Don Mee Choi, Lucas de Lima, Jen Hofer, John Keene and Cecilia Vicuña. These are the writers I invited to participate, to write essays, to write their lives and dreams and ideas and poems and nightmares and bursts of beauty and love.
Cecilia Vicuña got the conversation started for us in something she said during a question and answer session I attended at a performance she gave in Chicago in September 2015. She was answering the question of what it felt like to be translated, and in her answer she declared that the translator is the person who goes into the darkness to reveal what the world keeps hidden. This, she says, is why translators are so despised. And this darkness, she says, is what for her represents translation.
Cecilia said the following about the work that poet Rosa Alcalá does in her translations: “She goes into the darkness, she sees in the poem what not even I saw, she sees what the poem itself saw.”
And so we began our discussions by thinking about darkness and translation. We began by thinking about what Cecilia has called, “the generative force of the dark.”
Our series begins with an amazing piece of writing by Don Mee Choi, whose poetry collections and chapbooks include Hardly War (Wave, 2016); Freely Frayed,ㅋ=q, Race=Nation (Wave Books, 2014) and The Morning News is Exciting (Action Books, 2016); she has also translated four collections of poems by the great Korean writer Kim Hyesoon (all published by Action Books). Don Mee’s writing, and her translating, and her writing about translation, have changed my life, have improved my life, have helped me to live and to understand the various ways we develop and perform our humanity. I have devoured each of the Kim Hyesoon collections and continuously return to them in order to help myself understand just what kind of a writer it is possible to be. And Don Mee’s new collection, Hardly War, is so stunning and rich, a really amazing mix of writing that melds personal and familial narratives with meditations on history and war and nationalism with a complexity and thoughtfulness and seriousness that is evident in the essay you are about to read.
Don Mee and I have also, without having communicated about this in advance, been motoring down parallel paths in the writing we have done about the politics of translation as it relates to neoliberalism, state violence and nationalism. For Don Mee, translation is indeed an entering into the darkness to show us what we do not want to see about our world, and in her translation as well as her prose and poetry, she shows me what I do not want to see in such a way that I cannot help but want to see more and more and more.
To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.
—James Baldwin, from “The Price of the Ticket” in Baldwin: Collected Essays (The Library of America, 1998)
I was born in South Korea during the U.S.-backed military dictatorship. I grew up in a small, traditional house my father bought with the award money for his photographs of the Student Revolution of April 19, 1960, which took place in response to President Rhee’s anti-democratic and dictatorial rule. What my father still remembers about the uprising is that many children, orphaned during the Korean War, gave up their lives because they had nothing more to lose. What I remember are the children, no older than me, who used to come around late afternoons begging for leftovers, even food that had gone sour. Children with rickets, tuberculosis, and polio were common, and so were the quacks who treated them. The drills at school in preparation for attacks by North Korea kept me anxious at night. I feared separation from my family due to the ever-pending war. I didn’t want to end up as an orphan, going from house to house begging for food. I feared what my mother feared—my brother being swept up in protests and getting arrested and tortured. Our radio was turned off at night in case we were suspected of being North Korean sympathizers. At school, former North Korean spies came to give talks on the evil leader of North Korea. I stood at bus stops to see if I could spot any North Korean spies, but all I could see were American GIs. My friends and I waved to them and called them “Hello’s.” In our little courtyard, I skipped rope and played house with my paper dolls amongst big glazed jars of fermented veggies and spicy, pungent pastes. I feared the shadows they cast along the path to the outhouse. Stories of abandoned infant girls always piqued my interest, so I imagined that the abandoned babies might be inside the jars. Whenever I obeyed the shadows, I saw tiny floating arms covered in mold. Mother said mold made things taste better. And whenever it snowed, I made tiny snowmen atop the covers of the jars. Like rats, children can be happy in darkness. But the biggest darkness of all was the midnight curfew. I didn’t know the curfew was a curfew till my family escaped from it in 1972 and landed in Hong Kong. That’s how big the darkness was.
…darkness is cozy
Do people know how much it hurts the darkness when you turn the light on in the middle of the night?... Have you ever turned on the light inside your intestine?... When the light is switched on inside my darkness, I buzz like a beetle pinned down, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, and shake my head wildly… The houses with lit windows. How painful the light must be for the night.
