“When you can’t live like this or die like this, / the age of thirty comes,” writes Choi Seungja in the poem “Thirty Years Old,” which appears as part of her collection Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me, translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong (Action Books, 2020).
And so it did.
It is a coincidence that Choi Seungja’s work arrives in English translation during my thirtieth year—all other present thirty-year-olds share this coincidence, but their turning thirty did not happen to me. Only my turning thirty happened to me. In a similar way, Choi’s poetry has happened to me. After it has travelled through time and translation and the mail service, it meets me here. Here is my apartment. Here is also alone, at thirty, childless and unmarried.
I have been writing about a woman living by herself in an apartment where the hours leak for several years. The way others mark time frequently intrudes on the arrangement of this writing. Time pings through my apartment in the forms of text messages and emails. When one is alone for long periods of time, one’s experience refuses to bind to the shapes designed for its containment—the hour, the day, the clock’s circling hand. From the corner of my eye, I see a crack in the kitchen clock frame. Time is dripping onto the linoleum.
At thirty, living alone, I wring out entire months of my solitary life in order to find any language in them. In her preface, Cathy Park Hong writes that Choi’s “poems are uncompromising because she will stare into the infinite dark tunnel of her solitude and not break the stare.” The poems that result from this unbreaking stare are equally unrelenting. Choi’s language is dredged from the depths of solitude’s lightless tunnel: “To not be lonely, / I eat a lot. / To not be in pain, / I have a little drink,” she writes. If her poems are shocking, it is because their diction comes from the daily repetition of bodily excretion, of mold growing on bread, of “the stagnant waste-water of memory.” This is the language of what has already happened many times. At thirty, I too seek the language that grows over these days like mold on bread. My solitude is not a horror for me to look at.
When I write my own poetry, it feels as though I send out my ghost to collect discarded pieces of the world and bring them back, already wilted, to be arranged in a filthy vase: “A disembodied shade goes forth / through the endless mineral fog, / while birds with no new dreams dream / of flying to memory’s Golgotha / to bury their bones,” writes Choi in “Thirty Years Old.” I ask myself, does new language require new experience? Each day I open my eyes to no one making breakfast. No one has moved the books I left by the kitchen sink. I burn dinner or cut green shoots off a nearly forgotten onion. Everything remains in place, though perhaps some dust has gathered. There is an absence of new experiences in the repetitions of living alone. There are no new dreams but there is dreaming.
If I had turned thirty-three this year, I likely would be most drawn to Choi’s poem “Spring,” which also begins with an arrival toward which the speaker is ambivalent: “Spring comes / even if you don’t want it to. / Spring of the lonely, unmarried, thirty-three-year-old woman.” Thirty comes and spring comes, and they arrive regardless of whether or not you have hailed them. Age and the season, two flags heralding time’s incessant arrival. This was one of the first things I noticed about the speakers in Choi’s poems—their stillness, the way the world arrives like a battering ram against the speakers’ immobility, the way it raises the corner of its lip to ask, Where is your husband? Your children? There are so many of us, some by choice and others not. Three days ago, I woke up to red leaves hanging like blood droplets from the trees as though a massacre occurred in the night—and, somewhere, it did. As I write, it is fall.
This essay is neither a review nor an essay on craft, though many of Choi’s poems are themselves lessons on craft. I have listened to many discussions about poetry that prioritize evolution, arc, volta, formal engines that feel unfaithful to the repetitions of my daily life. Now I am questioning what I’ve been told about poems, that they are journeys, parts in motion. I have never heard a craft talk on how to write a poem that is without movement, but as I read Phone Bells Keep Ringing For Me, Choi offers this in her work. Frequently, a single poem in her collection goes nowhere—it ends where it begins, having never left the brutal, motionless place of its origin. It is difficult to go nowhere in a world that only values movement. It feels like Choi has offered me a space in which to write poems that refuse to leave their beds.
