Monday, January 26, 2015

Modern Korean Poetry: Between Sound and Silence - Chang Soo Ko



In keeping with the spirit of surrealism that pervades Chang Soo Ko's poems, I'll start by saying that this book allowed me to find it at just the right time. It hollowed out for itself a space in my life. My relationship with Korean literature is skittish, but Between Sound and Silence was having none of that. Finding me alone at work on a slow day, it held me to my chair. The book was a suitcase whose contents I unpacked slowly and with great delight. Or was I the suitcase, and the book unpacked me, watching my reactions unfold?

Between Sound and Silence, published in 2000, is a handsome volume. A hardcover with delicately textured cream-colored end papers, it is a bilingual offering with the English version on the left-hand page and the poem in Korean on the facing page. The poet (who has also served as an ambassador for Korea) did all of his own translation, which further excited my admiration. This is one of the few times I've wished to be fully fluent in Korean, so I could get the total flavor, the complete experience of what Ko is saying. Perhaps I wouldn't survive the full impact, though. For example, a line like Let some melodies illuminate the words hanging in our trees packs quite a punch just in English.

The first poem in this collection, "At the Art Gallery" starts with a stark imperative sentence, bursting with the energy of a coiled spring upon release: Do not think you are the only one in his perspective. Immediately, my brain began to buzz. Who is the "you" in the poem? Who is the one with the perspective? Reading the poem one way, it seems as if "you" is the spectator. In another reading, I was convinced it was the painted image. And what about the artist? His eyes always reflect the flickering flames from his center. Do not think they miss your stillness. His gaze penetrates far beyond where there is only silence. Drowning in all the pronoun possibilities, I finally had to conclude that it's really a poem about Ko and his reader and the journey they're about to embark. But again, there's shifting and blurring and the uncertainty: Is Ko talking to the reader or talking to himself, or imagining what the reader might say?

The reason I'm going on about poet/poem/reader relationships is because of the poem "To Marc Chagall" in which Ko articulates the feelings that we've all had for painters, poets, writers, actors and directors that have affected us viscerally:

I want to define our relationship more clearly.
Though my human shape never cast any shadow on your life,
my glances often fed the flames of your candelabra.
The bare winter branches in your landscape
sometimes lit up with my pastels.
You sent through my nightmares your silent birds
dripping with burning pain, 
and tempered my emotions.
Our relationship has been a metaphysical one, at least.
But this definition is pointless
like a mountain perspective overlooking human events.

Pointless?  I don't think so.  As for the "mountain perspective", that's definitely not pointless. In Ko-World, static things such as locations are anything but, and the depth of their importance cannot be understated. In "Camera in the Park" when he muses on What happens inside it, on the other side of the lens? We get the point-of-view of the landscape: ...the landscapes that long for light and motion, stir quietly as summer. The landscape appears again as an active participant in a poem that bears its name:

The landscape at times lets a bird fly away, 
shedding blood drops among the foliage,
or lets a calf moo plaintively on a hill.
With its gentle breath
it sends away bright blossoms
and calls in honeybees and birds,
or gently guides sea-bound sailors to their endless voyage.
The landscape attracts things and creatures
with the irresistible force of its gravity,
and absorbs into its essence
laughter or glance, flame or flower.
This is just as sounds gravitate into silence.
The landscape quietly breathes, submerged in the sky.
As if pulled by some force beyond the horizon,
a strange bird draws an inexplicable parabola in the air.

Finally, a landscape melts inside me:
a commonplace and simple landscape;
A childhood landscape with a tree and a rock,
where I desperately called a name,
gradually melts away inside me.

All my life, jaunts into the countryside have been tedious events. With the above poem, Chang Soo Ko has put an end to that. The next time a rural landscape permits me to set foot in it, I'll be a trifle uneasy, but certainly not bored.

Ko can be weird and intense, but he also does weird and cute well, as is evidenced in "Ocean-liner":

Slowly the ocean-liner
Moves in dreamy motion
As if an island were shifting gournd,
Weary of its fixed gravity.

Like a baby whale coming for milk,
The pilot boat comes near,
Snuggles the ship for a while
And then reluctantly moves away,
Leaving the island on the sea.

A little hurt despite its elegance,
The ocean liner struggles over the boundary
Between affection and disowning
And gradually travels into memory.

Sometimes he explodes into fun and rolls around in language like a kid in a big pile of raked leaves ("Joke About Culture"):

Our culture in its broadest sense largely determines:
Whether we practice monogamy, polygamy, or hierogamy
Whether our madness is schizophrenia, spirit-posession or psychedelic
Whether we love monologue, dialogue, or paradox
Whether our viewpoint is bird's-eye-view, fish-eye-view or simply belle-vue
...Whether we consider nature a friend, a foe, or a dump...
Whether our life is dominated by by-laws, in-laws or outlaws.

Then there are his creature poems, in which Ko mimics perfectly the style of movement of subject of the poem. Of course both poems somehow manage to be about the poet/reader relationship. How does he do it? But of course, most great artists have a single theme and they attack it repeatedly in a range of variations.

"What the Spider Said" is divided into seventeen sections (Why seventeen? It's driving me crazy.That can't be arbitrary.). Here are my two favorites:

7.
I seem to grasp the real motives of
The mountain-climbers.

15.
I arrange and rearrange reality
In my fool-proof webs,
Making everything visible from my perspective.
Look, with what authority I order and command
The elements to conform to my grammar!

And a very different creature ("A Cat's Landscape"):

When the cat walks away,
the landscape quivers a little.

Those are my favorite lines, but the whole poem is neat, the way it alternately stalks and undulates.

There's no way I can do justice to the poems of Chang Soo Ko, but I've given it my best shot. I'm a little humbled and freaked-out that I wasn't aware of his work for the whole decade I've been here in Korea, but his poems found me now that I'm within a hairsbreadth of  leaving...forever? Once I step on the plane, the process of this 'landscape gradually melting away inside me' will begin.

I suppose there will be some sort of send-off for me, a leaving party to mark the occasion. Although no one gave it to me and the book is not mine to keep, Between Sound and Silence feels like my going-away gift:

Hey Susan, 

Here's some poems. 

Love Always, 
Korea

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