Reviewed by Heather Lang
I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World by Kim Kyung Ju, as translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a raucous and surrealist read. Yet, this poetry collection remains anchored in the natural world. Our physical world is, for the most part, unyielding, and oftentimes its concreteness feels unforgiving. By approaching Kim’s collection of poems with an ecocritical lens, however, possibilities are both palpable and vast. In many cases, there’s more than one truth.
The title, I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, plays an immediate role in orienting the collection to the natural world. The “I” is connected to nature because he’s a “Season”; the “I” is also disconnected from nature because he does “Not Exist in the World.” This intriguing parallel creates an ongoing conflict. As a reader, I find myself wanting to resolve this discrepancy, but there’s no neat-and-tidy solution to be found. Therefore, the title ushers me into the book, and once I begin, I don’t want to put it down.
“Hey Garden Balsam Standing Underneath the Fence” is one of the collection’s prose poems. Like the other poems in Kim’s book, it is riddled with images: “A dragonfly lies in the garden like a stiff leaf. Like a bird made from mother of pearl that spent its entire life pressed into the armoire” (95). These sentences burst with concrete nouns, yet we move from image to image so quickly that, although we experience each moment to the fullest, we can’t actually hold onto anything. It’s as if what’s tangible slips through our fingers. We can’t take it with us. Moreover, the long block of text does not allow us space to breathe, contemplate, or recoup like a lineated poem with stanzas might. There’s also no enjambment to guide us along the way. The poem’s form heightens the feeling of being unable to ground our feet in something, and toward the end of the poem, we read, “Hey, the baby died a long time ago already. You can’t see the same rose twice” (96). If forced to assign a main idea to the poem, together these two sentences might best represent its core, or perhaps even the book. Our experience clipping through the poem from “dragonfly” to “stiff leaf” to “bird” to “mother of pearl” demonstrates the singular yet fleeting experiences of life (95).
Kim not only offers us bright moments brimming with verve, but is also generous with his readers. In “The Rhythm of Falling Snow,” “ricewater escapes” and the sound, “gub-gub,” invites us into the scene, asks us to partake (43). Levine’s slightly foreign yet familiar onomatopoeia represents one of many moments where his deft choices for his English audience mirror Kim’s kindness. “Abandoned with the lid open / inside the rice pot it snows,” Levine translates. We can look into the metaphorical world, and see that the “rhythm of snow / is piling on the bottom of the pot.” In a way, an entire world now exists in this vessel, and we can approach it, view it, and even carry it with us in a way that we could not before. The world becomes less overwhelming. We might even be nourished by it.
On the other hand, Kim also minimizes the world. Through this metaphor, the world becomes less significant — or, at the very least, it’s clear that it’s short lived. Once we eat from this world, all we’ll have left is “the faint color of rice water.” Moreover, the setting, a “spring day,” intensifies that atmosphere of loss (44). The juxtaposition between spring, symbolic of life, and grief is chilling. Kim reveals his attraction to the ghostly world beyond our objective reality in a conversation with Levine. The “ancient rhythm of the pot” reminds us of what has come before, and also the cyclical nature of the seasons (43).
I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World was first published in Korea in 2006, and there it is already in its thirteenth edition. Levine’s translation, released last year by Black Ocean, allows English-language readers to visit the outrageous truths that Kim illustrates. The collection explores a number of topics: ecological matters, societal issues, mental and physical illnesses, and much more. The pages of this collection swarm with strange and heavy real-world implications. It would be a mistake not to witness them for yourself.
Kim, Kyung Ju. I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World. Translated by Jake Levine. Black Ocean Press, 2015.