Every night do the thousands of bulbs I constructed in the factory when I was 20 still light? The fortune teller I used to frequent has become a hotel. My brother who worked the graveyard shift for years at the power plant on top of the mountain told me he shaved his pubic hair with a straight razor. In this tragedy, to prevent infection, the chicken sucks its wings. And yet, after stabbing one kid in the abdomen with a knife, the girl that was doing the stabbing stabbed herself … If I carry red bricks on my back one floor at a time, my salary is increased by 10 dollars. And on holiday, if I gift wrap a shitton of sesame oil, I can buy you a K-pop CD. This place is not suitable for a liberalist like you to live. (37)
The voice over narration of ‘In this tragedy … the chicken sucks its wings’ continues with the rhetorical marker of ‘And yet, after stabbing one kid in the abdomen … the girl that was doing the stabbing stabbed herself.’ Not only does the voice over narration appear suddenly and without explanation, the sequence of events is joined with the conjunction ‘and yet,’ but the actions are completely unrelated in terms of logical sequencing.
Later, the speaking voice is no longer embodied, but a disembodied speaker voicing over his life, commenting to himself, about himself, from the outside. When he remarks ‘This place is not suitable for a liberalist like you.’ The ‘you’ here is self-reflexive. Kim is inserting cinematic devices, but without the usual narrative direction and markers a reader needs in order to figure out who the speaker is. This gives the impression that the poem is unfolding spatially, rather than chronologically. In that sense it is a mapping of cognition rather than a linear representation of time. While that is not unique in poetry per-se, the way in which Kim throws in voice-over narration is troubling. While voice-over narration works in cinema and in plays because the audience can simultaneously listen to the voice and watch the actor play out a scene (or imagine the scene being played out), this poem in particular has a single layer of representation, where language remains too immediate to create the distance necessary to allow for the reader to make sense of the situation.
John Clay argues that if we consider the poet to be dead, a-la death of the author, then the expression of the poem is not a representation of the dead poet’s feelings, but is independent. While the reader is not responsible for those feelings, they are however, responsible for the actualisation of those feelings. The real, material existence, he argues, is in its performance ‘as the body of a reader, which becomes the body of the performed poem’ (Clay 103). While the movie or play engages the audience as a spectator, the reader of a poem is responsible for actualising the poem as a performance. In Kim’s poem, when voice over narration enters without markers, because the poem is being enacted by a reader, instead of witnessing an actor act out their disorder, the reader is getting as close as possible to experiencing the mental lapses and gaps of dissassociative identity disorder firsthand. In this instance Kim is not engaging in a kind of formal hybridity, but is creating a logic of delivering content in an order that is similar to the schizophrenic pacing of life that he described in his interview. He is asking the reader to become schizo.
The carrying of bricks ‘one floor at a time’ and the giftwrapping a ‘shitton of sesame oil’ to buy ‘a K-pop CD’ is an allegorical representation of the stacked odds against the worker (literally climbing one floor at a time, packing boxes in a lumpenmass glot). The poem is ironically called ‘A Postcard from Orpheus’, because while Orpheus goes into the underworld to rescue Eurydice, the worker Orpheus in Kim’s poem is literally in hell in the factory. However, Oedipus’s song is gone, replaced by the manufactured noise of the K-pop industry. The schizophrenic speaker says ‘in the room in my dreams I leave guitar strings like hair, and even when I’m not there the strings keep growing’ (38). The sun no longer rises. The broken strings in Orpheus’s dreams are a reflection of the extreme alienation, alcoholism, social exclusion, and economic inequality that are side effects of rapid economic growth. Oedipus’s guitar, the mythic (song), has been sacrificed for the manufactured materialism of the K-pop industry (commodity fetish).
