Pointed Handwriting

Kim Hyesoon Translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi
April 21, 2023
Nadezhda Pechenova

In a conversation with Emily Jungmin Yoon, the poet and translator Don Mee Choi quotes from Yoko Tawada’s story collection Where Europe Begins (translated by Susan Bernofsky and Yumi Selden): “‘That person, you know, the one whose name I flailed to catch, now what was she called?’ I tried saying. Even in the dark I could feel Kinoko-san bristle with excitement at the word ‘flailed.’” Choi, too, is attracted to the word. She explains how in her practice of translating between Korean and English, she privileges flailing over fluency—refusing to render a fictive seamlessness in the encounter between the two languages, with their syntactic and historical incommensurabilities. Still, languages are not hermetically sealed, and imperial logics do not stop the borders of English; just as the ongoing US military presence in South Korea constitutes a neocolonial configuration that reiterates restrictive forms like nationalism and patriarchy, so too do brutal imbrications of history and power take place in language.

And yet, in the context of imperial flailings, what else is there to do but flail otherwise? For the South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, poetry is the site of this generative thrashing. She explains: “I think that solely through a language of poetry that has schizophrenia can women force the father language down from power. It is only possible with poetry to find a new Korean word or coin new Korean words.” Throughout Kim’s poem “Pointed Handwriting,” translated by Choi, a forest flails, transmuting and transfiguring, accruing allegorical resonances as the poem unfolds: “There’s a sense forest in the middle of my house”; “my heart was like a pitch-black forest. The graves inside the forest hit me”; “Someone asked me, Are you calling a farewell a forest?” Eventually, even the language itself must stretch to accommodate meaning’s unwieldiness: “Forest, my forestbird, my forestSufism, my forestdeity”—as legibility erodes, new forms of speech emerge.

Claire Schwartz

(English follows the Korean, below.)

뾰족한 글씨체

안고 있던 어항의 금붕어를 화르륵 웅덩이에 쏟았다 또 버릴 것이 없나 둘러보았다 고양이마저 버릴까 이 집에선 살아 있는 건 안 돼 우리 집 한가운데 울창한 숲이 있다 헝겊 한 장을 들추면 거기 있는 각자의 냄새나는 성기 같은 아이가 들어오지 않는 날 나는 그 숲으로 들어가봤다 심포니를 들으러 예술의 전당에 갔는데 오케스트라가 시작하기도 전에 스타인웨이 피아노는 다리가 세 개 달 린 암말처럼 무대를 뛰어다녔다. 관악기들은 홍학들처럼 부리를 내밀고, 첼로에 대해서 말해봐야 무엇하겠는가. 얼음 웅덩이에 박힌 저 아이를 꺼내라고 소리를 질렀다. 목구멍은 비명을 지르고 가슴은 칠흑 같은 숲이었다. 숲 속의 무덤들이 나를 때렸다. 내 얼굴을 갈겼다. 아랫도리 를 드러낸 거대한 숲이. 도마뱀을 방생했다 매일 방생했다 내 뺨을 쳤다 조공을 드렸다 도마뱀은 냄새나는 바위처럼 웅덩이 곁에 엎드렸다 친애하는 친구와 선생님과 가족을 방생했다 방생한 뒤엔 다시는 돌아보지 않았다 작별을 숲이라 부르고 있는 거냐고 누가 물었다 나는 방 안에 길고 긴 편지처럼 비가 내리면 슬픈 일이 생기고 숲이 시작된다고 대답했다 사실을 말하려고 하면 할수록 센티멘털이 온다는 것 을 알았다 아기를 지운 날엔 손톱만큼 작은 홍학을 삼킨 것 같았다 그 작은 홍학이 밤에는 얼룩덜룩 춤을 추었다 숲이 더 커졌다 잠이 들면 숲에서 나온 무심한 발들이 내 얼굴 위로 지 나갔다 쥐였다거나 도마뱀이었다거나 고양이였다거나 하지만 죽은 육친들이 나의 무방비를 놓칠 리가 있겠 는가 숲에서 온 이들이 하필 내가 벌거벗었을 때만 창문에 달라붙었다 나의 하루 낮, 하루 낮은 숲에서 겨우 내어준 것일까 생각했다 깜깜한 집에서 하얀 숲의 거대한 기척을 느낀다 순장당한 영혼들의 숨결 같은 입김을 느낀다 눈에 띄지도 않을 작은 기미가 필생의 동작인 작은 곤 충처럼 흰 종이 속에 숨은 나의 가느다란 글씨는 기미로 나아 간다 숲이여 나의 숲새여 나의 수피즘이여 나의 숭배여 이제 나만 남았다 나를 화르륵 쏟아주고 끝내겠다 얼마나 센티멘털한가 나는 지금 숲으로 글을 쓴다 숲을 뾰족하게 깎아서 쓴다

Pointed Handwriting

I poured the goldfish into a puddle from the fishbowl I was holding
I looked around to see if I could throw out anything else
Throw away my cat?
No, I shouldn’t throw out any living things from my house
There’s a dense forest in the middle of my house
When I lift up a piece of cloth
each tree gives off the smell of its genitals
The day my child didn’t come home, I went into the forest

I went into the music hall to listen to the symphony, but even before the orchestra began playing, a Steinway piano hopped around the stage like a three-legged horse. The wind instruments stuck out their beaks like flamingos; it’s pointless to say anything about the cellos. I yelled out, Pull that child out from the frozen puddle! My throat kept screaming and my heart was like a pitch-black forest. The graves inside the forest hit me. They slapped my face. The immense forest with its genitals exposed hit me.

I released a lizard
I released it daily, it slapped me, I paid it tribute
The lizard prostrated next to a puddle like a stinky rock
I released my beloved friends, teachers, and family
Then I didn’t look back
Someone asked me, Are you calling farewell a forest?
When rain falls like a long, long letter inside my room
sad things happen and a forest begins to form, I answered
I knew that the more I told the truth the more sentimental things would become
The day I aborted my baby it felt as if I had swallowed a flamingo as tiny as a fingernail
The tiny flamingo danced up and down, and the forest grew bigger
When I fell asleep, the heartless feet of rats, lizards, and cats
crawled out of the forest and passed over my face
My dead relatives from the forest didn’t want to miss the chance of seeing me defenseless
They showed up outside the window whenever I undressed
One afternoon of mine—I wondered if I was finally let out of the low forest
Inside my pitch-dark house I sense the enormous white forest
I feel the breaths of the souls of those buried alive with the dead
My skinny handwriting hiding inside the paper multiplies
like a barely visible sign, like a tiny insect wiggling its whole life
Forest, my forestbird, my forestSufism, my forestdeity
I’m all alone now—I’ll end it by pouring myself out
Oh, how sentimental!
Right now, I’m writing in forest
I sharpen the forest and write

Korean excerpted from 날개 환상통 by Kim Hyesoon, published by Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd. Copyright © 2019 by Kim Hyesoon. All rights reserved.

English excerpted from Phantom Pain Wings by Kim Hyesoon, translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi, published by New Directions. Text copyright © 2019 by Kim Hyesoon. Translation copyright © 2023 by Don Mee Choi.

Kim Hyesoon, born in 1955, is one of the most prominent and influential contemporary poets of South Korea. Kim recently received the 2019 International Griffin Poetry Prize for Autobiography of Death and the Samsung Ho-Am Prize in 2022

Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony (Wave Books, 2020) received a National Book Award for Poetry. She is a recipient of fellowships from the MacArthur, Guggenheim, Lannan, and Whiting Foundations, as well as the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program.