A Drink of Red Mirror by Kim Hyesoon and Translated by Jiwon Shin, Lauren Albin, and Sue Hyon Bae (Action Books, 2019)
With a long tongue I’ll suckle all your milk
and slurp up your brain
Two sheets of tongue like death
whine until the night wears out
and even without bodies
we flicked only our tongues
(from “Two Sheets of Tongue”)
Relentless. Gloriously grotesque. A statement on figure and body politics. Relationships, perceptions, and control. The new English translation of the incredible feminist surrealist approaches boundaries and absconds them. Her work is approachable and reproachable; an embrace of fascination and a rejection of horror.
These poems are bounties of binding and explosion, carefully considered expressions of crystalline order and salvaged wreckage. They are juxtapositions of voice, fields of life in decay, and a captured layering and distribution of the soulful human embodiment cum imprisonment. And answers of what it means to fully exist and fully break open into the ravings of liberty.
When you asked me What are you thinking?
I quickly pushed an earlobe dripping with blood
between your lips and said I’m not thinking of anything
Under the streetlamp two lilac trees recklessly tremble
(from “Weather Update”)
Unlike the previous Kim Hyesoon collections available in English, mostly done through the intensive and intense translations of Don Mee Choi, A Drink of Red Mirror is the result of a translation project. The cohort responsible falls under the guidance of Arizona State’s Professor Jiwon Shin. The book is a result of that cohort’s leading MFA students Lauren Albin and Sue Hyon Bae. The other contributing translators are students Rebecca Teague, Dakota Hale, Kevin Salter, Sierra Hamel, and Nicole Lindell.
This book is about the combing of translations in collectivity to find the sweet treasure of collaboration. Each poem in the book has its multiple translators identified. The weaving together creates a harmony in the tonal scope of the book. The book reaches extreme ends undeniably Hyesoonean, and the book falls in line through an integrity of language. There is an underlying flourish and roughness to these translations I don’t recall as present in Choi’s work. The result is an enjoyable satisfaction of grit.
When I enter the gorge of dreams
there’s that women, always waiting for me,
the woman who wanders the night of the ball
This morning she’s rotted black and smeared of asphalt
(from “Something Like a Poem”)
These poems fling and flail and ring and rail across the page. They are mesmerizing and filled with sublimity. They are at once the cacophonous crowd’s compounded tongue and the euphonic chorus. The speaker of each poem is the symbolic feminine extremely extended, hallmark protagonist of Hyesoon’s ongoing work. Translational differences, nuances, blemishes, uniquenesses aside, this book fits into the English canon of the brilliant South Korean poet. It is fascinating to imagine the choreographed poetics of a group whose shared goals plaster the space of knowing and fixity, and witnessing the emerged Hyesoon, the literary Hyesoon, Hyesoon-as-poetry, emerging forth, gaseous and spectacular upon or beside the anti-pedestal.
As mentioned, these poems are bodily-formed and focused. They feel prepositional. Concepts and identities within, and without, and between. They are transitory and trans-positional. They are poems that deal with self and other in a profound and provocative balancing act. The act is the initiative, and the initiative is the poet’s rhythmic awareness. This fortitude, this acute intuition, is represented through blazingly complex metaphor and nearly-mystical convergence of image and method for understanding. The voices of the speakers blend into the foreground and background of each poem’s narrative.
a child with a crushed chest a child whose lung at every breathing hole is filled with stones a child with ten fingers tattered like a folding fan a child whose two lips are stuck together a child whose eyeballs have melted a child whose teeth have been ground away a child whose ribs have been smashed away a child whose every strand of hair has been plucked a child whose blood among other things has been sucked into the drain a child whose tongue has been stretched like chewing gum a child whose brain has been sucked dry by a cat
(from “Eye of a Typhoon”)
There are subjects and spaces that these poems and their messages occupy, only to break down and mutate into other grounds, other centers, other platforms and placements. There is a sense of the futurist’s rapid positioning. A literary monstrosity born out of a 21st Century system for movement of tongue and text. A fluidity through the urgency of the present’s unknown, of the future’s distortion, of the demand for presence and a global-meets-personal actualization.
Unlike some of Hyesoon’s other English editions, A Drink of Red Mirror often feels situated and comfortable. I acknowledge a potential bias (I have read most of the other books too, and might simply be accustomed as an ongoing reader), and also believe that the works here do find a sutbtlety that reduces the Hyesoonean absurdity and extremity from eruptive splash to gurgling bubble. That is not to say these poems find softness or fragility; no, it’s quite the opposite—the levels of micro articulation and an incising examination make for significant complexities previously hidden.
The you inside you has a tight hold on your body that’s why your fingernails curl inward, the shell of your spiraling outer ear also gets sucked into your body if the you inside you lets go of its tight hold on your hand probably at that moment you will not exist in this world
This collection and these translations echo Don Mee Choi’s work—the fun and obsessively-ridiculous contexts and images—while ascribing more thoroughly examined scrapes and chiselings. The poems, many quite lengthy, take their time to flip through each setting and situation to grind the reader into the book. I felt, reading this, significantly displaced from stanza to stanza, often feeling pulled into a powerful current, a central energy (like a whirlpool, or flight through gravity), again and again.
Exhaustion and fatigue and a sense of the overwhelming. Pause and release and re-engagement. The track through worlds upon worlds calling forth rests upon rests. Each step forward through the 57 poems (broken into the book’s three sections) is astonishing and alleviating all-the-same. It is the smash of glass into ground. The overflow of water from basin to counter. The sun pressing outward from a rocky horizon. The veil forming and parting through a fogged-in plain.
The body of this book is filled with microcosmic interiors that range from close to far and all of in-between. An exploration of this text is a commitment to the tense and swollen core of existence and beautiful fractures of the individualized experience.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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