‘Anxiety of Words – Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women’, translated by Don Mee Choi

img_5511For the second of my posts on female Korean writers this week, I thought I might stretch myself a little, and Anxiety of Words (translated by Don Mee Choi, review copy courtesy of Zephyr Press) is certainly up to the task.  While I’ve seen a fair amount of Korean fiction, poetry isn’t really my strong point, and my exposure to Korean poetry is pretty much non-existent.  Still, it’s never too late to start, and with three poets introduced in this volume, it certainly makes for a solid introduction to the genre – and for those of you with some knowledge of Korean, it’s a bilingual edition too, meaning you’ll get to compare the translation with the original 🙂

The first writer featured, Ch’oe Sung-ja, sets the tone for the collection, and a fairly bleak one it is too.  There’s a palpable sense of darkness hanging over the poems, with constant mentions of the cold, water and a sense of being smothered, much of which comes from the political and social frustrations of the late seventies and early eighties.  This comes across in the first piece chosen, one of many which seems more like flash fiction than ‘conventional’ poetry:

Several years ago, only dust blew over the streets of Chegidong and we were not ourselves.  We were always asleep or drunk or following a filthy tide, forever drifting away like a torn shoe fallen into a ditch…  The older male students would marry just any woman when they returned to school after finishing compulsory military service, and the fourth-year female students would get engaged to just any man, and the good young people faded away, giving off just the right scent.
‘Our Love of 197x’, p.5 (Zephyr Press, 2006)

There’s a pervading sense here of desolation and disappointment, and anger not only at society in general but at those who have betrayed her, generally men.  Motifs of vomit, graves and vaginas begin to reappear, culminating in ‘Went to the Sea in Winter’, a vivid piece in which a woman’s corpse floating in the sea is imagined to spawn the beginnings of an eventual revolution…

This theme of feminist revolt is only strengthened in the work of perhaps the best-known of the three writers, Kim Hyesoon.  The first poem selected, ‘Song of Skin’, immediately has the speaker suckling an unknown other, only to explode after being sucked dry.  In a similar vein:

As he pumps and pumps,
I stagger, blacking out,
he opens the window,
throws a hot coal,
into my empty heart
and says, follow me follow me.
‘Regarding Love 1’, p.73

While there are several shorter pieces like this one, again several of the poems consist of prose paragraphs.  One, ‘A Very Old Hotel’ is merely a lengthy paragraph almost filling a page, with a woman feeling trapped inside a hotel, which is both outside and inside her…  Slightly more conventional is ‘Memoirs of Giving Birth to a Daughter’ in which the writer reflects on the line of women who have created her:

I open a mirror and enter,
mother is inside a mirror, sitting.
I open a mirror and enter again,
grandmother is inside a mirror, sitting.
I push aside this grandmother mirror and step over a doorsill,
great grandmother is inside a mirror, laughing.
‘Memoirs of Giving Birth to a Daughter’, p.89

The poem ends with the speaker giving birth to her own daughter, the latest member of the group of women inside the mirrors.

The final poet featured is Yi Yon-ju, who took her life in 1992, having only published one collection of poetry (although a second appeared the following year).  Yi’s work is again punctuated by elements of darkness, and there are several of her series of poems on prostitutes here, short glimpses of women walking the streets and suffering the consequences.  This darkness extends into other areas of society too, though:

Sister drinks Bond Glue,
wears her torn undergarments inside out,
and next to the garbage dump of a basement store
cuts her wrist with a razor.
‘A Family Photo’, p.131

In fact, throughout Yi’s work, there’s a feeling of the inevitable futility of life, with children doomed from the start:

Just born and already neglected, it lies in a coffin-like cradle.  Smell’s fishy as a butcher’s shop.  Who will be able to guide the infants to a faraway place, through the many trials of life until they reach the silence of the aged?  I fill up the basin and wash my hands.
‘Nursery Notes’, p.173

Light reading this most certainly is not.

If I’m honest, Anxiety of Words is a book I found difficult to enjoy, but there are good reasons for that.  The poets whose work is highlighted here are writers who struggled against the currents of Korean mainstream thought, both in the traditional patriarchal system and in the harsh right-wing military regimes of the seventies and eighties.  In Choi’s excellent introduction, Kim is quoted thus:

She also has written that throughout the 1980s Korean literary critics demanded that she “enter the sea of society” and write poetry that can “communicate and benefit society.”  But at the same time, they stated that a “woman poet is nature” who must “evoke something gentle and motherly”. (xviii)

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Kim, Ch’oe and Yi deliberately moved away from these demands, angered by the label of yeoryu siin (‘woman poet’) bestowed upon them, making them stand apart from the usual (male) siin.  The dark tone and spiky language is a direct challenge to these norms.

However, there are other reasons why this collection didn’t really work for me.  English and Korean are very different languages, and I’m not sure everything makes it across.  Even given that the original poems were intended to be deliberately ‘ungentle’, the translations were fairly plain in places.  They also shortened the sentences a lot, which is sometimes a good thing (Korean can be wordy) but occasionally lost any rhythm or assonance present in the original.  An example here is the line quoted above from Kim’s ‘Regarding Love 1’:

and says, follow me follow me.

The (transliterated) Korean reads:

tteora-wa tteora-wa malssum-hashossumnida (p.72)

For me, this is much better, keeping the long rhyming vowels and sounding far more rhythmic.

It’s a little unfair of me to criticise the translation, though, as my Korean is far from perfect (to say the least!), and it’s not as if the English versions read poorly.  Choi has done a good job of getting the dark, spiky nature of the pieces into the target language, and she’s also to be praised for the work done in putting the book together.  Apart from the Korean and English versions of the poems, there’s also a lengthy introduction setting the environment against which the poets wrote and a one-page biography of each poet (with a photo) at the start of their respective sections.

Sadly, this wasn’t for me, but I hope that I’ve piqued the interest of anyone out there who’s rather more au-fait with modern poetry than I am (I suspect one of my biggest issues with this was the lack of pretty rhymes…).  It’s good to challenge yourself once in a while, and I can confidently say that I was thoroughly challenged by Anxiety of Words.  Let’s see if anyone out there will give it a go 😉

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