—Kim Hyesoon, from “Conservatism of the Rats of Seoul” and “Rat” in Poor Love Machine (Action Books, 2016)
One day I became a halo-child after many days of waving to American Hellos by the roadside with other halo-children… We were swell… At sunset we parted like tapeworms, breaking off into individual pouches… RITZ crackers are impressive too, their enormous holes. Enormity is our savior. We move our heads from side to side, swishing our haloes about…
—from my chapbook, Petite Manifesto (Vagabond, 2014)
The light ailed us all. Our particular ailment was homesickness. In my new world of Hellos, I swished a halo around my head wildly. My mother’s psychosomatic symptoms were frequently triggered, my older brother got called back into the darkness for his mandatory military service, my younger brother had nightmares, sleepwalking almost every night, and my sister excelled in a frenzy, then fell apart, permanently. Nevertheless, life in the light was a privilege. The daily sight of hunger and poverty had vanished overnight. RITZ crackers were no longer a novelty. The crumbs, a mere nuisance. Well-fed, well-clothed, well-schooled, we were swell. Bloated by the light, buzzing. Rainer Werner Fassbinder knows this light all too well. In Veronica Voss (1982), the interior of Dr. Katz’s clinic is entirely, eerily white except for the so-called “enigmatic African-American GI,” rolling cigarettes laced with opiate powder. Here, light is cozy. He’s the only shadow in the clinic. He’s the new darkness West Germany must numb and sublimate—its post-war hunger and poverty along with its recent past. Let me de-enigmatize the GI’s presence in Veronica Voss and two other films that make up Fassbinder’s BRD (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) Trilogy. The GI signifies U.S. imperialism, allegorically speaking. For me, he’s the punctum of the film, to use Barthes’ term. He’s the new wound. How painful. The meeting of the post-war devastation and systemic racism, impoverishment. When two shadows meet, whether in South Korea or West Germany, a new wound manifests. We try to salve it with opiate or RITZ crackers, but the eternal light, the enormous holes are difficult to plug. Enormity is the price of neocolonial liberation. Raúl Zurita’s snow-white smoke laces the sky of New York, the biggest apple of all:
MY GOD IS WOUND
—from The Country of Planks, trans. by Daniel Borzutzky (Action Books, 2015)
Into the light, thousands of Koreans went, as migrant workers during the 1960s-70s. The workers were granted temporary permit to work as miners and nurses in exchange for foreign aid of 150 million Deutsch Marks. In May 1980, under the tacit consent of the U.S., the South Korean military carried out a brutal crackdown on the pro-democratic movement in Kwangju. History taught us well. We carried out many massacres during the Korean War. We also massacred Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War. We are trained and ready to fight at all times. The U.S. never fails to lead us. In 1983, my family departed once again—this time to West Germany. Into the light, we dispersed, repeatedly—also to Australia and the U.S. In light, we were to find ways to settle down. In light, we lived like birds.
Red eyes, sweet cries. My cats that wiggle behind the sofa.
--from “I’ll Call Those Things My Cats” in Poor Love Machine
Dr. Katz—she is beautiful. Kim Hyesoon’s cats—they are adorable. Kim’s darkness is a playground for rabid cuteness in which patriarchy, military dictatorship and censorship, neocolonization and neoliberalism play out. Into this deadly zone, its sky, rivers, and sea, the seventh daughter, the daughter-too-many, enters. She is Princess Abandoned [Paridegi/Parigongju]. She is the mother of all shamans. Her zone is a zone of wounds, a zone of hysteria, where Barthes’s “history is hysterical” also resides. It is hyŏnbin. Kim explains hyŏn as “closed eyes therefore everything is black” (or blackened by the military censor’s ink) and bin signifies “a lock, a valley, a mountain spring, a dark womb where the possibility of all life is held, where patriarchy, the male-centered thing breaks.”
The place in which Paridegi is abandoned is an unreal place, and all those who raise her are unreal characters. The spaces in which she is abandoned are places where graves are made or where the dead are secretly discarded. Hence, when her foster parents find Paridegi as an infant, insects fall out from her eyes, ears, mouth, and nose…
--Kim Hyesoon from Princess Abandoned, trans by Don Mee Choi (Tinfish, 2012)
For Kim, in the realm of abandonment, is where, in the pre-modern period, Korean women, blurred the boundary between life and death—“that to live is to die and to die is to live,” and, under patriarchy, “that to die is better than to live.” For Kim, the overlapping space of life and death, real and unreal, was necessary “in order to express their problematic identities…fabricate images of their space and…pull out the voices of their transformed selves.” This is why, under South Korea’s patriarchal-neocolonial-neoliberal rule, Kim “take[s] the readers and stand[s] them in front of the gap of the world, the crevice of death.”
