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[Essay] Trust in Silence

by Kim Sanghyuk Translated by Anton Hur June 3, 2024

Kim So Yeon

Kim So Yeon has published four poetry collections, two essay collections, one children’s book, and one picture book. She has received the Nojak Literary Award and the Hyundae Literary Award for poetry. Her poems have appeared in Mānoa.

Is it true that poetry is losing readers because it’s difficult to read? Who can say if contemporary poetry is hemorrhaging readers over an obsession with aesthetics or because of attrition in general readership? Whether poetry has lost readers because poetry is difficult or because poetry went into hiding behind its own difficulties as a reaction to having lost readers (or both), it’s clear to me that this reader attrition problem won’t be solved by simply writing more easy-to-read poetry. It’s the novel’s job to provide readers with entertaining stories, and new media or pop music’s with immediate stimulation to say nothing of movies and games and other stimulating forms of narrative. Poetry, on the other hand, is slow to read and lacking in plot. Even the slightly more popular forms of narrative poetry are weighed down with allegory and elaborate metonymy. (Plus, they’re long, which somehow makes it worse.) Despite this, poetry still strives to communicate, or to be more precise, to present a more diverse array of potentials to communicate. Instead of exploring the fertile lands of mainstream communication, poetry seeks out the arid wastelands on the margins of communication, seeking out undiscovered wellsprings. And to reach such remote emotions and thoughts, one must always be looking at ever more unfamiliar and inhospitable paths.

      The poetry of Kim So Yeon is no different. Her recent collection Catalyzing Night, epitomized by a “trust in silence” aesthetic, places her at the very forefront of contemporary poetry. Silence is the extreme delay of speaking, and it also connects to the slowest form of writing and reading. It is the political and aesthetic opposite of immediate stimulation and smooth communication. Before examining the dynamics of her anti-capitalist slowness and her resistance through silence against the absurdities of our age, it is worth noting the position of Kim’s work in our national poetry scene. Any serious reader of Korean poetry should have at least one of Kim So Yeon’s books. If a little hyperbole could be allowed here, perhaps we can designate the sales number of the latest of her books as the “So Yeon Index”—if so, should the Seo-yeon Index fall below 10,000 copies, our poetry publishing landscape is in dire straits. The slowness and frequent enjambment of her lines seem to contradict her best interests by their implicit advocacy of silence. How is it that she continues to attract readers?

      With the publication of her work The Bones We Call Tears in 2009, we could, as it does in its afterword, summarize the volume as “the task of subtly and beautifully delaying an answer to preserve its truth.” At a time when social discourse had entered a most mendacious zeitgeist, Kim’s poetry, which candidly confessed to “having spent another century holding the knife to carve out the same expression” (“For the Sake of One Summer”), was welcomed by readers from the get-go for its emphasis on the truth. In The Mathematician’s Morning, published in 2013, the critic Hwang Hyeon-san noted that, “You are practicing an ocean with a handful of wave, and it saddens me you might hear that ocean died a long time ago” and “it is sad that your now is the time wrought from your deepest sadness.” The very next year, the nation experienced several tragedies—on the mountain slopes in Gyeongju, the sea off Jindo, and in terminals and squares. As per usual, all the literature in the world is thoroughly useless against death in real life. But Kim’s helpless sadness found a sympathetic audience with the people mourning their era. Some years later, when ugly prejudice against women and other social minorities blew up in mainstream discourse, she came out with a collection titled To i about a quietly unraveling character named “i.” In every era, Kim has foregrounded the emotional sensibility that readers have most urgently needed.

      Five years on from To i, what emotional sensibility are we in need of now? Let’s think of virtual fortunes going up and down by the second, the international and domestic politics that completely change every few weeks, the rapid development of our technologies, and the correlate rapidness of environmental degradation. Individuals and families lose their battles with time, neighbors lose their health and homes overnight, we lose our jobs and our lives. None of the lies, disasters, and hate that made us suffer were resolved—if anything, they’ve accelerated in their course to further ruin our lives. The strategy of Catalyzing Night in the face of such realities is as follows: To assert that “The slow on occasion know to abhor the quick” (“Catalyzing Night”). To “Sleep until late in the morning” and leisurely observe that “Yesterday is finally far enough away.” To spend or waste one’s life researching the lives of “the many stuntmen who moved so naturally in the unfocused background” (“Even the Bones of an Angel’s Wing Is a Formidable Skeleton Up Close”). Or slowing down to let mindless words run on ahead (“Leave Flowers Behind”). Speeding up to catch up to time is a losing proposition from the beginning. If time is indeed money, as the capitalist truism goes, then the easiest way to subvert time and capital is to slow down.

