A homonym for ghost

Three women stood on the low stage in the glass building one winter evening, bare trees lit behind them. The woman in the center would read some lines in Korean, and the one standing to her left would read them again in English. The third woman, colorfully dressed, had begun the event with a slideshow of her riotous blacklined ink illustrations for the book — figures crawling under and out of graves; vast strange machinery; sleeping and singing human forms. After eloquently describing her art and her inspiration in her mother's poems, Fi Jae Lee apologized for her bad English (which was, throughout, perfect). Her mother is the South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, who appeared that night at the Poetry Foundation with her translator, Don Mee Choi.

It's always felt like a keen disadvantage to be monolingual, especially so once I fell for poetry in my early twenties — after I'd missed my opportunity to push my limited high school Spanish past the point of frustration towards understanding. Although I read lots of writing in translation, it's mostly fiction — this reading at PoFo was the first time I saw poems translated live. I was mesmerized, particularly by repetitive poems like "Lord No" as the sound of the unfamiliar words cascaded into the known ones, the texture of sound in each language bearing down with the weight of grammar in a massive structure of refusal.

When I'm reading poetry I think often of the ending of "Why Poetry Can Be Hard for Most People" by Dorothea Lasky:

Poetry is hard for most people
Because of sound

The lack of punctuation makes "sound" ring in the open air of the poem. And it's sound that makes poetry distinct from prose, to me — I wonder at the translator's craft of balancing meaning against tone against the feel of the words in the mouth and ears. Not knowing a lick of Korean that isn't the name of a food, I can't tell you the nuance of these poems. I wonder what I miss without a vocabulary of different sounds, without ordering the words around me to other grammars, learning more sets of homonyms.

Because I couldn't stop thinking about this reading I bought Kim's most recent collection, Autobiography of Death. At the end there's an interview between her and Don Mee Choi, the second question of which has to do with the feeling of disembodiment that comes from returning to the place you were born, listening to the language and thinking of what has been left behind. Kim says:

The Korean word for "hearing" is a homonym for the word "posessed," as in possessed by a ghost or spirit; a homonym for "visiting" or "dropping in" at your own or somebody else's house; and a homonym for "holding" something in your hand." So the same word is used for actions involved with the ear, ghost house and object. Which is to say, we hear things as if we are possessed by a ghost, then we hold something in our hands and let go of it as we enter then exit somebody's house. While I was writing these poems, I was probably possessed by a ghost, listening to death, then I held death in my hand and entered the house of death.

One word that's repeated frequently throughout the poems in Autobiography of Death is "mommy" — the baby-talk becomes grotesque in context. There's so much throughout Kim's work about femininity and the body and the expectations placed on it. And she has this idea of women's writing having its own kind of freedom — freed from the literary bombast of a "father tongue," women have the ability to speak directly from and through the body, without objectification or strict structure. "At the place where the body becomes anonymous, disenfranchised, and expelled, is where the language of death, women's language, is born" she declares in that interview, and concludes that "what the poems in this collection want to reach is sound." The keening sound of a mother losing a child, the automatic sounds one makes in pain, the sounds of the body as it takes in and expels air. I wonder what the word "mommy" sounds like in Korean, and I wonder what more I'd understand if I knew this.

I know the mind is vast, complex and plastic, that it's not as simple as some Sapir-Whorf thing to have entirely different cognitions based on the languages you've grown up with. But if I could have a tower-of-Babel superpower I'd certainly use it to comprehend more poetry. And to take on that feminine invisible that weaves throughout another really fascinating book I just read in translation, Olga Tokarczuk's Flights. I started reading it in a place where it's partially set: Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. A bit about English speakers lacking a private language made me smile in recognition: it appears under the heading "The Tongue is the Strongest Muscle":

There are countries out there where people speak English. But not like us — we have our own languages hidden in our carry-on luggage, in our cosmetics bags, only ever using English when we travel, and then only in foreign countries, to foreign people. It's hard to imagine, but English is their real language! Oftentimes their only language. They don't have anything to fall back on or to turn to in moments of doubt.

What are you reading in translation, what do you think of words and sound? I love to hear back from these letters.

And as a congrats for reading this far, I'd like to offer you some things I'm excited about!

  • I wrote a zine with my favorite vaguely unsettling neural network collaborator, Talk to Transformer. It's called Welcome to the Keep, You Miracle, which remains my favorite thing Talk to Transformer has told me (aside from when it confused me with both George Orwell and William Blake).

  • I'm reading an essay (that I have yet to finish, shhh, it's fine) at Psychotic Break on November 6.

  • And I'm trying to sell all the copies of a zine of baseball-inspired dad jokes before the end of the World Series. I have only 11 copies of it left.

And hooray.