A Review of Choi Seungja’s Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me (Action Books)
By Tom DeBeauchamp
Sorrow, like a hated, longtime lovebird, builds a little nest for you both to share. It’s a poisonous home, destroys your blood and bone, but it is not without its comforts and protections. Isn’t it, after all, all that protects you from joining the grinning masks of the brainwashed “Tribes of Capital?” Choi Seungja, herself so beset, knows Sorrow’s complexities intimately well, and the lyrics of her collection Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me (translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong), grow, “mercilessly / alive,” from its ambivalences.
In “Not Forgetting or Memorandum 10,” Choi addresses Sorrow directly:
Sorrow, I’d like to see your true features tonight,
even once, even in a dream.
And I want to make a final decision
whether I will kiss your face
smear shit on your face.
By this point in Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me—in the fourth of its five sections—Choi has survived—despite herself—decades of oppressive indignities and violence. “The years threw heaps of shit at me, / lump after lump, / asking me to live / on shit,” she says, looking back on those earlier times. Sorrow is borne of those years of forced-feeding, of being kept alive without actual nourishment. Sorrow results from the pain and shame of her refusing to live a coerced life of selling herself for wages, birthing babies, and writing the “quiet, domestic poems” a male-dominated literary culture might have compelled her to write. Sorrow, like scar tissue, slowly forms a buffer between her body and soul and the source of their pain: that happy, smiling world she’s foreclosed from inhabiting, even as she’s trapped inside of it. Sorrow, as the line between her and that world, deserves its kiss, deserves its shit, too.
Choi’s surrounded otherness—as anti-capitalist poet in mass culture’s morass—forms a model for existence, unhappy as it often is. From the book’s very first poem, “Already I,” the scaffolding for this life of contrariety is established. Instead of an origin story, there is simply always.
Already I was nothing:
mold formed on stale bread,
trail of piss stains on the wall,
a maggot-covered corpse
a thousand years old.
From before its beginning, Choi’s life opposes life. Sorrow’s dawning is prehistoric. Under its auspices, alternate living grinds. Though graves evoke endings, erasures, loss, Choi’s corpse is omnipresent, is fecund, ceaseless, ever-wiggling, stinking and rotting, and swarming all over. That mold is bright as piss, that meat is overflowing with white worms. “Nobody raised me,” she continues. “I was nothing from the beginning… That I am alive / is no more than an endless / rumor.”
Rumor’s force runs orthogonal to truth, and Choi’s life, or “un-life,” occupies that dimension, that Sorrow-wrapped refraction between the two. Her living is not life, but is the unresolvable ambiguity between the terms. There is no return from death or its brink in this—but a back-and-forth, all-at-once holding open of the death in life, the life in death. Choi both kisses Sorrow’s face and smears it with shit.
Undying, never living, Choi, even so, is hailed from beyond her Sorrow-mortared grave, by others, contrary to her I, distant “yous” she would engage as if they’d help her feel less alone. She’d go to the you in “Toward You” as a plague: “I will come to you. / Like syphilis germs flowing through veins / like death gripping life.” In “Do You Remember Cheongpa-dong,” she tells another you: “Even if I have to crawl like a worm with my stung body, / I want to go to you.”
These yous, baiting Choi out of her grave, exert a strange, dysmorphic effect on her identity. Though she slimes the ground to achieve the presence of their boots, their beating her to death like a dog, she never reaches them. Choi’s poems address her desire to connect, about how that desire’s being thwarted, by the impossible distance between her and her yous, their refusing her, or confusing her with someone from their capitalist dimension. At the start of “A Cloudy Day,” they’ve got not only the wrong name but the wrong body, too: “[S]omebody shakes the me who isn’t me,” she says. “I am not me, but somebody shakes me. / I sway calmly, asking who am I?”
The answer to her question of identity is no less ambiguous than her relationship to Sorrow. There is graveyard Choi, vibrant with rot, and quotidian Choi, too, alive and surrounded by the city despite its pains and horrors. She is the former Choi, while everywhere others remain ignorant of that Choi, insisting she be the Choi they see. It is a painful struggle to be both, to refuse the total assimilation into:
this world (covered by the tribe of capital),
where money mothers give birth to money babies
and capital mothers, capital babies
The doubt in “A Cloudy Day” surfaces late in Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me, after so much sorrowing, so much nostalgia and pain, the horrors of the 1970s, the humiliations of the 1980s. In “A Self-Portrait,” though, an earlier poem, Choi knows exactly who she is—which she she is—and where she’s located:
I’m nobody’s disciple,
I’m a body seized by premonition,
of darkness dreaming
in weeds, in a bog.
