Winter’s Smile / DAY NINETEEN

Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon

copyright ©Copyright © 2016 by Kim Hyesoon Copyright © 2018 by Don Mee Choi

It’s cold, for you’ve come out from a warm body
It’s bright, for you’ve come out from a dark body
It’s lonely, for you’ve lost your shadow

Icy, like soil dug out from a flower pot
Sunny, like the sunlight fish stare at beneath the sheet of ice
Hot, like when lips touch a frozen door knob
Cold again, a bulb-like heart is half frozen

Cold again, as if zero is divided by zero
                  a glass divided by glass

It’s alright, alright
for you’re already dead

The place where you’ve shed yourself, the cold arrived, drained of all the
        red from your body

Notes on the Poem

Starting from the title, the poem "Winter's Smile" sends a chill through the reader. Where does it go from there in this beautiful but unsettling selection from the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Autobiography of Death by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon? Part of a sequence of forty-nine related poems in this collection, "Winter's Smile" makes striking use of the literary device of antithesis, where words, phrases or sentences with contrasting meanings are placed in close proximity to one another to usually powerful effect. According to this definition "an antithesis plays on the complementary property of opposites to create one vivid picture ... to create a balance between opposite qualities and lend a greater insight into the subject." Even if the subject does not seem specific as we advance through this poem, the almost shocking juxtapositions make a strong and pervasive impression. But while "icy" / "sunny" and "hot" / "cold" are clearly opposites, nothing feels balanced. Everything seems unremittingly bleak, harsh and abruptly terminal. For example, the "sunny" of "the sunlight fish stare at beneath the sheet of ice" is harrowingly confining. And then we're brought up short by: "Cold again, as if zero is divided by zero" The possibilities of meaning of zero divided by zero are dizzyingly bewildering. Depending how you want to parse it, it can mean no value and every value, it can mean infinity ... Is this suggesting that the terrifying states captured here could be interminable, unceasing? In the series of poems of which "Winter's Smile" is part, each poem represents a single day during which the spirit roams after death before it enters the cycle of reincarnation. At the point reached in this poem, is the spirit somewhere in limbo between these contrasting conditions and places? Is this neutral? Is it purgatory? At this stage, is there a sense of hopelessness or maybe a sense of emerging freedom, however harsh and uncharted?

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