Day-Shine, Poems by Chong Hyeon-jeong. Translated and introduced by Wolhee Choe and Peter Fusco Published by East Asian Program, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1998.
With Day-Shine, Poems by Chong Hyeon-jeong, Cornell Universitys East Asian Program has again provided English-speaking readers with an excellent anthology of Korean poetry. It is a welcome addition to the growing body of Korean literature available in English. Moreover, the poems readability and subject matter do not limit them to a readership whose primary interest is Korean literature. Indeed, the translators of this remarkable volume have done an important service for Korean literature and an even greater one for Englisg-speaking readers.
In their helpful introduction, the translators tell us that the poems in Day-Shine come from two of Chong Hyon-jongs books, So Little Time to Love (1991) and One Blossom (1993), and they reside in a primal space created and sustained through the poets own inventive language and command the distinction of their own place in contemporary Korean poetry. Indeed, the novelty of Chong's poetic language with its narrative lyricism and provocative philosophy makes his poetry difficult to classify. Chong's poetic language, we are told, is partially the result of having grown up in an environment that was "electric with international and domestic/political changes."
Born in Seoul in 1939, near the end of the Japanese occupation of Korea, Chong's formative years were marked by an abrupt language shift. During the Japanese occupation, Korean language publications and other normal cultural activities were suppressed and students in all grade levels including college were allowed to speak only Japanese. But with Japan's surrender to the Allied Forces in 1945, Korea was liberated and so was the Korean language. Thus Chong's schooling began in a state of cultural shake-up. Japanese textbooks and teaching methods were thrown out in an effort to wipe out colonial influences, and faced with the daunting task of having to write new textbooks, teachers adopted American school books translated into Korean. At the same time, Seoul became flooded with English language publications because of the U.S. military troops stationed on the outskirts of the city. All students had to take English from middle school, while German and French could be taken as a third language in high school.
Chong studied philosophy at Yonsei University, where he currently teaches, at a time when postwar existentialist literature from Europe dominated Korean academic and literary life. In 1964, while still in college, he made his poetry debut on the recommendation of noted poet Pak Tu-jin with a poem entitled "Solo Dance" ("Tokmu") in Hyondae munhak (Modern Literature). After graduating in 1965, he worked as a journalist for various newspapers and periodicals and then taught Korean literature at the Arts Institute and later at his alma mater. In 1972, he published his first poetry collection, Dream of Things (Samul ui kkum). That same year he published a translation of Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Cafe' and the following year he published translations of poetry collections by Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats as well as a novel by Richard Bach. In 1974, he published a translation of Kahil Gilbran's writing and spent six months at the University of Iowa as a participant in its International Writers Program. He has since continued not only to write poetry but also to teach literature as well as translate the works of such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Krishnamurti, Pablo Neruda and Frederico Lorca.
Given such a background, it is not surprising that Chong developed an uncommon awareness of different sounds, nuances and syntax and an ability for incorporating elements of other languages and literatures in his own poetic language. In fact, experimentation with language based on foreign languages is often cited as a distinguishing mark of Chongs early poems. Much of his early poetry, for example, uses relative clause modifiers and prepositional phrases, a rarity in Korean syntax. Whereas most of his early experimentation was with written Korean, in more recent years he has experimented with vernacular Korean. In fact, he has found in the continuing oral tradition of vernacular Korean a fresh source of poetry. In the words of the translators, Chong has penetrated deeply into the world of vernacular expression and found it more universal than the world of written culture. It is from this stage of experimentation in which "he creates from the indigenous Korean past an all-inclusive vision of human reality" that the poems in Day-Shine come.
Take for example the common and overused Korean expressions kipkokipta(deeply deep) and pungbuhaejinda(becoming abundant). In Chong's "In Praise of Dusk," these terms are ways to encounter the infinite, the void, the world without distinction; they are both the agents and the objects of transformation.
With the passing of twilight
the world becomes richer!
Trees drenched in dusk,
buildings of old stone,
shafts from mercury lights in the dimness,
the depth of the dark
framed by the blue-black sky.
In the deepest recess of the dark,
there's nothing not mutually touching;
nor is there distinction
(to be opulent is to lack distinction).
My body is surpassingly open,
like the void;
there's nothing my hands cannot touch.
Water is the same:
its hands extend to infinity--
The word "darkness" is transformed from a simple idea in the vernacular to a cosmic perception. Purged of its usual connotations of fear, despair and ignorance, the idea of darkness gets a new life of plenitude.
Chong often starts out with a clich , a familiar saying, or a line from a folk or popular song and by novel juxtapositions, parodies, or partial substitutions and changes, he opens up possibilities for new meanings. By lifting them from a given context and placing them in poetic constructions, he frees them from contentious discursiveness, an avoidance of which characterizes many of Chong's poems. This is well illustrated by "You Must Lose to Gain--India Poem III."
(I scribble this
having lost something
after spending the evening
with a Danish poet
who lost something too.)
I now understand
(indeed, knowing anything
the adage: As simple as truth.
How drummed into one ear,
it rolled out the other;
and now I dare to coin my own: If you dont lose,
you dont gain.
You must lose to gain.
Readers will note a strange distancing effect in even the most intensely lyrical of Chongs poems. The translators tell us that this is due the tendency of the Korean language to generalize, or to collectivize, by allowing the grammatical subject to remain in the background and offer his poem Calf as an example. In the poem, a wanderer roams crazed, not leisurely, and a calf frolics, and as the two emerge, the reader is engaged in a discourse on the nature of lived time.
In the fields of Wonsong,
where I wander
just a month old
Because of you
this world first spun
a month ago.
We are told that in the original poem the grammatical subject for frolicking is syntactically ambiguous; it could be the speaker, the calf, or both, so that the calf and I become one before the third stanza where the world is one with them. In other poems, when with a single verb the speaker merges similarly with the stars or the sky, for example, the resulting eroticism is a mere suggestion, a mere hint that vanishes as soon as it registers as a possibility. This effect comes from Chongs lines being both lyrical and abstract, both personal and common.
Chong's reconstruction of such Romantic moments suggests a Taoist metamorphosis into forms of nature, where the poetic consciousness is so nimble as to become a calf, bubble, tree, wind, cloud, or even a ripple as in the following poem, "Upon Arriving at Lake Maeji."
With the surface of the lake
I likewise ripple out.
Look, a mind
Clearly, Chong's poetic mind and artifice is both Romantic and Eastern and involves the structures of the Korean language that is at play in all his works.
The translators tell us that given the extent to which Chong's inventiveness is specific to Korean syntax, they could convey hardly any of his playful word games. "Even though it is beyond our ability to transfer, in translation, Chong's linguistic experiments, we did attempt to capture his poetic embrace of objects, daily language, people, and life itself, as well as his capacity to sustain the human spirit against the falls of a perishing world." We are also told that in the poems, "the shorter lines contain rhythms and phrases in a powerful vernacular reconstituted from indigenous and almost forgotten idioms." Readers cannot determine if the translators were successful in their attempts because the original Korean of the poems is not included.
Nonetheless, through the translations, readers are able to meet "a mind uncircumscribed," to witness or take part in Chong's skeptical probing, to enter a visionary world of poetic unity beyond the divisions made by words. The poems are very readable and thought provoking--a welcome addition to world literature.
Suzanne Crowder Han
A Writer, an Editor, and a Translator