by Kim Sowŏl (translated by David R. McCann)
Columbia University Press 2007
Reviewed by Scott Hightower
Born as White Bugs
Azaleas is a beautiful and historically celebrated book of poetry written in Korean and first published in 1925.
Setting out to faithfully translate an organic and complete Korean collection of poems into a coherent book of English verse is not an enterprise for the faint of heart; setting out to translate from Korean and into English, one faces immeasurable difficulties. Consider that the Korean language does not necessarily give every verb a defined subject and that Korean poetry as a genre is often rendered more “poetic” by the use of suspended clauses and broken grammatical structures.1
Besides the primary complexity, there is the added complexity of historical timing. Politically, consider that modern Korean literature was not liberated from Japanese rule (officially annexed in 1910) until 1945. Under Japanese domination, the Korean language was severely limited, at times forbidden, and “deeply lined with the Korean resistance to Japanese cultural domination and the struggle for independence.”2 David R. McCann, an expert on modern Korean poetry, adeptly maintains Sowŏl’s elemental-ness, immediacy and richness without reducing the work to its simplest components.
Chongsik Kim was known by the sobriquet Sowŏl [White Moon]. Sowol’s life is a journey encapsulated into a single book and marked by a premature and untimely death. He was born in 1902. By 1934 the journey was over, azalea blossoms––white, pink, or purple––strewn in his wake. Also consider that the journey trailed from favored fortune to a diminished financial promise, and from provincial (Korean) remoteness to imperial centrality (Japan, to study at a college of commerce) then back to remoteness: Oh, the fickle circularity of fortune! Thirty-two years is not a very long life. In poet’s years, that is risk, but can be enough!
Sowŏl’s poems are generally praised for having some connection to the folk songs of the poet’s generative language… much like the connection of Garcia-Lorca’s poetry to the cante jondo [deep song] in southern Spain. On some level, some of Sowŏl’s valences parallel the lyrics of tunes sung by Hank Williams, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. The poems are short reveries of wonder, longing and living beyond loss—of life’s inevitabilities.
But in his short life, Sowŏl himself did not like being classified as a “folk-song poet.” One can just as easily evoke parallels to the poetry of Sappho, John Keats, or Robert Frost. There are also a host of affinities with French symbolist poets:
…the one who always stayed hidden,
in my dreams, deep asleep, she came again.
…and just like that she rises up,
the sound of chickens fluttering their wings.
Wide awake in the brightness of day,
I go on mistaking
anyone on the roadside for her.
(“One Who Came in a Dream”)
The poems in Azaleas are arranged in sixteen discreet sections: thematic arrangements that concurrently depict the plot of a physical and emotional journey. The emotional tone and range of images of the work are consistent, though soliloquies are apt to shift in their sources. I’ll close with the opening three stanzas of “Song of the Stream.”
The stream is inconstant and mystically immutable at the same time…. In the opening stanza, the stream would have clothes over a waiting body. In the third, the two enjoined subjects of the poem would “tumble” into the sea. The stanzas set up for a fourth stanza’s ending of the “body” of the stream flowing into the beloved’s heart, then mixing and “burning” there to ash and dissipation:
If you had been born as a wind!
In the middle of an empty field by the stream at moonrise
you would blow loose all the ties of my clothes.
Or if we had been born as wriggling white bugs!
We would try dreaming that foolish dream
of a rainy black night at the foot of some hill.
If only you had been born as a rock on a cliff
where the sea comes to its end,
The two of us would embrace and tumble in.
Let my body be the spirit of fire
burning in your heart the night through,
the two of us burn to ash and vanish.
1An Sonjae [Brother Anthony] published “Translating Korean Poetry,” an excellent short text detailing those difficulties, and others in the review “Modern Poetry in Translation,” Vol. 13, 1998 (and can be accessed on the web: http://hompi.sogang.ac.kr/anthony/Azaleas.htm).
2Again, quoting An Sonjae, but from a different essay: “A Well-Kept Secret: Korean Literature in Translation,” published in “Pictorial Korea” (and accessed on the web: http://hompi.sogang.ac.kr/anthony/klt/Secret.htm).