Of Hunger: Iain Higgins in Conversation with Suphil Lee Park

Suphil Lee Park

Suphil Lee Park, whose poem "After Her Mother's Funeral Mother Calls Me into the Kitchen" appears in The Malahat Review's winter 2019 Issue #209, discusses grief, gruesome details, and symbolic gestures in her Q&A with Malahat Review editor Iain Higgins.


Suphil Lee Park is a bilingual writer who was born and grew up in South Korea. She holds a BA in English from NYU and an MFA in Poetry from the University of Texas at Austin. She considers her cross-cultural obsession with words an inheritance from her late grandfather, a well-traveled, orchard-tending calligrapher whose last name was Lee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado ReviewjubilatNew SouthNotre Dame ReviewPloughsharesSugar House Review, and The Southeast Review. She currently lives in New Jersey, where she is working on her first collection of poetry.  

I really enjoyed reading your poem, “After Her Mother’s Funeral Mother Calls Me into the Kitchen.” One of the first things that struck me in reading it was how the poem surprises the reader, quietly at first (“soft as eels bathing in whiskey”), then increasingly openly (“prying apart my lungs”). The title suggests some sort of revelation to come—maybe of a dark family secret, maybe of a new expression of a mother’s love in the face of her loss—but what a reader gets is something entirely unexpected, a viscerally shocking scene that is not for the faint of heart or the queasy-stomached. Is this poetics of unexpectedness — even of surprise — characteristic of your work generally, or were you attempting something new here?

To answer it simply, yes. You’ll find aesthetics—or elements—of surprise typical of my work. My mind tends to wander a lot when working on a poem, and usually ends up in unexpected, often dark places. Even a poem like “After Her Mother’s Funeral Mother Calls Me into the Kitchen,” which is among my most personal poems, veers far from its origin in the end. This poem in particular came after years of processing my grandmother’s funeral. At the time of her death, my family had been long estranged from my mother’s side of relatives because of religious disagreements. As my grandmother had always been a stranger, and not a kind one at that, the sheer intensity of my mother’s grief came as a nearly disorienting shock to me. Her grief seemed no less of a visceral reaction than thirst or hunger. But it did not feel like pure grief, either; I sensed something much more complex hissing underneath, something not entirely related to the fact of her loss, but could not put my finger on it. The emotional reality of what triggered this poem thus demanded more than a realistic narrative; it called for metaphors, symbols, and mythologies from which I borrowed the idea of parents eating their children.

It might be safe to say that I am an elegiac, or even morbid, poet. Themes such as grief, mortality and war, are prominent in my poems. They tend to conjure up their best habitats, not always facsimiles of our exact physical reality, in gruesome details as did in this poem. And I make it important that my aesthetics do not shy away from the undeniably violent, possibly grotesque poetic reality these themes brew into.

This poem offers a powerful imagistic meditation on the complex emotional connections between mothers, grandmothers, and daughters, and those connections manifest themselves here as intensely physical, as at once embodied and disembodied, both gentle and violent. The daughter all but vanishes from the poem four lines from the end, and a dog and a crow are the last beings we see. Also, the only “I” in the poem is the “Mother’s,” the daughter existing finally as a divested “eye” watching her other “eye” being ingested. What are you trying to achieve by displacing the disembodied-yet-experiencing daughter from the emotional centre of this poem?

On one level, this poem explores the notion of virility. Off the bat, it addresses repercussions of motherhood—birth and death—but also touches on the idea more implicitly, from the image of eels, emblematic of virility in the Korean culture, to the mention of the daughter’s eggs. Two of the three women in the poem are referred to as “mother,” except for the daughter, who is by the end of the poem deprived entirely of her fertility as she devolves into a fetus-like state. This is her literal and sexual death. So the daughter inevitably understands both birth and death from her limited, self-centred perspective: as her own. While it is the daughter that goes through the butchering, the daughter is rather the experience than the one who experiences (grieves, gives birth, eats). Her mother is the only woman in the poem who can experience pain and losses from both sides: as a daughter, and as a mother.

In the face of her mother’s death, therefore, the mother tries to dismember and “finish” her fear of her daughter going through the same pain of grieving and this chain of grief continuing down the generations to come. And the mother attempts to finish this fear just as she would finish a plate of food, just as Cronus and Zeus tried to gobble down their worst fears. The daughter needed to diminish and finally disappear as the mother’s fear was gradually reduced, and slowly replaced by a numbness that stems from the mother’s degenerated memory, her retreat into the pre-childbirth past (“[the names of herbs] . . . her only memory”). Of course, this drastic measure leads to a dilemma of the mother putting the daughter through a whole different pain. So the mother’s self preservation proves to be an unachievable goal. The complexity of the mother’s emotional fluctuations caused by all this, from grief and self pity to anger and affection, would have been lost had the daughter been at the axis of the poem’s emotional climate, as the daughter remains not fully aware of the implications of what happens to her. So the poem de-centres the daughter just as it does the crow, an observer drawn by hunger, and the dog, an oblivious participant in this scene of crime. By the end of the poem, the daughter in her forgetful mother’s eyes becomes another prop in that scene, the daughter’s eggs not so different from the egg white, her eye from the crow’s.

Sharing food is one of the fundamental ways that we connect with one another as human beings, whether in friendships or in families, at school or at work, and so on. In your poem, though, this sharing takes an unexpected bodily form and giving abruptly becomes a kind of offering up, as the mother dismembers and ingests the daughter to whom she once gave birth much as one might take apart and eat a cinnamon bun. Why have you made this (unnamed) cannibalism the poem’s central image for the mother’s relation to her daughter?

