AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF DEATH BY KIM HYESOON, TRANSLATED BY DON MEE CHOI
Have you heard yet what death has to say? Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death, translated by Don Mee Choi, tells just this. In forty-nine poems, each representing a day, Kim captures death’s cycle between life and reincarnation: pages filled with wings and shadows, female laughter and weeping, bloody rabbits and dead mothers. In the skewed scape of this book, life merges with death. Poem “Already, day twenty-eight” enunciates this in a single couplet that serves as a microcosm of the entire collection: “You are already born inside death / (echoes 49 times).” Death is mommy—stolen from child—and death nurses as child born the moment there was life. Yet, death seems on a quest to shed the corporeal: “They say birth is always a plunge / and death is always a flight / so take off [. . .] now are you liberated from yourself?” But no peace is found in this autobiography born from too many deaths—deaths, Kim explains, caused by the rigid authority of a cruel government. In these elegies death is mercurial, never embodies a single mode nor size: sinister and cartoonish; gargantuan and petite; lonely and longing for privacy. “Do you want to be a friendly corpse? / Do you want to be a scary corpse?”
Other concerns surface—who misses you in death? what remains of your life: “this morning the nightgown hiding under the bed / is sobbing quietly to itself . . .” During this cycle, death is cast as something of life’s ex, a cast out trailing the patterns of life lost and translator Don Mee Choi distills the collection with magnetic energy, granting English readers access to the relentless rhythms that Kim transcribes. For Autobiography of Death will continue haunting your thoughts long after the close of the 49th day.
—Review by Madeline Vardell