Pak Chaesam, Enough to Say It's Far

Reviewed by Michael Peverett

Trans. David R. McCann and Jiwon Shin / Princeton University Press / 2006 / ISBN 0-691-12446-9

Twentieth-century Korean poetry has, like twentieth-century Korea, a fiery and complicated history. Pak Chaesam (1933-1997, also transliterated as Pak Jae-Sam) seemed to stand rather aside, emerging as one of a group of relatively traditionalist poets in the 1950s. He came from a very poor background and remained imaginatively centred in the seaside town where he grew up, his father a day-labourer and his mother a gatherer of sea-squirts. You can understand why Pak's poetry was "well-loved" (though it didn't bring him financial security) and why the translators' introduction dwells on this interesting biography rather than on artistic controversy. Perhaps you might interpret their closing reference to "artistic brethren in many places" as a pitch for the Quietude audience. So in a way I feel I ought not to like this book, but I do quite like it.

What's probably more to the point is the often neglected element of expatriate interest in the market for poetry translations; that growing number of people worldwide who may not especially care for poetry in general and who are thoroughly turned off by matters of poetics but who have an imaginative involvement with a distant mother country whose language they may not even know very well, and who sometimes buy poetry books that are felt to re-connect them with it. Not to labour the point here, but isn't there an often-remarked connection between Quietude and regionalism generally?

Anyhow, that's one good reason for presenting poetry translations alongside the original texts; there will be some readers who are semi-competent in the original language and use the English as a crib not a substitute, and that may be, well it is, the best way.

But as for me I can't even make the sounds of those pages written in the Han-Gul alphabet, which makes me feel particularly incompetent to write a review, but I'm glad those originals are there because Han-Gul is very fascinating. The writing is organized by syllable not by word, each syllable occupying a square (Korean writing books look like our arithmetic books). The syllable-squares can be arranged either top-down then right-to-left in the Chinese manner or (now predominantly) left-to-right then top-down in the Roman manner. Syllable-counting forms like sijo are thus instantly apparent in a way that is totally different to our accentual meters which when read rather than heard have to be extrapolated by inference – a skill that does not automatically pass on to new generations. The Han-gul system, invented in the fourteenth century, is so limpid that it involves no such black art as "spelling" and Korean children are overwhelmingly literate from a very early age.

So yes, the package is appealing, those left-hand pages and the beguiling monochrome cover: a photo of a group of conical islands playing in the mist, as in one of the poems:

    At times they may seem to bow their heads
    as if to pick up beads...


A few of the 72 poems in this selection are sijo but they aren't the easiest place to start. It's in slightly more ample poems that you can see how Pak implies an absence by going round it and leaves that absence standing at the end, a bit like the lost wax method.

Thus a poem about a friend who has gone away sidles from abstract speculations into familiar fallen leaves but then at once sets us to work at conceiving the elusive image of a weight of wind that hangs on the branch-tips, precisely displacing the leaves that aren't there any more. The second half proceeds thus:

    So today I push
    my way through a forest of letters
    to shape verses, knowing well
    there is no comparing them
    to the wind's still lingering
    in the branches of the tree.
    My friend, your leaving causes me
    to feel deep in my bones
    there is nothing of the ordinary about this.

Those letters are inevitably envisaged as leaves; by design, they are present entities themselves and can only refer to presences. Thus the poem is as dubious a concept as the difficult image of the wind lingering in those leaf-spaces, an image that seems to be trying to have it both ways: in order to make absence present to our imaginations, it ends up re-constituting it as spectral presence. But, having finished reading the poem, we kick away the ladder and – there it is.

We are fairly familiar with poems like that, I know. But perhaps because the absence approached here is objectified in Korean culture as han (grief, unfulfilled yearning, but with an intellectual implication), Pak's use of his method can become very intricate; almost in inverse proportion to the text, the absences can multiply thick and fast. You'll want to see this for yourself in a complete poem:

    Recollection 16

    In the sea near P'alp'o my home,
    one aunt drowned herself.
    A distant aunt had drowned herself too,
    and others; their precious lives they gave away.
    Suicide: why choose that?
    What shattered dream fragment
    made them long so to end their lives?
    Did the sea resemble a flower garden?
    Was that the reason they all removed their shoes
    before they leaped?
    I tried to imagine
    they had forgotten the faraway,
    already distant causes of their own sorrows,
    drenched, intoxicated as they were by that greater beauty.
    But to my eyes now I have passed fifty, the sea
    has become a dull thing, and plain.

