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'Corean Music' Part 5: The Ambient Violence of Rebecca Loudon, Marosa di Giorgio and Kim Hyesoon


In my first four posts I’ve talked quite a bit about ambience and “ambient violence,” a term I took from Joyelle McSweeney. While “ambient music” is usually associated with “background music,” i.e. the less important backing for the main action, usually the plot, I tend to think of ambience as something more disturbing: it opens up a space where the very distinction between foreground and background is corrupted, along with the distinction between essence and decoration (say the “meaning” vs the images or details, things we have to interpret “through” in order to get to the true meaning). Rather than something that doesn’t impose itself on us, to me ambience is something that immerses us, something that, through its intensity, overwhelms us.  This is its violence.


To draw from the critic Timothy Morton’s book Ecology Without Nature, artifice does not necessarily obscure or block some kind of essence. Instead, it inflicts sensations on us and can create a sense of immediacy: “Synesthetic works of art try to disrupt our sense of being centered, located in a specific place, inhabiting 'the body' from a central point. Our senses are disoriented…” He also shows how an ambient poetics importantly ruins our sense of foreground/background:

We generally take one kind of medium to be the background: the ambient air or electromagnetic field, the paper on which text appears. The other kind of medium, the one we explored as the timbral, appears as foreground. A disembodied Aeolian sound emanates “from the background” but appears “in the foreground.” With Aeolian events, we have a paradoxical situation in which background and foreground have collapsed in one sense, but persist in another…

This ambience is immersive: we are absorbed, drawn into it. We are not allowed a critical distance.


This is why I take issue with Steve Burt’s notion (expressed in a Facebook comment thread in response to my last post) that we can discern and celebrate a non-violent “excess” in contemporary poetry (and, by implication, construct a hygienic barrier around it, cordoning off and out of the conversation of those poets who don’t see violence as optional). Following my own ideas about ambient violence and those of Morton, I would argue that if excess isn’t violence, it’s not excess. That ‘ex-' means something. It means coming out of, going beyond. Excess is something that is continually coming through itself, becoming an ‘Aeolian event,’ re- and hyper-medializing itself, splitting itself apart to pour more of itself through. If it doesn’t perform this ‘ex-' it’s not excess. Excess is violence.


Consider this prose poem by Rebecca Loudon (from the project "Interrogations," read more here):


My tongue’s clapper honeypots shed sticky bodies on the sidewalk an eel pie inside the mute dwarf her gladiolas followed me I prayed to Tip eventually revealed to be a girl begged the Little Sisters of the Poor for one blasted bite she looked too much like the king crying in her nightie froze my garbage in bundles so the not so kindly neighbors could have their way bought this hat in Portugal no Germany I was German then no Hungarian now I am a Japanese soldier terrible things happened to my children America TAKE NOTE I am hungry and won’t stop one night I went on drinking far too long and alone a war held me hat and boots AIM! STRIKE! I practiced on the furious girls the gold girls wrapped their wings in electrical tape you with your eye switchers we’ll feed the next patient wild garlic paste and lily of the valley pirate radio waves Henry Henry-Hank-O-Hank I lived in Beijing Montana with Robert Pershing Wadlow Illinois’s TALLEST MAN he died of a blister furious furious girls then I drowned in a movie where they said made up things or static storms tonight I laid low under fifteen blankets war horses running past on fire I was a whore in Topeka a prostitute with lemony ripe hips and them hearts unpracticed swimmers red hands gold not warmed in the crook of my arm I think of them like whiskered rawfish horses in mud horses on fire I was a priest a detour in France my face blown clean off in a public kitchen those horses! flames jerked across their bodies let’s talk about my huge hoary lump don’t can’t can’t thicket tree swung up hard it was my hole IDEA gold and frothy air I had to skim the cream a hungry flicker with a sweet tooth under the poison what about Penrod he was a badger in the marram grass revealed to be most dangerous after I loved him when we crossed the river naked

Rather than a traditionally metaphorical “I am” poem, this poem seems to literalize all the “I am” identities, as if all the voices were both crammed into the box of the poem and coming out of the poem, like a radio dial spinning over an anachronistic, geographically farflung array of speakers or ghosts. This turning of the dial or channeling of voices strikes me as an incredible violence, which generates a violent ambience that refuses to be turned into background/foreground. It is all at the same time and it makes itself vulnerable to the war bursting in with its voices/noises (“AIM! STRIKE!), no less or more important than the more “human” voices.


