» Book Review
Review: Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me by Choi Seungja
Translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong
Action Books, Oct. 1, 2020.
Paperback, $18, 102 pages.
In “Already, the World,” Choi Seungja writes, “My poems, short as a shriek, / will spread / over the white horizon.” The second volume of Choi’s poems translated into English and containing poems from five different books, Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me exhibits the qualities that made Choi one of South Korea’s most influential poets. Her unflinching examinations of loneliness, of unfair institutions, and of what it means to be female in a world that continues to revolve around men combine to form a collection that disrupts and upsets the mind as much as it comforts. In lines that one of the book’s two translators, Cathy Park Hong, describes as “breathtaking and frightening,” Choi invites the reader to examine their own frailty.
Hong describes one of the central motifs as “the barren womb.” The womb is soft in its sound and the image it conjures—a cocoon of nurturing and safety. However, the uterus which Choi references in her poems is clinical—a simple organ. The uterus in Choi’s poems is often producing in ways that don’t coincide with the familial dream. In “I Have Been to the Sea in Winter,” the woman in the poem is impregnated by a contaminated sea, and from this contamination children
. . . lay their eggs
inside the earth of the Philippine jungles,
and spread syphilis or deliver stillborn babies
. . . Now and then,
they might start a revolution in the very long tedious night—
a revolution always destined to misfire.
Far from barren, this womb has created the entire world, a world that Choi presents at its roughest and grittiest, a world diseased and stagnant, unable to progress. Only a few pages later, in “For Y,” another being emerges from the uterus, called a baby but more closely resembling an underdeveloped fetus with fins, flying through the sky. In the world of Choi’s words the uterus is not without life. Instead, it is teeming with the creation of our reality versus our ideal. A reality that is built upon the things that confirm we are alive—our excretions, our mortality, our need for community.
Choi refuses to shy away from the facts about ourselves that we would most like to ignore. Her poems are riddled with rot and decay, presented through an unflinching lens that forces the reader to contend with the more visceral aspects of humanity’s impermanence. In “Not Forgetting or Memorandum 1,” the speaker describes years that “. . . left me mercilessly / alive,” after being expected to live on the very waste that polite society has deemed unacceptable. This decay is pushed toward violence in “The End of a Century”:
Oh, I wish I’d become a dog, beaten to death.
I’d like to become a carpet made of the skin of a dog
Beaten to death.
These are the poems that strike fear, twist the stomach, conjure uncomfortable thoughts in the mind.
Translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong, Choi’s poems beautifully capture the universality of feeling that can exist outside of language, while still sparking with the kind of diction that elevates strings of words to poetry. The notes on translation included, while useful, are almost unnecessary. To read of “rice mixed with tears” is to understand the sadness pervading the poem, even without the added context that in Korea, this meal represents a miserable life. The visceral and vibrant construction of these poems in English reveals the reverence these translators have for Choi’s work and transfers that reverence to the reader.
Choi’s work can be described as relentless, fatal, even grotesque. At the same time, her poems are also powerful, beautiful, and elegant. Choi makes use of these opposing elements in ways that both discomfort and reassure, reminding the reader that we are not alone in our darkest thoughts. To speak these thoughts aloud, to memorialize them in words, is the gift that Choi has given us.