      Can we ever escape time’s velocity completely or catch up to it? Kim is not a romanticist trying to escape time toward some ideal, nor is she a foolish realist throwing herself under the wheels of reality in search of a solution. In the face of utter despair and defeat, which is the inevitable result before speed and the power of time, romantic escape and the pursuit of practical advancement are both sentimental musings. The aesthetics of extreme slowness she presents is the only way to sense the profound emptiness of time as a capitalistic value. By not trying to catch up to time, the poet can maintain a disdain for time and transcend it while existing in the midst of it. As “Cave” implies, the cave in which Kim evades time is not a space where sadness is eliminated or a sort existence beyond reality/unreality. It is, if anything, a place of “too much sobbing,” where “Everything is sobbing” because sadness has converged there. Just as all literature turned helpless in the face of the 2014 Sewol disaster, all such sensory attempts to resist the reality of time end up desensitized. But even if we do not transcend the “Dirtied / really dirtied you” here, Kim wishes to stay grounded in reality, vowing to “Let’s stay here / Yes let’s just stay here.” Endlessly repeating her cries until they become “the cries without an ounce of need for sadness.”

      This is her strategy: to respond to hurried time with an overflowing laziness of time, to make the cries that contain sadness faint by repeating them. How to realize this enduring of time within time and sadness within sadness in praxis? This is where silence comes in. Kim puts great trust in silence in several of her poems. For example, in “Second Floor Guest Lounge,” the speaker is in a cacophonous situation of “No one just listens anymore” and “The shouter keeps shouting the listeners start shouting” opting for silence in search of the missing piece broken off from life. The “What if . . . / I mean what if . . .” segues into silence, never speaking of this recovery. In a state of absolute despair, the voicing of hope is to instantly condemn that hope to defeat. And yet, simply not saying anything then becomes futile escapism. Therefore, the strategy of the speaker is to go back and forth forever between hopeless defeat and cowardly escape by choosing silence. They think about salvation “about 50,000 times” until they become “a what if,” creating an impossible vector of hope and recovery through endless repetition of praxis. The speaker in “Hide the Falling Rain” believes that they “believe it a little bit more” because “he never told me his name,” which means his name is never voiced, that the speaker has failed repeatedly to call upon his existence, which ironically enables the speaker’s praxis through this “he.”

      The speakers in Kim’s poetry do not voice themselves, but in silence, are able to closely observe or slowly embrace or carefully listen. Her praxis of silence is a specific method of imploding time through time and sadness through sadness. This trust in silence is most clearly presented in these lines from “Catalyzing Night”:

 

      Your boiling body

      I wipe with wet towels

      just as you’ve taught me

      and stay up all night

      [. . .]

      Recalling again

      how you cooled my fever

      I stay up all night

 

The speaker takes care of “you,” but the method of care is not passed through speech but the memory of action, “how you cooled my fever” in silence, a praxis that was also “taught” to the speaker. This silence is indeed the most Kim So Yeon of words.

 

Translated by Anton Hur

 

 

      KOREAN WORKS MENTIONED:

•   “For the Sake of One Summer,” The Bones We Call Tears (Moonji Publishing, 2009) 1

    「한 개의 여름을 위하여」, 『눈물이라는 뼈』 (문학과지성사, 2009)

•   A Mathematician’s Morning (Moonji Publishing, 2013) 2

    『수학자의 아침』 (문학과지성사, 2013)

•   To i (Achimdal Books, 2018) 3

    i에게』 (아침달, 2018)

•   “Catalyzing Night,” “Cave,” “Even the Bones of an Angel’s Wing Is a Formidable Skeleton Up Close,” “Leave Flowers Behind,” 
    “Second Floor Guest Lounge,” “Hide the Falling Rain,” Catalyzing Night (Moonji Publishing, 2023) 4

    「촉진하는 밤」, 「동굴」, 「천사의 날개도 가까이에서 보면 우악스러운 뼈가 강인하게 골격을 만들고」, 「꽃을 두고 오기」, 「2층 관객 라운지」,        
    「내리는 비 숨겨주기」, 『촉진하는 밤』 (문학과지성사, 2023)

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