‘To nail Pig on a cross’ a review of Kim Hyesoon’s Pig Poetry

June 9th, 2014 by

A review by Aleja Taddesse
I keep thinking that what we need is a new language. A language of the heart… some kind of language between people that is a new kind of poetry…And I think that in order to create that language, you’re going to have to learn how you can go through a looking glass into another kind of perception, where you have that sense of being united to all things. And suddenly, you understand everything. -from My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle, 1981)
Kim Hyesoon is one of South Korea’s most prominent and celebrated poets. I recently came across her work at a poetry reading in April, held by the Southbank Centre.  Sat between her translator, Don Mee Choi, and a presenter, Hyesoon poured out a softly spoken recital in a language which fell on my deaf but intrigued ears. As the presenter read out the translated versions of her poems, I found myself enthralled by the cruelty in them. I came away with a deluge of images about a world which, prior to this introduction, I knew little about.


“I’m OK, I’m Pig!” brings together Hyesoon’s sprawling poetry in a catalogue, which she first started publishing in 1979. In fact, Hyesoon began publishing her work at the tail end of the US-backed military dictatorship of Park Chung-Hee. It was a literary response to the stifling atmosphere of censorship, brutality and torture endured by Koreans throughout two successive military regimes of the 1970’s and 80’s.  Her works meander through this bleak past and into present day, where the dark socio-political reality of Korea’s not too distant history has dissipated, and given way to a formidable inversion: the bright white light of consumerism kept shining by a neo-colonial presence.


In a fascinating explanation of her position in relation to all this, Hyesoon describes her poetic stance as being in between these two states: her work is derived from a hazy, dream-like search light, wherein language addresses everything that has been rendered absent by the polar forces on either side.  And nowhere does she attempt to reconcile these two polar forces and rescue her sense of self more than in her recurring subject: pig.


“I’m Ok, I’m Pig!” reads like a proclamation and confessional. The first subtitle in the collection, “Pig Speaks,” claims that “To nail Pig on a cross would be too natural, meaningless.” Hyesoon wishes to imbue the Pig’s torture with meaning and preserve the “self”, who is in danger of being effaced here, through death. Kafkaesque depictions of the grotesque are littered throughout the rest of the long poem.  Hyesoon’s world is full of pigs who don’t know they are pigs, reincarnated pigs which “bloom dangling-dangling from the pig tree.” After a while it seems that everything living is, somehow, pig.  By taking up this space, where pig shit and consciousness flow into each other and flesh is sickened by its own perish, Hyesoon gives an animal regarded as the filthiest, basest of all, a human significance. Unconventional does not capture the bizarre nature of it all. She turns it inside out the ultra feminine voice that conventional Korean poetry cloaks itself in order to see what else comes crawling out.  The result is an overspill of fantastical, stomach turning imagery, as “rats knaw on piglets” and “pig stomachs burst inside the grave.”  By the end of the poem, I can see how pig, a visceral symbol for a strong love-hate attitude of society, is a suitable metaphor for ambiguity. Its experiences of terror, cruelty and man-awarded fate of the slaughterhouse are juxtaposed by the value it is given as a commodity and culinary pleasure (akin to the experiences of a woman in a patriarchal society.)


Through this experience, it becomes an acute symbol of the body oppressed-we are disgusted by its filth, yet devour its meat.  The other sense of “self” that needs recovering, or discovering, is the one diminished by heavy state censorship. At the reading, Kim was asked to recall examples of words that she was forced to omit from texts, back when she worked as an editor. Interestingly, she found it quite difficult to recall specific words. Why? Simply, she stated, because so many words were censored under the iron-fist rule. Repressing some, like “freedom” or “soldier”, had a traceable rationale behind it. These are charged, or at least stirring, words which contained in them a possibility of dissidence. The arbitrary omissions of the more every day, innocuous words are more puzzling. They raise the possibility that the vocabulary of the time was altered, and encapsulate the need for a new language, one that could adequately write into “the blackened space of censorship.”


Hyesoon’s translator is a writer too. Based in America, Don Mee Choi makes an interesting case for the act of translation as not solely a lingual process, but historical and political. Geographically, she tells us, “The US presence translates into about one hundred military bases and installations in South Korea, a land that is only one fourth the size of California.” Though Hyesoon’s expressions seemingly belong to a world of fantasy, where contextual considerations can’t touch them, inside her fantasy is a direct resonance with the world outside. Her harrowing images of deferential pigs, offspring who offer up their organs to a revered parental figure, are congruous with South Korea’s economic subservience. (An economy whose paradoxical place as 11th largest in the world still bears the ineffaceable mark of IMF loans and US engineered trade acts.) The process of translation, then, translates afresh the historical connection between the US and Korea. It is on the terms of this new language, one created by “daughters of the neo colony,” that “I’m OK, I’m Pig!” speaks.