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Review: Hope is Lonely, by Kim Seung-Hee

Zakia Carpenter-Hall, The Poetry Review, Vol. 111:4 Winter 2021

In Kim's Hope is Lonely, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, objects or concepts can express human emotions (‘A Word is Weeping’). Inanimate objects can tell the speaker all they need to know about themselves, as in the poem ‘One White Flatfish Lying on a White Dish’. To the speaker, the fish represents The way I cannot become a subject, / the way my possessives are all ultimately meaningless like the foam on a wave.

In the example above from Hope is Lonely, the possessives refer to language but also implicate Korean culture and more specifically the position of women within it. The speaker asserts that she can’t become the subject or the protagonist but instead is something like that partially eaten white flatfish left on the table, all its possessives meaningless:

think we must forget words
such as “I” or “myself,”
I think we must give up words like “my” and “mine”

The flatfish is at the centre of the poem yet lacks enough autonomy to truly be a subject, like the speaker herself: That white-fleshed flatfish, its skin and fins, the guts removed, brothers, sisters, parents, home. The fish lacks anything that it can lay claim to; it’s both at the centre of the dinner table but also on the periphery, subject to the actions of others.

There’s a link here between the flatfish poem and the inclusion of other household items throughout Hope is Lonely. Household items don’t have a ‘my’, ‘myself’ or ‘mine’, i.e. no possessives to speak of. Kim gives those objects agency that they couldn’t otherwise have by virtue of their station and predicament in life, items such as eggs in the fridge, the fridge itself, dandelions and a cutting board. Her use of surrealism places those objects at the centre and re-imagines them as protagonists, even if they can’t fully escape the tyranny of the kitchen, as is the case with the dandelions in ‘Life in the Egg 7’

I put a bunch of dandelions wrapped in newspaper into the fridge.
Inside the fridge the dandelions blossom fully,
white dandelion seeds grow, scatter, find nowhere to go,
and in the vegetable box spores of white mould form.
Every time I open the fridge door
The spores of white mould left beneath the newspaper as the
gradually leak out,
spread across the kitchen floor,
get trodden on.
Foolish dandelions,
struggle though they may, there are times when they are unable to
escape from the fridge.

I see this and similar poems as small insurgencies against the status quo of the kitchen. The chiding statement ‘Foolish dandelions’ seems to also implicate the speaker in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. Because Kim’s poems have feminist undertones, I imagine the speaker also fails at times to escape the kitchen or other domestic structures imposed on women. Another such moment of rebellion:

Flowers clamber up onto the chopping board.
Hope being preposterous,
similarly preposterous flowers take their place on the chopping

'Cockscomb Time'

It’s as though to be hopeful is to be a bit crazy; in a sense it’s to offer oneself up to defeat: ‘only by enduring such defeats can you become free’ (‘Dream of Someone Free’). Freedom is a contradiction and perhaps hope is too; in order to have it, according to Kim’s poems, one must be willing to face successive obstacles, and perhaps humiliating defeats.

Almost ironically, there is a freedom in foregoing individual identity in favour of the collective, unidentified and ambiguous: Going to an unknown place / And becoming an unknown person is good (‘Invitation to a Journey’). Through the device of a decentred persona, Kim slips out of the guise of identity and for a while becomes wholly transformed and new.