A darker way in which social ills surface in Kim’s poems is through the grotesque. However, the grotesque in Kim’s book always has a melodramatic quality. For instance, in ‘A Cloud’s Luminescence’ when the face of a doll disappears and the speaker asks, ‘Maybe that kid is holding a kitchen knife / cutting the smiling doll’s neck off? ‘(39) or in ‘My Sorrow Suddenly Began Like a Love for Mom that Never Existed,’ when mom appears ‘in a nun’s habit sitting in a flower bed. Throwing hundreds of safety razors.’ and ‘Hanging out in the cabin of the flipped truck where I used to play, if the dead children return, then really, I am alone’ (46). In this way the grotesque is often exaggerated as dark humor. However, the dark humor is at its most impactful in the poem ‘The Night Text Messages From The Young Girls At The Sugar Factory Roll By’. Adolescence is irreparably damaged by the economic predicament of the speaker, who invokes the refrain ‘My beautiful sugar is melting’ in order to give this prose poem an unlikely lyrical quality.
Below freezing, my beautiful sugar is melting. Ugh. Like bacteria, floating snowflakes. People come out on the streets and are hit by that snow like ‘D minor.’ They say if lots of snow falls on the body, the body melts, but with soft feet our footsteps quietly die on the roof. We text, ‘I miss you.’ Below freezing, even if they say they will give us another blanket, my beautiful sugar is melting. (Kim 58)
The beautiful sugar is melting even if it is below freezing. Here the Below freezing is both the temperature, but also the addressee of the girl’s text messages, a personified ‘Below freezing,’ because the weather has become the human embodiment of the capitalist state.
The girl’s sugar (read adolescence / purity) is melting because of the nature of her enterprise (cold capitalism) and the psychological exertion / physical pressure it puts on her body (heat). There is a particularly shocking moment which illustrates the conflation of the girl’s body with sugar, and the external cold with insanity. ‘Every time I carry down, one by one against my breast, the grey panties hung on the roof, where does our sugar fly off to? My calves break off like sugar cubes. Because my beautiful sugar is melting, red snow inside my head flies recklessly’ (58). The body cracks like sugar and disappears, to the extent where the girl no longer produces but becomes what she packs in the factory: ‘I am Spearmint. I am Juicy Fruit.’ In the end, the girl, like the weather, is embodied within the ‘snowman I made.’ We don’t know if her death is the real death of the body or the post-lapsarian death of her adolescence – but what is certain is that the speaker’s humanity has become automated and assimilated by her labor, where ‘farewells are not as embarrassing as ideas. Ugh’ (59). Because the snowman she becomes is self-made, it illustrates the dubious position of how laborers often participate in their own self-alienation.
Wherever life is coded for the subjects of Kim’s poems, wherever their subjectivity is forced into an enclosed space, wherever places are assigned, there is tragedy and madness and deformity. However, this reminds us of Deleuze’s man of war, where from ‘the standpoint of the State, the originality of the man of war, his eccentricity, necessarily appears in a negative form: stupidity, deformity, madness, illegitimacy, usurpation, sin’ (Deleuze 353-354). The excessiveness, the deformity, the madness in Kim Kyung Ju’s poetry is the strategy of the smoothed out unmediated flow of the self. At first it appears as if the book has multiple voices, but if we consider the first poem, the entire book is just a mapping out of the all the speakers that live inside a singular body (a map without borders, folding inward by folding outward, a Mobius strip). The artist is the key. When he charted his voices, he occupied the entirety of a map, and the map spilled over into a world. Without goals. Like the spawn of a rat that fucked to death …
Mom, I finished the translation. Today I opened my mouth and someone else’s voice fell out. I vomited sand. I went to sleep and woke with my hair grown down to my feet. I looked from my balcony across the river. I heard bandits and their horses screaming. I also screamed. Birds on my roof bit my screams and flew away. Now that I am finished, can I really say that I survived? Have I become the living dead? I was born in the dead people’s world, and the dead were born in my world. Sometimes at night I forget to breathe. Speaking in the voice of someone else, I almost forget how to say my own name. For a moment, I felt free. I almost forget what it is to be me.