I am thinking here also about the connection between movement—its assumed value—and the assumption that a valuable life moves. Toward marriage. Toward children. Toward wealth. This twinning of capitalism and patriarchy, production and lineage. The valuable life is outward and future-facing. Choi writes: “My time, which couldn’t be converted to salary or capital, went off somewhere.” Choi suggests that a life outside capitalism exists in this “off somewhere” space, is in this way illegible. In every corner of my apartment, on every surface, every chair, I am waiting for myself. I am relieved that I do not need to care for anyone, that for long stretches of unmarked time, no one tries to take my hand. Where is this essay going? I can tell you now, it is going nowhere and it will give birth to nothing.
Social and state institutions punish those who choose their own image over the opposite sex, or the child, or the world outside the window. They call it vanity, call it death. They ignore that they too promote another type of singular image—one man, one woman, paired, and appropriately balanced between the private and the public, the looking and the being looked at. At thirty, I’ve also been reflecting on a passage in Paradise Lost where Eve comes very close to rejecting Adam. I read the same twenty lines over and again. It is not that I expect the story to change, but rather that an alternative already exists if I simply do not read past these lines. The possibility is already there if I simply refuse to follow the narrative onward. In the passage, John Milton transposes Eve onto the myth of Narcissus. Eve narrates:
As I bent down to look, just opposite,
A shape with wat’ry gleam appeared
Bending to look on me . . . there I had fixed
Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire,
Had not a voice thus warned me; What thou seest,
What there thou seest, fair Creature, is thyself
(Paradise Lost, Book Four, ll. 460-468)
Here too is the choice, or, if not choice, the illusion of it, for the childless unmarried woman. The sky merged with the lake. Reflection has two common meanings, both rooted in the Latin reflectere, “to bend back, to turn round, to retrace one’s steps, turn back, to turn away (the face, gaze), to turn back, reverse” (OED.com). Verse and reverse. As I reflect on this passage, I turn back to the thought. I see myself in the thought. I turn back on the thought. I turn back to think upon. I reflect. How many times do I reverse in my apartment every day, from kitchen to bedroom, bedroom to kitchen?
In exchange for relinquishing the pleasure derived from staring at her own reflection, God offers Eve a title, a primary role at the origin of lineage. It works; following the promise of being “called the Mother of the human race,” Eve agrees to meet Adam (ll. 475). Yet she finds him “less fair, / Less winning soft, less amiably mild, Than that smooth wat’ry image” and turns away from him. This precise moment is what causes me to reverse my eyes across the lines again, halting the narrative. In this moment, Eve decides to reject the image of man and along with that image, the reproductive imperative that her promised role would fulfill. This, despite God’s promise that, by obeying, Eve can live “where no shadow staies / thy coming” (ll. 470). She knows shadow awaits her should she choose herself over being the first Mother but turns from Adam anyway.
As I read Choi, Eve’s shadow is cast across my memory. Though Choi’s poetry does not need to transform this canonical Western work, it has the power to do so. In her poem “A Self-Portrait,” which in its title centers one’s own image, Choi’s speaker is defined against relation, again in solitude: “I’m nobody’s disciple, / nobody’s friend . . . Since that morning of old / when Adam and Eve rose / from the grassy thicket, / I’m sorrow’s long body.” Here, Choi transforms her speaker into the fork-tongued shadow itself outside the heteronormative pairing. This is the fulfillment of God’s warning for any woman that does not accept his offer. Yet it is through Choi’s work that I also see the possibility and threat in Eve’s rejection. In her introduction to Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me, Hong writes, “Instead of the timeline of a traditional Korean woman who measures her milestones by marriage and children, [Choi] only has death to shadow her as she ages.”
And I find another reflection. In the book’s title poem, Choi writes:
Your mouth was hanging at the end of the phone line,
Looking like a cave, a rotten swamp.
From there, death will call for me decisively
And I will answer decisively.
The burning fuse of my fate
Will explode in your rotten mouth
Completing, in vain, the vanity of all vanities,
useless for thirty years.
