Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon
translated by Don Mee Choi
New Directions Publishing, 2018; 110 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan
Death surrounds us; it leads the news, and it consumes our hearts. We fear death because we cannot accept what it takes from us. And yet, we cannot live without its specter, either. Translated expertly by Don Mee Choi, Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death lives because so much of who and what we are depends on this relationship.
Each of the forty-nine poems that make up the title section represents a single day the spirit roams after death before it begins its way to reincarnation. Telling stories of both personal and national tragedy—from a baby’s death to the April 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster and the story of a torture victim after the May 1980 Gwangju Uprising—these poems have us reconsider how we live:
Your heart dies like pebbles by the riverbank
Your heart dies like the sandy shore
Your breathing stops like the dark moon
Behind you, the days that couldn’t become you sob and break like waves
(“Gravel Skirt – Day Thirteen”)
Nothing is certain, so we must do what we can to honor the spirit that gives our days meaning, that gives us life. We can’t let time that wanted us, that needed us, left feeling unfulfilled. As “A Gift – Day Thirty” notes, “The only thing you can give birth to yourself is, your death / Nurture it, give birth to it as a tasty plump death.” If we’re all going to die, why not do what we can to make this inevitability a “tasty plump” one?
The collective “you” that emerges through these poems shows us heartbreak, yes, but it also demands us to pay attention, to learn, to live better. What amazing things could we accomplish if we could “Listen, listen without fear” or “Look, look carefully without fear” (“Such Painful Hallucination – Day Forty”)?
It may not be the barbaric yawp of the Whitmanian variety, but Hyesoon’s quiet, meditative urging to live fully and well and connected is just as compelling, and perhaps even more so, because of its honesty. We are all united by our mortality, and we shouldn’t feel the need to deny that. It shapes us and what we contain. As the last poem of the book, the long and winding “Face of Rhythm,” notes: “A soul as big as the universe wants to leave my body.” Any chance we have to show this spirit to the world, we must take. The light within us is vast and beautiful, and death reminds us we have an obligation to do much more with our lives than we have.