Don Mee Choi

Autobiography of Death, by Don Mee Choi translated from the Korean by Kim Hyesoon

Griffin Poetry Prize 2019
International Winner

Book: Autobiography of Death

Translator: Don Mee Choi

Poet: Kim Hyesoon

Publisher: New Directions

Click here to read and listen to an excerpt.


Don Mee Choi

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Don Mee Choi is the author of The Morning News Is Exciting (2010) and Hardly War (Wave Books). She has received a Whiting Award, Lannan Literary Fellowship, Lucien Stryk Translation Prize, and the 2019 DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Fellowship.

Kim Hyesoon

Kim Hyesoon, born in 1955, is one of the most prominent and influential contemporary poets of South Korea. She was the first female poet to receive the prestigious Kim Su-yong and Midang awards, and has been translated into Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Swedish. Her most recent books include I’m OK, I’m Pig! (2014), and Poor Love Machine (2016).

Judges’ Citation

“In the grievous wake of the Sewol Ferry incident of 2014, the Korean poet Kim Hyesoon composed a cycle of forty-nine poems – one for each day the dead must await reincarnation – to produce a harrowing work of shock, outrage, and veneration for the children lost to this disaster. Through Don Mee Choi’s extraordinary translations, we hear the clamorous registers of Kim’s art – a transnational collision of shamanism, Modernism, and feminism – yield ‘a low note no one has ever sung before.’ That otherworldly tone may sound like life itself, the poet sings, ‘for even death can’t enter this deep inside me.’”

Don Mee Choi and Kim Hyesoon read By the River of Formalin / DAY THIRTY-THREE

By the River of Formalin

Brain inside the test tube is still alive
Looks like it’s writing poetry
It’s plunging into a blurry image
It’s opening the gate to grandparents’ house like a wind
The instant it runs into the embrace of dead grandmother

Its missing eyes open
Its missing body hallucinates a black stick whacking its head

Brain inside the test tube is hurting

You’re outside of you
Your outside hurts

Missing toes hurt
Scattered rooms hurt. Your heart hurts

Brain inside the test tube scratches its body all over with its ten fingers
Scratches until the skin breaks

Brain inside the test tube takes off
It rides the subway, rides the bus, takes a cab
and exits the test tube
It departs swaying
like a head inside the plastic bag of a serial killer

I want to tell you, tell you everything
but my mouth stays shut
my hands shake
where did my shoes go?

Roots of the dark-blue night descend into the test tube
Everyone has left the lab
Brain inside the test tube mutters

Whitest monster inside me
has a blue nightdress on

You’re transparent like water
and soft
but you’re fatal like the blue saliva of a poisonous snake

Brain inside the test tube is a bystander’s brain, a survivor’s brain

Brain inside the test tube always wants to bang its head against the wall and weep
Brain submerged in a formalin river sways back and forth

An obscure place like this poem
An ambiguous place like this poem
A disinfected place like this poem

Brain inside the test tube puts on its formalin hat and thinks intently

Why does my outside always hurt?

Why do my missing feet hurt?
Why does the riverbed that props up my feet crumble?

Someone who has set himself on fire stands at the rail of a bridge

Brain inside the test tube is screaming
Brain inside the test tube has gone mad

What am I to do?

What can I do to forget all this?

From Autobiography of Death by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon
Copyright © 2016 by Kim Hyesoon
Copyright © 2018 by Don Mee Choi

More about Don Mee Choi and Kim Hyesoon

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