In contrast to somebody shaking some body awake, there is no question here of whom premonition has seized. Choi is most herself in this visionary space of dreams, in this alternative to the alienations of capital. She is “darkness,” she continues; she’s that snake in Eden: “sorrow’s long body.” Identifying with darkness, with dreams, Choi foregrounds “nobody” as a representation not of absence of some daylight thing but of a presence in its own right. She is a disciple of this nobody presence. She is a friend of this nobody presence. In the bog and shadow, her society is peopled by capital’s opposites, the presences of the shadows its klieg lights cast. The body that is not her body is the body that can be seen and touched, a public body, and not nobody’s body, which might be dreams, imagination, or loud, necrotic poetry.
In “A Self-Portrait”’s second half, Choi places her dreaming body, its nest, in relation to daytime’s society. Surrounding her weeds and bogs is “a shining street,” where “children sing like birds / and bloom like flowers.” They’re reveling in the sunlight, these “people of heavenly nature,” but, she says:
I cannot taste their mild wine
with my forked tongue.
I coil myself among the weeds or within a bog,
I wait for sorrow’s poison to ferment
throughout my body.
This border—separating her weeds and bog from the shining street, darkness from light—feels impenetrable, a line separating two forms of being and experience. And yet, each contains its opposite (as “death gripping life”). The final stanza breaks this boundary, for better or worse, and places Choi’s body, her desires, her dreaming, sorrowful mystery itself, within the construct of, as she calls it elsewhere, that “world in which I have nothing to sell except my life”:
Like a baby inside a womb,
yearning for a mother’s love,
I dream the evil dream of the sun
secretly crying out to the sky.
She is like that baby, like that sun: completely contained by an engendering otherness. She is both its margin and its center.
Later, at the end of “A Cloudy Day,” Choi asks, “Does the full moon give birth to the crescent moon / or the crescent moon to the full moon?” As with herself, there is a lit disk to which most onlookers attend, but there is also the darkness, the absent area to the right of the white crescent. The darkness and the light are the same moon, reflecting the same light from cyclically different angles. When she says, “On a day as cloudy as rainwater leaking from the ceiling, / the invisible crescent moon may give birth / to an invisible full moon again,” it is a reminder that the dark of the moon waxes as the light-side wanes. For Choi, these are not two separate, consecutive actions but are one and the same: “To wax and wane is different / from waning while waxing,” she says. The one motion is immanent always in its opposite. To live as she has, her true self surrounded and embattled, is to be both at once, regardless of these fluctuations. To wait, for society’s fullness to blackout, would be a long wait indeed.
In Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me’s final poem, “In the School of Time,” Choi describes an island surrounded by sea, expanding “as spacetime expands.” “The sea is still the sea / and the island still the island,” she says. “The ferry comes and goes,” but the expanding of the sea pushes her island away from the mainland. It’s an image that rhymes with “A Self-Portrait”’s sun in the sky and womb-bound baby, the bog encircled by the shining street, or, elsewhere, with the image of “the eye / of a never-ending storm.” Choi remains surrounded, but the buffer grows and grows. Some of her sorrow is lessened by this solitude. There is a sense of relief in the seeming naturalness of it. “I live on that island, / looking at the sky now and then.” Even so, the central ambivalence of her life, of the book, cannot be resolved. Passage back and forth—as with the phases of the moon—remains necessary, bearing the weight of the fear of real death’s singularity. “That the sea I have to cross is getting bigger / worries me,” she says, ending the poem and the book. Where, on the one hand, her solitude at last is a triumph, its disconnection may also be the book’s deepest loss.
The poems in Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me span decades. They are intimate, brutal, courageous, sometimes grotesque, sometimes hilarious or kind, always ambivalent and deeply engaged with, as Choi says, “charting a way.” Great sorrow and tragedy suffuse these poems, but they keep the shadow space alive, habitable. Despite everything arrayed against Choi—her society’s “ideology of happiness”—she not only builds a den in the weeds, an island in a spreading sea, but charts a course for others to follow. There is, in Choi’s poems, the origins of a community-to-come, the one for which Choi has sorrowed and longed all her life. As she says in “Poetry, or Charting a Way”:
Charting a way
and leaving a trace of the way,
I wish that this way will meet other ways,
and not go too far alone.
I wish someone would follow
close enough that I don’t feel lonely.
Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me is that tunnel between bogs and islands. It burrows under Sorrow’s defenses. Like roots touching in the soiled darkness, it is the most terrible of comforts.