Jim Goar, Seoul Bus Poems
by Michael Peverett
These Seoul Bus Poems are all untitled, which is something I thoroughly appreciate for how it changes how you read the book and how you talk about it (because you can't name the poems, and you don't have a misleading mnemonic tag that influences your idea of what each one is like), and anyway it just appeals to me because it reminds me of reading Nordic poetry, where untitling is much more commonplace than it is in English-language poetry. But, what I do want - call it my control-freak reader's persona - is to be quite sure of where each untitled poem begins and ends, and here someone has neatly solved that problem by putting a little symbol of a bus at the top of each poem. The symbol (enlarged) looks like this:
This isn't the A.I.G.A international bus symbol that is used e.g. around airports; that one has a panel above the windscreen, and other differences. The idea is the same, though: to tell someone who can't read the official language that they're looking at a bus-stop. I think this one is US in origin, though you see it sometimes in the UK. Whether you see it around Seoul I don't know.
John Gimblett's review in Stride talked about how Seoul Bus Poems took him into a "calmer personal space" and that was what I experienced too. Though I'd put it more materially, compare it to a kind of brain cleanser. These first impressions aren't always that important, but I suppose the question arises with a book like this, how many people will feel that there's anything more to be got out of a second reading: hasn't it delivered its cleansing effect fully and completely at first read, has it anything else to give me? Better to say "Cool. Highly recommended." and move straight on to the next book? A lot of good modern poetry is like that, it's a one-shot package.
I suppose I've read, or at least stared at, each of these poems at least thirty times, so let's see.
There's a beautiful transparency about the title. We're told, upfront, that many of the poems were begun on bus journeys; but Goar's untitled poems don't generally evoke the bus; it's only the poem's structure - or its pace, if that's a different thing - that derives from the bus-journey. Public transport and modern urban poetry have had a long association; you don't have to drive, and a lazy lulling sort of disjunction, the disjunction of urban life, infuses the writing. Things in the city slide past you, but not too quick to notice some of them.
And in a way, though they are not saying poems, you already know what the poems say, just as you would do with an Elizabethan sonnet sequence. Goar is a young poet with a sense of humour, he doesn't think his life is especially important, he sometimes forgets to shave, writing poetry is not a problematic activity, and the book ends with love and sleep, - for instance. They are not saying poems, but the autobiographical element has the same transparency as the title.
The blood will come and go
as children will go
out of the hamlet by a flute
played once upon a time
for style is straight or slightly bent
souls follow crumbs to the hut
where the oven is with tasty children
wrung dry of echoes the town falls silent
hails never weaken corn
shrugged and lost its yellow its
green a fire consumed
our houses of redemption
I wanted to choose a "typical" poem - that is what a reviewer ought to quote - but now I'm afflicted by doubts about whether this is a typical poem or not. In some ways it is. Most of the poems have a four-square look and are about this length; those that aren't are splatter-poems, you know, the ones where single words or phrases are placed all over the page, - the sort I try to get out of quoting, if I can, because the formatting is too much like hard work. That's going to make this review one-sided to an extent, because the splatter-poems, in particular the bunch of four that end the book, are important and they differ from the other poems in other ways than just the look on the page. But what I think is distinctive and interesting is the way that the poems are all either one form or the other, nothing else: the forms relate to each other rather as rosebuds to full-blown roses, i.e. they contain about the same amount of mass (words) but they use space differently, in one form they're packed and in the other form they're unpacked.
To make this rose-garden analogy I have naturally ignored some other features that would complicate the picture a bit too much - the poem that has fun with iambics, or the ones with too many full stops, or the slow churn of the one in Changsha (in China).
Oh yes, let's talk about the words. Jim Goar has a way of repeating words in more than one poem - my list of these repeats goes: dice, shrug, crumbs, blue, lemon, children, prancer, corn, bananas, shave, widow, crane, crow, table, chameleon, bell, trash, fist, bones, gin, knee, echo, leaves, toe, frozen, snow, eye, weep, daisy. (Prancer, if you don't know, is the name of one of Santa's reindeers.) All rather simple, colourful words, headings from a children's encyclopaedia. In the poem above you can spot five of those words. The words begin to seem like dominoes patterned together. The opposite of a descriptive poetry of percepts. And looking into this poem specifically, there is a pattern of habitation-words - (hamlet, huts, town, houses) whose relation to each other is not obvious but which compose, if not a subject, a framework.
Dove, shellfish, wildebeest, cicadas, turkeys, squirrels, monkey, elephant, hounds, horses. These are a few of the animals named only once, but again not really to talk about them: perhaps more as playful symbolizations of words in some unknown language. This use of animal-words as tokens is also a feature of Goar's chapbook Whole Milk. And it's not just about exact word repetitions. Here the egg of one poem ("Turn the egg over") morphs into the bird-extravaganza of the next ("A pigeon broke its neck") and points obliquely, via a goose or two, into the sketchy short story of the next ("a twist a turn"). [NB: "dirty Hanes" in that last poem = crew socks.]