We learn from the Introduction that this is autobiographical, and the occasion of those cliff-edge suicides was husbands lost at sea. But "Recollection" here refers not to the events directly but to those past, childish thoughts of a beautiful communion; a communion in sharp contrast to the distances and isolations in which the poem is taciturnly veiled. If the poem is about the occlusion that news of a suicide both creates and reveals as having already existed ("why choose that?"), it invokes other absent things too: life-long trauma – Is it there? but trauma always conceals itself –; and also the mystery in that dull, plain sea that withholds but is recognized as withholding such histories and such precious losses. So that at the same time that the last lines dispel the pitiful nonsense of that flower-garden, something like a shimmer wells up from beneath.

With poetry of this kind the challenge for a translator may be not so much the words but also translating the reader's mind; to know what is not being said may require cultural backgrounds we just haven't got. A few of these poems don't seem to me to do much; a few more seem to do something, but I know I don't really know what it is, and these ones arouse a kind of idly poetic interest that probably doesn't have a lot to do with what Pak was writing about. On the whole McCann and Jiwon seem to have preferred literalism at the risk of creating a few puzzles; thus the middle part of "Autumn River in Burning Tears" goes:

    The lamps and other lights that gather
    at elder brother's house for the ceremonies
    may be lights, but I have seen the autumn river
    burning in tears as the sun sets.

which I have also seen unprofessionally translated as:

    Though the lights at my ancestral home
    are lit for our forebears' rites,
    I watch the autumn river at sunset in tears afire.

I'm sure the first rendering is more accurate but the second one makes me realize that when I read the first I didn't really catch on to the significance of "elder brother's house" (hence I almost made him into a character in the poem) and I didn't understand anything about what kind of "ceremonies" would be going on there.

But if translation of the nouns tends to literalism it's also clear (even without knowing any Korean) that the translators have employed plenty of latitude when it comes to word order, particles, punctuation and so forth; for example it's easy to find places where Pak repeats the same form of words while the translators decide to vary them. The plain repetitions in "New Arirang" (a folk-song form), for example, are artfully submerged in the English version; I'm not sure why, but I think the idea is to produce something that reads more like a familiar kind of modern poem, less like a translation. And perhaps that's why, more often than I feel they ought, stray bits of phraseology remind me of well-known American poets: Wilbur, Roethke, Bishop, Ashbery, and generally these reminiscences suggest ways of making poetry that don't seem totally apposite.

Which shouldn't be allowed to detract too much from the benefits of this book. 72 poems may be a small proportion of Pak's fifteen collections but it's a generous enough sample to give a real idea of a Korean poet and to me that's worth much more than the snippets you get in anthologies. There is a cumulative effect in reading all these poems together; they provide context for each other and one begins to know the shape of Pak's world. For example, the lines in "As for Love"

    and then in winter's
    empty embrace
    between the bare branches
    while snow fell gentle,
    a hazy white that might have calmed me

interact with "Looking at Winter Trees" where both trees and poet strip, and

        now as I settle
    into the bath, I see
    them drawing bit by bit
    more gladly near, waving
    their hands at me, the landscape
    taking form in the mist and evening glow

These embraces that are not quite realized are the middle-aged, mournful yet resigned obverse of distances that however desolate are also not quite realized. I'll end with the title poem which I hope will provide another illustration of what I mean by these poems' mutual commentary:

    Enough to say it's far

    About the distance
    to the sun and moon, to the stars,
    whatever else, it is
    enough to say it's far.

    And the distance between
    my love and me,
    since it cannot be measured with a rule,
    for this too
    it is enough to say it's far.

    I cannot see beyond
    these things, afloat,
    in the bowl of cool water.
    And because of my thirst
    now I have no other thought
    than to drink of this cool water.

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