The circumstance and consequence of hunger have been integral to many of my poems. This unquestionable, essential instinct has spawned some of the darkest tales and rituals in which the act of eating signifies more than satisfaction of basic needs. Afraid of a prophecy that he would be overthrown by his son, Cronus ate his children; his son Zeus, later, ate his lover Metis, in response to the same prophecy. The bible says when Adam and Eve bit into the forbidden fruits, all of us fell. Koreans believe that the legendary Chinese military strategist Gongming invented dumplings in the shape of human heads, so he could substitute human sacrifice and pacify a river god without drawing blood. There are old Korean traditions to prepare a yearly feast for the dead ancestors, to leave a grim reaper a meal at the door during a funeral, and to eat certain foods at certain times, in order to celebrate, show respect, or fight off evil spirits. There are stories of halgolyochin (割股療親: cutting from your thighs to look after your parents) dating as far back to 58 BC (Silla Dynasty in Korea) about sons who supported their parents through a potato famine by feeding them the meat of their own thighs. The act of eating, across cultures and languages, has been associated with so many different meanings: fear, self preservation, curiosity, sin, respect, celebration, or even protection. It is as central to life as to death, death hollowing out and eating away at life which in turn always needs more feeding. I wanted to explore as much of this complexity of eating through the relationship between the mother and the daughter. During months of pregnancy, a mother shares her body, and thus what she eats, with her fetus. What the mother eats quite literally becomes the fetus so she has extensive dietary restrictions during this time. Eating, in that sense, has always been reminiscent of the mother-child relationship to me, and has felt like an expression of love that actually sustains and shapes the recipient, that can also be detrimental because of the umbilical connection the recipient entirely depends on.

What happens in the poem is in a way a birth in reverse, the mother’s extreme attempt at going back in time. She wants to protect herself from having to live with the knowledge that her daughter will also suffer from the loss of her mother, to protect her daughter from living through the experience, and the mother’s first instinct is to send her daughter back to where she came from: her own body. But what that results in is also their mother-daughter relationship in reverse, because the entirety of the daughter’s being, or the mother’s unfiltered digestion of it, comes to determine the fate and health of the mother, not the other way around. And the mother—or her memory overwhelmed by herbs—seems to get rejuvenated during this process, as if by Alzheimer’s. Cannibalism in this poem, therefore, is a rite for death and rebirth, an act of love and fear, a sacrifice as well as a means of protection, a symbolic gesture of embracing incomprehensible grief, and a manifestation of interdependence between generations, all at once.

According to your bio note, you were born and grew up in South Korea and hold a BA in English from NYU and an MFA in Poetry from UTexas at Austin. This note suggests that you might live in (at least) two languages and (at least) two cultures. Is that the case? If so, does this crossing of languages and cultures influence your work as a poet?

I spent all my childhood and most of my adolescence in South Korea, and it’s been almost a decade since I left the country. I’m at the point in my cultural, linguistic transition where I experience emotion in my mother tongue, but think more lucidly in English. This cultural background of mine undeniably plays into my work, if most of the time on the subconscious level now. In the beginning, the influence was more direct and linguistic, since I was excited to explore the grammatical, syntactical differences between the two languages. I was especially interested in the important role of articles and the first person singular in English; the use of articles is limited to specific cases, and the first person singular is most of the time implied without being directly mentioned, in Korean. Now, however, the influence of my bicultural background seems to have dispersed across the landscape of my poems, and I’d find it in different aspects of each individual poem. Sometimes it would be a thematic twist that a lighthearted poem unexpectedly steers into; I’ve recently noticed many of my poems, even the ones beginning in a playful tone, would find their way into the terrain of war and death, and I think that irresistible pull probably comes from having lived a large part of my life in a war-torn country yet to resolve its state of ceasefire. Sometimes it would be my unconscious use of symbols. Korean poetry, traditionally, glorifies the elusive and open-ended, accomplished often through its established apparatus of symbols; this tradition has a lot to do with the important role poetry used to play in the necessarily circumlocutory communication among government officials in a strictly hierarchical society, and with the history of extreme censorship in 20th century Korea. Sometimes it would be an emotion explored in the poem that I feel in my mother tongue for which there isn’t even an English equivalent. But wherever that influence lurks or surfaces, I can say that it is ever enriching to venture into the expanse of reading and writing experiences that my bicultural background makes possible.

To go back to the food imagery, I’ll conclude by asking you what you have on your plate now.

I’ve been polishing my poetry manuscript, to which “After Her Mother’s Funeral Mother Calls Me into the Kitchen” belongs. The manuscript is tentatively titled Present Tense Complex. When it comes to reading, I’ve been making conscious efforts to read more contemporary Korean poets and to be up-to-date with the scene of emerging poets in South Korea; I have come to develop a special bond with the work of So-yeon Kim, and have found especially moving the work of Hwi-seok Ryu and Kyung-eun Oh, both of whom made their debut just this year. Going off of that, I’ve also spent a considerable time on my translation project since last year. I’ve been translating a collection of sijo by the 20th century Korean poet Sang-ok Kim. Sijo is a traditional Korean poetic form with one or more stanzas, each of which usually consists of three lines, very much like the Japanese poetic form haiku. There has always been a shortage of translations of Korean literature in America. With the increasing interest in the Asian literary scene nowadays, and more attention to the Korean one for that matter, I feel it might be the time to introduce more English readers to this long-lived poetic form that parented modern Korean literature. As my project is in its roughest form at the moment, I’m hoping to find a more experienced translator who can mentor and help me mature this project to the next level. 


Iain Higgins

Iain Higgins

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