The Poetry Project

Three Proems

Kim Hyesoon (trans. Jack Jung)

“From Aerok,” “On a Razzle-Dazzle Makeshift Stage,” and “One Day I Will Cast Away Personification” are translated “proems” from “Thus Spoke n’t” by Kim Hyesoon (b. 1955, North Gyeongsang Province, South Korea). “Thus Spoke n’t” represents the culmination of a project that Kim Hyesoon initiated as an anonymous blog in 2014, comprised of vignettes, editorials, riddles, travelogues, and, at times, outright poems. These texts explore the conceptual country of Aerok, an anadrome of Korea, and refuse classification as either poetry or prose. Instead, Kim Hyesoon refers to them as shisanmun, translating literally to “poetry-prose.”

The term proem traditionally referred to the introductory argument of a lengthy prose text, but here, it denotes the intermediary nature between poetry and prose in Kim Hyesoon’s compositions.

In “Thus Spoke n’t,” Kim Hyesoon introduced a persona named “n’t,” representing my English translation of 않아 (ahn-ah). In Korean, 않아 is an adjunctive adverb of negation, a particle that, when added, negates the entire sentence.

— Jack Jung

From Aerok

From Aerok I write.

Barely, here I write.

In this place, I will live, and one day, perish.

Barely, I will stay until the time comes to move on.

Along streets adorned with beauty parlors, student quarters, hospitals, banks, restaurants, cell phone shops, and fruit stalls, I find my refuge, only to retreat and put pen to paper once more.

How many bus rides remain for me? How many books, films, drinks, visits to my mother, or shed tears await? How many moments are left in my tally?

Here in Aerok, pushing past ‘I have nothing left to desire,’ striving beyond ‘I cannot continue to live.’

From this razzle-dazzle of hollow shells, a makeshift stage of a city.

From this makeshift stage of a country.

I adjust my sweater, speckled with pink fuzz.

The solitary star called Earth floats in the vast expanse of cosmos.

On a corner of this desolate star lies Aerok, cradling her skeletal mountains. They seem like tiny insects banished from the cosmos.

Is my writing born from intoxication with solitude, much like the reverberations echoing from an arid well?

Here where

Living is like.

Loving is like.

On a Razzle-Dazzle Makeshift Stage

I visit a plaza in a newly constructed, pre-planned city.

Perhaps it’s due to the war, but every place in Aerok resembles a makeshift stage. Yet this place seems even more so.

The cuboid cement buildings are cloaked with flashing neon signs on every side. No surface remains untouched. The stores in these buildings refuse to compromise, hanging the largest, brightest signs they can afford. In doing so, they overshadow the signage of the stores I seek.

On the first floor of these buildings, there are cosmetics shops, shoe stores, clothing outlets, cellphone stores, and coffee shop chains.

Every brand from Aerok has a presence here.

The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th floors host a variety of restaurants, hospitals, and cafes.

The 5th floor houses a motel,

while the basement is predominantly occupied by karaoke bars.

You could celebrate here continuously, every single day of the year.

Almost all the city’s money circulates here, except for what’s spent on daily necessities.

The throngs of people crossing the streets bear testimony to a 365-day festival.

The majority of the restaurants and cafes operate 24/7.

Dozens of these cuboid buildings line the streets. What's even more astonishing is that most of those who frequent this temporary stage are under the age of 30. Do they celebrate their fleeting existence with such extravagance? When the glaring lights dim and dawn approaches, the streets resemble the chairs of a restaurant, dripping with filth.

There is no silence here. No darkness. No noble spirit moves through this space. There is no history. It’s like a planet illuminated by multiple suns; lights remain on throughout the day and night. Each shop blares its own music, creating an overlapping cacophony of Eastern and Western hits. The buildings, after countless sleepless nights, seem weary. The only remnants of those who’ve passed through or rooted themselves here are the odd bits of tissue or pools of vomit found each morning. Only that and nothing else, whether you leave or disappear.

There isn’t a single tree or book on this street, where both time and ‘I’ are expended, and eventually squandered. Contemplations don’t happen on these streets.

Everyone departs before their ‘me’ can become ‘me.’

The stores too, frequently relocate. The buildings regularly change their clothes, with the fate of the families linked to these stores hanging in balance. Newer, more razzle-dazzle stores and structures rise in their stead, constructing another makeshift stage.

The streets are littered with toys crafted from a blend of nylon and plastic. Among these toys.

On these streets where no one can settle down. On these streets of endless thirst. Is this the pinnacle of Aerok Civilization, now at its zenith in recorded history?

Then, news of the worst tragedy in Aerok’s history swept through this city of the makeshift stages. And amidst these impermanent structures and utility poles, banners of condolences unfurled, mourning the lost lives, juxtaposed with the names of politicians in the throes of election season.

One Day I Will Cast Away Personification

There is a level called human.

There is a level called normal human.

There is a level called modern human.

There is a level called Aerok human.

A touch of laziness on any of these rungs—neglecting to clean rooms, iron clothes, bathe, extend greetings, recognize others, step outdoors, or wave flags—and we begin falling down. Dust accumulates, clothes grow musty, and soon we’re kicked off. Should one opt out of societal norms, like attending weddings or funerals, disregarding formality and institutions, the descent accelerates. From birth, we’re hung up on a level. Suffering nervous breakdowns, we stand, heads held high in the void, hanging on for our dear life. Much like a temple perched on a precipice, we cling to our body’s edge.

The birth of n’t means the beginning of her personification. The education of n’t indicates she's learning her personified role. The continued survival of n’t suggests this fabricated virtual life has become her beacon of hope, aiding her resilience. As she persists, she approaches the moment she’ll cast away her personification.

From birth, we engage in the ceaseless process of personifying ourselves. We persevere in this civilization by elevating each of our ‘I,’ even when the ‘I’ yearns to devolve into the beastliness, to succumb to death, to be deemed abnormal. We're suspended above a web of language.

Now is when n’t scribbles a few words amidst lines she is writing. Now is when she consistently casts the persona known as n’t atop the moment called now, now, now. This is resilience stretched to its limit.

n’t is certain she’ll transcend this personification someday.

And more than that, she senses an ineffable surge beyond words, awaiting her.

Bare-naked, she anticipates confronting something beyond human origin.

Perhaps n’t yearns for that sight—the vast, lucid visage oscillating across the cosmos, that defining moment when self is rendered redundant.

Though n’t writes poetry to shun personification, she ironically employs rhetoric in the process. To carry n’t far away to a place beyond the reach of personification. To unchain the chain that has become the mind of n’t. To a realm where one sheds all pretense and merely exists. To that moment of shining formlessness. To bring n’t there from time to time. To jump off from the levels of human, normal human, modern human, and Aerok human.

To be oneself in one’s own universe.

To be a soul.

#274 – Fall 2023