Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Kim Ki-taek

Bewildered by the odd familiarity of unfamiliarity, I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

The award-winning poet Kim Ki-taek has been described as “an observer of minute and microscopic details” with a rational but compelling style of description that pulls you into his universe, where no encounter is ever mundane. The art critic John Berger, who gave us Ways of Seeing, would have found much to commend about the two poems presented below.

My Eyes Met His

My eyes met his for a moment.

His face was familiar,

but I couldn’t remember who he was.

Bewildered by the odd familiarity of unfamiliarity

I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

He, too, seemed to ponder who I was.

He was rummaging through a garbage bag.

He was inside the skin of a cat.

As if he were used to standing upright,

to walk with four feet appeared awkward.

As if complaining to me, who had disturbed his ransacking,

Meow, he let out with feeling.

But the strange sound like a baby crying unexpectedly

seemed unbearable for him to hear and

immediately he shut his mouth.

He didn’t run away like other cats.

As if angry over his own sad figure being caught,

he lowered his head, turning slowly, back arched,

and moved off into the distance for a long time.



Chewing Gum

Gum that someone has chewed and spat out.

Gum with clearly visible teeth marks.

Gum molded into a small, round ball

after being crumpled and folded upon itself into a tiny compact of creases;

without discarding or erasing even one

of the countless teeth marks

upon pre-existing teeth marks.

Gum that is quietly spending time fossilizing.

Gum neither torn nor smashed

nor completely mangled

however strong a force capable of ripping through meat and cracking open nuts

has gnashed it over and over.

Gum soft as flesh,

chewy as meat,

elastic as plump limbs flailing between teeth,

awakens the teeth to long forgotten memories of carnage—

enjoyable blood, flesh and stench.

Gum that has absorbed into its body

a murderous intent and hostility stamped by teeth throughout the history of this Earth.

Gum that has been squashed, ground, and pressed to its fullest

then grudgingly released

because the teeth were exhausted first.


Discover more poems by Kim Ki Taek from the Asymptote archive.

Kim Ki-taek was born in 1957 in Anyang, Gyeonggi-do, and started his poetry career after winning the Annual Spring Literary Contest by Hankook Ilbo with the poems, “A hunchback” and “Drought”. He published several poetry books, including Chewing Gum (published in Spanish, 2013), Fetal sleep, Storm in the Eye of a Needle (published in Japanese, 2014), Administrative Staff, Ox, and Split, Split and also translated several books of fairy tales including Pied Piper of Hamelin. He has been attracting the attention of critics with his unique poetic world that digs up the landscapes and phenomena through a dry and rational style of description. In recognition of his outstanding talent, he has been awarded the Kim Soo-Young Literary Award (1995), the Hyundai Literary Award (2001), the Isu Literary Prize (2004), the Midang Literary Prize (2004), the Jihoon Literary Prize (2006), the Sanghwa Poet Prize (2009), the Kyung Hee Literary Prize (2009), and the Pyeonun Literary Prize (2013). In 2007, he participated in the Daesan-UC Berkeley Korean Writer-in-Residence program.

Eun-Mi Yang is a poet, translator, and book reviewer in South Korea. She has a Master’s in Creative Writing with distinction from the University of Edinburgh, where she won the Grierson Verse Prize. Her poems have appeared in many literary magazines and anthologies in Korea, USA, UK, one of which has been nominated for 2015 Best of the Net Awards, and a book-length poetry manuscript shortlisted for 2016 NOLO Prize. She has been to more than 50 cities in 18 countries, and also lived in the UK, Australia, NZ. Now she is in the PhD program with full scholarship at the Academy of Korean Studies.

Ed Bok Lee is the author of Whorled, winner of an American Book Award, and Real Karaoke People, winner of a PEN/Open Book Award. Lee attended kindergarten in Seoul, South Korea, grew up the U.S., and studied Russian and Central Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkley, Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, and the University of Minnesota. He holds an MFA from Brown University, and is an Associate Professor at Metropolitan State University.


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