really felt as I read through this book that it was sort of like seeing a longish film with stark emotional weather—Von Trier or Tarkovsky, whatever—but seeing it with a friend who was making grim jokes. As though the text were palimpsest-ing itself tonally. I think this is Kim’s terrific ability to return and return (and always make it new). Points when I laughed, when I suspected the two of you were probably delighted by the book as well, were on lines like:

Like careless spilled ova
all umbrellas will be lost

or in “Tree’s Party” which is really very political, but the line “The world needs a party girl” cracked me up! Also, I think it is worth mentioning we emailed in pre-writing about the rats wearing black bras. So, I wonder if this book is still invested in the revolution-apocalypse, but if it is moving at it from the gaze of that poet-spectre who knows it can never really die? I also wonder if this stance is one that comes with becoming a fully realized poet, which is a very ecstatic/terrifying thought.

MB: Candice, I love the way you put “As though the text were palimpsest-ing itself tonally.” I felt like these poems were so saturated with sorrow that they had to laugh at themselves too, they are very self-aware that way and very subversive that way. That is the friction for me—the utterly devastating sincerity that also knows itself and its borders precisely. The speaker inhabits the object she is simultaneously observing. A less fully realized poet would not be able to pull this off.

I think the collapse that Ashley’s pointing out is really important to these poems too, and maybe humor and laughter is a way to collapse or deflate not only the grimness of real trauma but also a way to throw out the systems that have made the horrors Kim deals with here possible. Time and space do not follow a conventional logic in any of these poems and it seems like that’s pointing to the need for a way to re-create the world, to start over with a new mythology. Here’s a lengthy example of what I mean from the poem “Mrs. Everest’s Breakfast”:

As the helicopter pulls up a huge corset from the bottom of the sea
the fat woman who used to live hidden in the sea
is automatically pulled up along with it
Her white face, her blue tendons
a face that has never been exposed to light

He sits her down on a chastity belt
She has her breakfast every morning tied to the dining room chair’s
armrests that look like fallopian tubes

The continent slowly heaves up from the sea as it dislikes the saltiness
It has soared so high that clouds gather below its feet
The ocean still stays hidden in the many crannies of Mount Everest
Dead clams flake off
The fossils of blue whales float
Somewhere inside her body a huge salt fountain spouts

(I wonder where the river that begins deep inside me flows to)

She thinks that she is having her meal on the mountaintop
The air is thin Over I’m here alone Over
Out of breath Over but no one should come here Over

The desert below the dining chair gets bigger, bigger every day
Like a corset the desert constricts the river’s thighs
then the river disappears
When the river disappears people disappear
a village disappears a nation disappears
The sand of the riverbed is as soft as flour
She makes bread with that flour and spreads jam on the toast for breakfast
The dust-cloud mushrooms beneath the dining room chair

Here time is awash, and huge distances and heights are rendered irrelevant by the scale of Mrs. Everest and the scenery. The vantage is so high that a nation’s disappearance is barely noticed. But the voice of the poem’s speaker, which feels so small, has the power to puncture this creation myth with gusto, to manifest an immediately parallel universe to which the myth is applied like an always-inadequate balm, as all myths are applied. This puncture is both funny and political—the speaker does not have the luxury of sitting high above the rivers and villages, she is one of the people at risk for disappearing and therefore must act.

AC: Mere, I think you’re right that the myth is an important form for Kim—and that humor in these poems often emerges in tandem with the collapse of parallel universes she creates. The last poem “I’m OK, I’m Pig!” parodies both Christian and Buddhist mythology, replacing Jesus and the Buddha with “Pig”—who of course doesn’t fit neatly into these roles: “If Pig dies and resurrects as Pig, what pig would believe it?” Pig cannot discard herself to achieve enlightenment nor reincarnate as a higher form, insisting “We return as pigs / We snap back onto the pig magnet that eats and shits.” She does have a Trinity-like identity—the speaker is Pig but also addresses Pig, plus there are regular pigs—but in this replacement myth, parents are indistinguishable from children, Pig is indistinguishable from pig, and everyone just eats each other: “May I call this delicious thing You?” she asks, “May I gently-gently lovingly gnaw on you?” Kim insists that Pig is “a fun pig … about to burst with humor,” but she is also a trickster with great power. Like all exploited organisms, she is “raised to be your heart … raised to be your lungs”—but eventually the used usurps her user: “You are my liver, you are my kidneys, you are my heart, you are my eyes, you are my skin, no matter how much I wail, you drag me away not knowing that I am you.”

CW: That feels like the place to stop, doesn’t it? We didn’t account for so much of what can potentially be taken in when discussing Kim (issues of translation occur to me first and foremost.) Through the mode of our forum discussion we dialogued for a long time about shame, humor, and shamanism but I feel that in that last quote you chose, Ashley, what I hope may have been really happening here was crystallized. I think the special thing about Kim’s text is that it can “drag” you away and also allow you to see that “I am you” and I often find that in this way Kim is a poet who I compulsively want to talk about with other people. I hope the body of this discussion held all the stuff of the book. Or, in other words, I don’t think that I myself as one vessel can contain my thoughts on Kim’s poems and poetics—these thoughts have to flow into others who are also primed by the text to be porous. But I think that’s what Kim is trying to do all the time, make more holes. So, yes, I think we all thank each other for gently-gently lovingly gnawing.

Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, by Kim Hyesoon (translated by Don Mee Choi). South Bend, Indiana: Action Books. 106 pages. $16.00, paper.

Candice Wuehle is the author of CURSE WORDS (dancing girl press). She is also a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City, Iowa, holds a Master’s in Literature from the University of Minnesota and is a PhD candidate at the University of Kansas where she is a Chancellor’s Fellow and the Assistant Poetry Editor of Beecher’s.

Meredith Blankinship is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Heavy Feather Review, Similar:Peaks::, GlitterMob, Sink Review, Finery, and Petri Press, among others. Sheis a recent transplant to Atlanta, Georgia.

Ashley Colley studied poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Miami University. If you want to read more of her words, she’s got a review of Brenda Hillman’s latest forthcoming from Drunken Boat. Some of her poems have also appeared. She lives in Denver with a man and two rabbits.

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