“Chthonic Poetics”: Mike Corrao on Choi Seungja’s Action Books poetry collection Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me

In her new book, Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me, Choi Seungja (translated by Won-Chung Kim & Cathy Park Hong) expresses a poetry of the isolated and overgrown—orated alone in a small house in the wilderness, staring out at the horizon of a post-climate apocalypse.

The poems of this new collection fester. Often depicting images of maggots, piss, blood, fungus, her work very much takes on an aesthetic likened to Joyelle McSweeney’s necropastoral—a natural reclamation of the idyllic countryside, occupied by bugs and moss. Often the scenery of such places is closely tied to death. New life sprouts from a broken-down corpse. Maggots siphon the nutrients of decomposed biomatter. Insects rapidly move through generations, being born and dying soon after. The poet’s body is absorbed by the environment. Integrated into the growing foliage: “Looking like a cave, a rotten swamp.”

The landscape metamorphosizes: “Weeds have already grown / taller than me.” Choi’s work is steeped in these images of a posthuman nature. Somewhere that is quiet, but still teeming with bacterial activity. Not so much empty as it is microscopic. The poet appears to have arrived too late, or to have stayed for too long: “I’m a body seized by premonition.” Time has become distorted. The present is the past. The future is the present. The past is an immovable wall of ambiguous emotion.

The environment becomes Hadean. As if the poet has (knowingly or not) arrived in an underworld of her own. Somewhere atemporal and anachronistic: “Though the ferry comes and goes.” An unmistakably otherworldly energy radiates from these poems. And from this, emerges a poetics of the chthonic. This mingling of the dilapidated landscape, the ever-degrading body, and the atemporal. Where language flows between poet and planet. With feet firmly planted on the underside of the earth.

In the title poem, Choi articulates a kind of unanswered or unreached longing: “Yes, phone bells rang endlessly for me.” Reminiscent of the river Styx—of the water that when drank fogs the memories of the dead. The phone rings, but I don’t know who it is. And I don’t answer it. There is someone trying to reach us. Someone trying to reach the poet. But on the other end there is never really a person. There is a voice, long dissociated from its bodily form. Something disembodied and unsettlingly familiar. An orphic melancholy droning through the earpiece.

At times we are catatonic. Moving in and out of this hibernative state. Maybe even departing the underworld and returning again. Choi’s chthonic poetics imagines the self as something shared between the planet, the body, and the aether. Shifting between states of dramatic physicality and complete abstraction. The phone is real and in front of us, but the voice inside is immeasurable. There’s a “trail of piss stains on the wall” but “the bird of death cries.”

Chthonic poetics is a poetics of the isolated. Of the singular body implanted into a vast nature. The image of a post-climate apocalypse feels prevalent here in the mixture of natural and artificial structures. A phone or house interacting with overgrowth and fungus. In the underworld, every soul is ethereal to every soul around it. To themselves they are real. They have a body that can feel the grass and eyes that can stare at the peeling wallpaper. The hermit here is not alone. They are surrounded by beings that they can feel but not see, that they cannot interact with directly. The hermit is alone because they cannot will themselves to pick up the phone—to speak to the disembodied voice.

But even in the underworld, the body continues to decay: “Snap off my arms and legs // and / arrange / them / in / your / vase.” Choi’s work is visceral in its depictions of injury, pain, dysmorphia. Everything is fragile. The skin can easily be torn open. The bowels vacated. The teeth rotted. Womb infected. The landscape is contagious. It infects the body with death. Lulling the poet into the necropastoral.

Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me, by Choi Seungja (Translated by Won-Chung Kim & Cathy Park Hong). South Bend, Indiana: Action Books, October 2020. 79 pages. $18.00, paper.

Mike Corrao is the author of three books, Man, Oh Man (Orson’s Publishing), Two Novels (Orson’s Publishing), and Gut Text (11:11 Press); one chapbook, Avian Funeral March (Self-Fuck); and many short films. Along with earning multiple Best of the Net nominations, Mike’s work has been featured in publications such as 3:AM, The Collagist, Always Crashing, and The Portland Review. He lives in Minneapolis.

Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram and YouTube.