At thirty, I know that, by definition, vainness is valueless, unprofitable, empty. It’s also an excess, specifically of self-love, a waste of time. Could vanity also then be a refusal? A rejection of those dual cycles of production and reproduction, value as defined by capitalism and patriarchy? A rejection of the timeline? The milestones marking the way? Here, at thirty, I am thinking of the what if of Eve’s turned-away shoulder, the promise in vanity and shadow, the potential of Eve’s rejection. We can read this moment as Milton suggests: Eve overcome by temptation to embrace beauty untempered by “Wisdom,” which is additionally coded as the feminine unrestrained by the masculine, the body unrestrained by the brain. Or we can read this moment as Eve selecting her own company, a choice characterized even into my present as synonymous with death in order to deter women from refusing men. The warning of Milton’s God echoes in everyday questions: Who will take care of me when I am old? Where does meaning live if not in curating a future for my children? What can I be in my aloneness but nameless and no one? This is the death of never having been born at all.
Writes Choi: “I am only gazing at myself / who gazes at the white snow. . . Please forget me, / since the easiest me to dream of / is me in the grave.” Childless, gaze turned toward yourself, you are already dead—this is the easiest dream of the unmarried women. And elsewhere, “Don’t hold onto me. / I’m not your mother, / not your child,” says Choi’s speaker, deploying the patriarchal paradigm that has invented reproductive time and cast women into these overdetermined relations. In my apartment, the silence calls me no one’s mother.
In my mind there is a connection between these things—the refusal of narrative movement and the choice of oneself. There is no movement between two likenesses. The sky and the lake that looks like sky. Nothing needs altering. What is the language of a face repeated across surfaces? You do not need to translate. You can lie down and rest now that there is nowhere you need to go and no one to whom you must speak.
But as Choi’s poems suggest, even if you stay still, the world “comes.” It rings your doorbell and rattles the windows and drives you onto the street. It ages your mind, your body. It grows buds on the outstretched arms of its trees. I wake up to the sound of a key turning in my attic apartment’s lock. Two firemen soon stand in the deep night of the bedroom doorway, eyes oversized by their goggles. They seem unsurprised to see me, though I have not called or admitted them. And they leave as quickly as they arrive, having found no leaking gas, just a silent woman standing half-dressed in the dark pocket beneath the house’s roof. Choi doesn’t describe the body passing through the world, but the world that passes through the body, and often violently: “Dump trucks endlessly drive in and out / to unload . . . into my throat—“ It is not a separatist vision, not a utopia. While gazing at my reflection in the mirror, the window, the cat’s water bowl, the world enters my apartment. And the age of thirty comes. I try to write a poem whose form is inspired by a dead end: “Vain and futile, / I destroy this house,” writes Choi.
But whom am I writing for? Many of Choi’s poems use direct address. The addressed figure is usually outside of the poem’s reach; in “Toward You,” the speaker states, “Like alcohol dissolving in water, / like nicotine congealing in alcohol, / like caffeine coating nicotine, / I will come to you.” But the promised coming, characterized as an accrual of vice’s waste, does not manifest within the frame of the poem, heightening the speaker’s isolation. And later, in “To You,” Choi writes, “I wish you’d come to me. / They say I’m fatal.” These poems are full of unfulfilled comings. In “Do You Remember,” the speaker states, “Since you didn’t call me, / I couldn’t fall asleep. / Since you didn’t call me ever again, I tossed and turned all my life.” In the end, Eve yields not to God or moral imperative, but to the promise of Adam’s reaching hand.
There are many layers between me and Choi’s speakers. Our different languages, social contexts, political contexts, decades. The way our different bodies are written on and around and the different shapes of the sounds and letters that write them. That we have used to write them. The different places in our mouths that form these sounds, the different teeth against which our tongues stick. In fact, according to Korean determinations of age, I am not thirty but thirty-one, having spent the shorter first year of my life in the womb. I could not have written “Thirty Years Old” or thought its thoughts. But I understand the affinity I feel to Choi’s poetry better when I arrive at her poem entitled “Poetry, or Charting a Way,” which states, “poetry is charting a way . . . so I might cross ways with others.”
Am I now at this meeting place, this crossroad? Or do I myself constitute the crossroads where I make these two writers meet in my body, my education, my experience? Both have already traced their ways onward, to other crossroads formed by different readers, decades, languages. Am I looking at a painting of a field or a painting of a painting of a field? But they are not an unlikely meeting because they meet in me. Does this contradict the pleasure I derive from my aloneness? The argument I have made for reflection and stillness?
The poem continues, “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.”