The darkness gives birth, nurtures, and gives birth again… Paridegi's Buddhist Elysium is this black mirror… I, a woman poet, on the road of darkness, the endless road of the text… I break and break apart the darkness I have entered. This is how I can leave here and return to the place I had left.
—from Princess Abandoned
My encounter with Kim’s darkness is what triggered my journey from light back to darkness. Have you ever encountered a mirror like your own in darkness? It “is empty…at the very bottom.” This is why I say I am a lowly translator. Darkness to darkness, wound to wound, mirror to mirror, translation weaves. Daniel Borzutzky says in his introduction to The Country of Planks, “The history of atrocity is not a series of separate events here. Rather, to be alive is to experience all the obliterations at once.” The “plains of Nagasaki and Hiroshima” to CHILEAN STADIUM PRISON to PLAYA ANCHA STADIUM PRISON to CAMP PISAGUA PRISON to to VILLA GRIMALDI PRISON to TRES ÁLAMOS PRISON to COLONIA DIGNIDAD PRISON to TRAINING SHIP ESMERALDA PRISON to MAIPO CARGO SHIP PRISON to CARGO SHIP LEBU PRISON to NAVY BARRACKS PRISON to BERNADO O’HIGGINGS MILITARY ACADEMY PRISON to MOCHA ISLAND PRISON to QUIRIQUINA ISLAND PRISON to PUCHUNCAVÍ PRISON to NATIONAL STADIUM PRISON to THOU SHALL NOT KILL, EX. 20, 13 to Student Revolution April 1960 to Kwangju May 1980. Translation weaves, it weaves atrocities. And translation mirrors enable us to “experience all the obliterations at once.” Rats or planks, they pile up. This is why I say it is painful becoming an immigrant. Depart again, disperse again. This is why I hail, “Migration, my nation!”
It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.
C.D. Wright—she was a force. I felt her force as soon as my future husband at the time gave me a copy of Cooling Time (Copper Canyon Press, 2005) and later allowed me to carefully hold his copy of One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana (Twin Palms, 2003), her collaborative book with photographer Deborah Luster. I met C.D. in person for the first time, two years ago, on my birthday, when Joyelle McSweeney, Forrest Gander, Valerie Mejer Caso, Niina Pollari, and I read our translations at the Red Jewel Box in Seattle. Did you know C.D. was a fierce reader and supporter of translation? Did you know she edited and co-translated Rain of the Future (Action Books, 2014) by Valerie Mejer Caso? C.D. was a seer of ghosts. Valerie’s poetry is populated by immigrant, family ghosts, their trails of loss, wound, and violence. That night C.D. playfully demanded that I tell her and Forrest my life story. I told her the story of darkness, the departing, my father filming wars. When I saw C.D. again a few months later in San Francisco, she introduced me to her close friend and said, “Her father filmed the fucking-carpet-bombing in Cambodia.” Along the hiking trails at Squaw Valley, which reminded me of the mountains in Korea, we talked about the word Yankee and inter-lingual punning. I used to think that the first syllable in the Korean word for American whore—yanggalbo—and the first syllable of Yankee, were the same word. Politically, painfully, they are. C.D. got it. She was also a seer of wounds. When I asked her via email for permission to use her line about my father for my book, Hardly War, she jokingly said that maybe no one will ask her for quotes after they see this one. No one can anymore. If we were to follow the logic of Buddhism, C.D.’s soul would have roamed for forty-nine days around March 1st. That is when her soul transitions to rebirth, reincarnation. This involves translating her previous life to the next. Fellow Poets, translation weaves, it weaves solidarity.
don mee – i would love to be a flower – esp if i get to see the list and pick my flower (I’m particularly fond of country flowers) – later, cd
(March 12, 2015, 4:11 PM PDT)
rose of sharon
flower of all flowers
(February 27, 2016
in order of appearance from “Hardly Opera” in Hardly War)
Born in Seoul, South Korea, poet and translator Don Mee Choi is the author of The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010), Petite Manifesto (Vagabond, 2014), and Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016). She has translated many poems from Korean to English, including Kim Hyesoon’s books Mommy Must Be a...