When I write about “violence,” it seems a lot of people immediately assume it has to be futurist war poetry. A little pastoral scene can turn necropastoral and become saturated with violence. Consider this prose poem by the late Uruguayan superstar Marosa Di Giorgio (translated by Jeannine Marie Pitas, from The History of Violets, one my favorite books of poems of the last few years, decades, ever):

The gladiolus is a spear, its edge loaded with carnations, a knife of carnations. It jumps through the window, kneels on the table; it’s a vagrant flame, burning up our papers, our dresses. Mother swears that a dead man has risen; she mentions her father and mother and starts to cry.

The pink gladiolus opened up in our house.

But scare it, tell it to go.

That crazy lily is going to kill us.

Here the “gladioloas,” those necroglamorous symbols of nature’s violence, move from Loudon’s sidewalk to an idyllic garden. But as with Loudon’s poem, the poem comes out of itself, threatening the inhabitants (and the reader) of the poem with its gothic beauty.


Finally, consider the beginning of Kim Hyesoon’s brilliant poem “Silk Road” (translated by Don Mee Choi) (the whole poem can be found here or in the book All The Garbage of the World, Unite!):

I paid a visit to my fever during my break

Here I carried a baby on my back and kisskissed it
As the flesh scent that smelled like gourd flower slowly ripened
a message intermittently arrived saying that my suffering was boiling in that place
all alone, covered by the stench of urine and feces under the scorching sun
I who have concealed that place am going inside it
like a camel that pantspants showing all of its gums
Suddenly the fever came for me and pounded my insides and left
leaving a few words on a thin piece of silk that could melt
but later…… later…… as I ripened to mush
Out of the blue, after many decades, I went to visit my fever

In the desert the crazy sun
like the terribleterrible hydrogen bomb that is still going off
after it exploded in the year of my birth
pours out the shards that still glow from red to dark

Here the compression of the “fever” generates all kinds of disorienting, anachronistic violence. The deformation zone of the “fever” coincides (spatially, temporally) with “my break,” a gap in the correct order of things. When she enters the gap, the break, the fever, everything becomes ambiently violent. Suddenly she carries a baby on her back and “kis-kiss[es]” it like a stutter in syntax, a hiccup in the celluloid; flesh and flower merges; a “message” arrives repeatedly defining the violence as “boiling in that place alone” (the faraway is merged with the utterly close, media and immediacy are fevered together). And then suddenly the fever – which the speaker is supposedly already inside of “like a camel” (has to be a big fever!) comes for the speaker, as if the fever was now outside of the speaker. But then the speaker “pounded my insides” as if inside of her, and then leaves. Then we get the repetition of “later… later” – an incredibly slowing down of the pace and temporality. However, this slowing down comes mashing up against the frantic beginning  in the line “out of the blue, after many decades” – here we have both the slowness of “after many decades” and the suddenness of “out of the blue.” The result naturally is a “terribleterrible hydrogen bomb” that somehow that starts exploding a long time ago (“in the year of my birth”) but also continues.

This visiting and coming through, this spasming interchange of body and site, background and foreground, is the kind of hypermedializing, ex-ceeding and superceding that I’m talking about when I talk about the violence inherent in excess itself. Excess as ecstasy.  A febrile seizure, a going out, beyond, and I would argue, through the self. How can this be non-violent?  In the zone of this poem, even time becomes anachronistically violent. Even as the poem attempts to order things into a nice narrative (“What I Did During My Summer Break”!), it is constantly battling its own temporal shifts and hiccups.


It seems notable that in a moment when our American nation both constantly at war (either through ‘conventional’ wars, drone warfare, or through the ultra violence of global capitalism), so many of our leading critics and poets seem to want to either ignore violence or quarantine it. At the same time, we have poets in translation – the major poets of their countries (Kim Hyesoon, Marosa Di Giorgio) who engage with violent aesthetics, and so do myriad poets like Rebecca Loudon through the kudzu-like, necropastoral, creeping too-muchness of small and indie presses.

To close with a quote from Kim Hyesoon’s book of criticism, Princess Abandoned (also translated by Don Mee Choi):

The performer cannot develop her body and soul, her life as the performer of the Abandoned, without making contact with ghosts. The performer exists as a twin-like being, who is intertwined with death, the death she was able to name through her active participation in it, and she uses this ability to visit back and forth with the death everyone harbors…

Originally Published: August 20th, 2013

Poet and translator Johannes Göransson emigrated with his family from Skåne, Sweden to the United States at age 13. He earned a BA from the University of Minnesota, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his PhD from the University of Georgia. He is the author of several books,...