In Kim Kyung Ju’s poetic world, everything is born as a neplantera. He writes in his poem ‘A Postcard from Orpheus’, ‘the living are born in the dead people’s world and the dead are born in the living’ (Kim 37-38). Neplanteras show us that every border is surmountable, and because all borders are surmountable, they become redundant.
Every time I open my mouth I spit out a child of a book. I give birth to an echo Of a voice evaporating Like moisture being zapped Out the body of the dead.
Writing is born from and deals with the acknowledged doubt of an explicit division, in sum, of the impossibility of one’s own place. It articulates an act that is constantly a beginning: the subject is never authorized by a place, it could never install itself in an inalterable cogito, it remains a stranger to itself and forever deprived of ontological ground, and therefore it always comes up short or is in excess, always the debtor of a death, indebted with respect to the disappearance of a genealogical and territorial ‘substance,’ linked to a name that cannot be owned. (Michel de Certeau IX)
Kim Kyung Ju’s first poetry collection, I Am a Season that Does Not Exist in the World, begins with a poem about a disabled artist called ‘The Outer World’ (‘외계’).
Born without arms, a man who painted only the wind. biting the brush in his mouth, the man pushed undiscoverable winds into the paper he painted. Although people were unable to discern the shapes of his paint to distant places, back and forth, his brush strokes made the gentle sounds of a child breathing. (Kim 3)
양팔이 없이 태어난 그는 바람만을 그리는 화가였다 입에 붓을 물고 아무도 모르는 바람들을 그는 종이에 그려 넣었다 사람들은 그가 그린 그림의 형체를 알아볼 수 없었다 그러나 그의 붓은 아이의 부드러운 숨소리를 내며 아주 먼 곳까지 흘러갔다 오고 했다 (김 13)
The deformity in this poem is not disability, but people’s inability to recognise the forms of the artist’s paint. As Lee Gwang Ho has pointed out in his critical introduction to Kim’s book, the anti-lyrical, anti-romantic quality of Kim’s poems push the reader to reconsider poetic modes of representation. The trajectory of the artist’s path is outward – the romantic turn toward nature as a subject to gain wisdom and knowledge from. However, through Kim’s use of a surreal gesture, the outer world collapses into inner-subjectivity, where it becomes a stage for the performance of identity, a performance of identity that becomes the stage for creating a world.
To find a color nobody had discovered he descended a dark volcano. Deep into the snow, in his eyes, inside the womb it was there where he left the two hands that he’d been painting. (Kim 3)
누구도 발견하지 못한 색 하나를 찿기 위해 눈 속 깊은 곳으로 어두운 화산을 내려보내곤 하였다 그는, 자궁 안에 두고 온 자신의 두 손을 그리고 있었던 것이다. (김 13)
The poet’s choice is to reject accepted forms of art and taste. He has to choose his deformity and make it the subject of his creativity. He not only risks estrangement from others, he invites it. This is a direct social and political rejection of ideological social norms substituted by the adoption of the position of radical alterity. This is why the poem is called ‘The Outside World’ (외계, 외 meaning outside, or outer, and 계 meaning border, world, zone). While ultimately I chose to translate the title as ‘The Outside World’, an alternative title could be outside the border or alien. What needed to be explained, but most likely could not be translated, is that it is both a place and a state which describes the experience of existential homelessness. However, that homelessness appears in the poem as a choice. The ‘womb’ of the poem is within the artist’s gaze, within ‘his eyes.’
When the poem begins, ‘Born without arms,’ the speaker is implying a rebirth as an artist, where the artist impregnates deformity within the womb of his gaze. The subject is split between the excess of painting ‘undiscoverable winds’ which people are ‘unable to discern’ and the lack of ‘the two hands’ that are his subject. This is why the poet as subject, as de Certau wrote, ‘remains a stranger to itself and (is) forever deprived of ontological ground.’ Between excess and lack, his deformity is a disability of subjectivity (forever fucked). In a place without place, a place of radical alterity, where the other is literally located within the self, the artist has become a season that does not exist in the world, painting his deformed body in from outside his own skin, and unpacking it back out as the deformed world where he can be free.
In an interview with Kim I did in 2014 for Boston Review he said that his writing in terms of identity was representative of the schizophrenic pace of Korean industrialisation and the psychological trauma it inflicts:
When our previous president committed suicide, it was a reflection of the reality that we are not a united country or people, that we are really isolated from each other and have dangerous and violent sides to ourselves. We suffer from dissociative disorders, where our awareness, identity, and perception of reality often disrupt and break down. (Boston Review)
While there is a singular speaker in ‘The Outer World’, who addresses the reader in an easy to follow sequence, there are many poems in the book where multiple speakers appear simultaneously and in unmarked patterns. This creates the impression that the poem is inflicted with multiple personality disorder. In the same interview for Boston Review mentioned above, Kim remarked, ‘People who live in societies that change rapidly suffer from a kind of schizophrenia – multiple personalities’ (Boston Review). Kim, who is also a playwright, often uses stage direction in order to enact theatrics within a poem. In the poem ‘A Postcard from Orpheus’, not only do multiple characters and voices enter the poem, but there are moments where voice-over narration is implemented to further disorient the reader.