There is movement in this passage toward community, and in a way, this would be a comforting place to end an essay; after reading Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me in its entirety, I suspect it would not be a faithful one. Choi’s poems are not bent toward consolation, even as her tone shifts across the collection and decades. By the time we have recognized the in-poem crossroads for what it is, we are already heading in opposite directions. It is not we who have met, but the traces we have left on our absence. In fact, the collection’s opening poem forms an imperative against recognition: “Already I was nothing,” it begins, “I was nothing from the beginning . . . dying absentmindedly, in any old place.” The poem then instructs, “So don’t say you know me / when we cross paths / like falling stars.”
I don’t think I that I feel lonely—maybe, unknowingly, I have followed the pathway of Choi’s fallen stars closely enough in my traversals through my apartment. “Still, much lonelier women pretend to be asleep / or actually are asleep when all the world’s lovers / call them at once,” she writes. Or, in a reversal, Choi has disturbed time, geography, language, to closely follow me—reading her work, I have glanced over my shoulder and found her shadow where my shadow should be. And an absence of recognition is a consequence of living alone—when I emerge from my apartment, it is difficult to register the existence of other people; they appear as figments on sidewalks, front lawns, at the grocery store. Even more difficult to see is their seeing me. Frequently the whole street fills with the smell of laundry detergent and I imagine the neighborhood overtaken by suds spilling from basement windows. I also feel that I am floating, my muscles depleted over months of disuse, so that I have lost knowledge of how my body traverses physical places. When I reenter my apartment, I don’t remember having left it.
So don’t say you know me. If comfort exists in this collection of Choi’s, it is in the possibility of a collective aloneness or, perhaps, an occasional reprieve from feeling at all. This relief rarely raises its head, and when it does, it is soon exhausted, thwarted by capitalism and patriarchal violence, both which can also be mothers of poetry, another lineage: “I will raise capital kids into mothers, / if the baby of the baby of the baby of capital can be a poem (all poets, lie prostate).” We cannot take comfort in the meeting-place of poetry when it charges admission, when poems hatch from capitalism’s eggs. It does not escape my attention that Choi draws on the pervasive metaphor of motherhood to offer her critique of capitalism. What does the poem that refuses to produce child or ideology look like? Perhaps it looks like vanity.
I have been asking myself questions such as, When others do not see me, do I begin to see myself more or less clearly? Am I thrown less or more in relation to others when I choose to be alone? Is this vanity, to accompany only myself through this day? My face in the new lake, now called a mirror, now splotched with toothpaste. My face curled against the red kettle. My reddened hands washing dishes in the sink. My face in the piled-up, turquoise-colored dishes, the turned-off television screen. As I navigate my apartment’s two rooms, I turn constantly back on myself to reface and retrace the empty places my image just left. In “Not Forgetting, or Memorandum 4,” Choi’s speaker proclaims:
Oh, all those splendid—
I was absent from,
Oh all those splendid—
places from which
I was absent!
Now I’d like to stretch and lie down on the world,
the shadow of my own absence.
To choose the self is to choose death—it’s a rejection of the future, or at least the future in the way society defines it, the Mother producing the child under the ownership of that patriarchal eye, the male hours, the male minutes, as capitalism checks its timesheet. At thirty, I feel closest to the world when I am alone in my apartment, shocked by a moon shining in the shape of a telephone through my window, wondering if the ache in my jaw grows from a rotted tooth, is even real. This is an old dream. Here I am, greeting myself through the peeling gold on my doorknob, watching tufts of cat hair float past my bare feet down the stairs, rejoining the imprint I created with my own body in my mattress. In my apartment is the death of my absence. I have not moved from the place where this essay began.
Write a motionless poem. A poem that doesn’t leave its apartment. Write a poem that turns endlessly back on itself, sees only itself in the mirror. Write a poem that goes absolutely nowhere at all.
Photo credits: The Paris Review and The Korea Times.
Madeleine Wattenberg is the author of I/O (University of Arkansas Press 2021). Her work appears in places such as Salamander Magazine, The Rumpus, Puerto del Sol, sixth finch, Poetry Daily, and Best New Poets. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati and serves as Associate Editor for the Cincinnati Review.