But I don't want to talk about this only structurally. There is a pervasive atmosphere (OK, so you don't often hear "atmosphere" used as a technical term in poetry reviews!) of Seoul; and of being in a foreign city. As wide-eyed as you would wish to be (and Jim Goar is), it is still foreign. I want to find a political meaning for this - something about poetry for a semi-globalized world. I might not be able to. But if a book like this isn't political? - That's an issue isn't it?
Let's carry on. The way I see it is there's a connection between the previous two paragraphs. The connection, if you like, is the inadequacy of words to describe things: in particular, the inadequacy of English words to describe the experience of a city outside the English-speaking zone. One is inevitably tongue-tied. A few things mean something to you, but a lot of things don't. The world is more tangibly incomprehensible, and in an odd way simpler: because what is incomprehensible is not seen as having any features - is not well seen at all - it is a billboard with no interpretable writing on it, or a structure with no known function or architecture. The properties of things regress to childlike shapes and unparticular patterns. Vocabulary becomes numb and fluffy. You can't name the structure something culturally specific like a tanyard or a tollbooth or an orangery; you're not in the culture, so you end up just calling it a building.
But this is talking about foreignness. We're semi-globalized now, and Seoul isn't by any means entirely foreign: - is anywhere? International brands and commerce and technology create a lot of familiarity to counter-balance the foreignness. The streets are (culturally speaking) half-lit. To get an idea of what that means in Seoul, you couldn't do better than read about Loren Goodman's visit to Costco. Increasingly, living in a semi-globalized space is a paradigmatic experience for many people. And Goar's book seems to me to be poetry from that space. (Goar is a US poet who now lives in Norwich, which is another foreign spot. And now you'll understand why I made such a big deal of the bus symbol.)
In the previous poem you might guess at - I do - some parodic relation to traditional (Korean?) folksong or poem. After all there are a few monks in this book, also street ceremonies, bells, drums and fish: that kind of local colour. But this next poem is perhaps more evidently a writing from the play of imagination within a semi-globalized space, a space where topography is transcended and there is no definable characterization of place as either foreign or homely:
The hummingbird in preference
a twig behind the daisy
prosaic and the clock is falling
letters those fuzzy red flowers
of no particular echo
through dunes heard a moment too
late rising in the brook
a moment too long
then away over morning weirs
hardly brighter than sugar cubes floating
plastic red waters the lawn
One upshot of the locale I'm defining is that Goar's poems would translate pretty easily into other languages, virtually word by word. Google Translate could do it. In the two poems quoted above the only loss I'd anticipate would be the secondary meanings of "style" (i.e. botanical), "hails" (greetings / ice pellets), and the momentary emergence of "late rising" as an accident following from the juxtaposition of two other phrases. But accident is the operative word here, isn't it? These details would surely disappear in a different language, but they'd as surely be replaced by a few other happenstance secondary meanings. The semi-globalized object would still carry its imperfectly comprehensible, because international, freight around the world. And rather than worry about the limitations of a poetry that loses nothing in translation, I think we should be struck by the possibilities.
Another feature that I connect with this is that the poems intermittently drag up recollections of translated poetry. I've mentioned that the first poem I quoted recalls - and it's not the only one to do so - a few aspects of traditionalist Korean poetry e.g. Pak Chaesam - as translated, I mean. And what about the "suicide" poem ("So what if bald turkeys stole your wedding dress / My darling") - isn't that naggingly familiar? Some translated great: - Tadeusz Różewicz? Yevtushenko? And the "curfew" poem ("I must I must/ get home to curfew the bell / has sounded curfew my love / has sounded twelve times")? Is that Elytis? Abbas Beydoun? Well I don't suppose they're meant to resemble anyone in particular. I think there's an idea that develops in our heads of an international lyric poetry, and translationese - or what translates into it - is itself a semi-globalized construct. Goar doesn't really write like that himself, of course, but in the semi-globalized space - a wide-eyed space it is in some ways - these imagined echoes of language before Babel become magnified, and start to roam in the mind.
1. While I was thinking about Goar's translatability I partly had in mind a lengthy comment stream on Language Hat (7th Dec 2010) that developed from an assertion made by Roberto Bui (Wu Ming 1) re translating Stephen King:
There are basically two kinds of novelists: those who care about translations, like Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, because they're used to exploring foreign languages, and those who don't care, like Elmore Leonard or Uncle Stevie, because they're perfectly happy with inhabiting their native language, with no forays in other cultures and koines.
That loose assertion invited rebuke, I suppose. Still, the undefended premiss assumed by Hat and by virtually all the commenters (i.e. that the best kind of novelist should exploit the resources of their chosen language to the fullest extent, and this practice should not be associated with some sort of blinkered provincialism, and these novelists absolutely should never worry about what problems their writing might pose for a translator) deserves a small challenge. The aesthetic they are celebrating is what is supposed to promote richness, local specificity, authenticity, in a text. Indeed it's an automatic and unmeaning compliment, usually paid by translators, to remark that the "original" contains so much more than can be transmitted by the translation. But there might be good reasons why a writer would set sail in a contrary direction. That richness certainly exacts a cost somewhere. You enjoy the richness (in e.g. Elmore Leonard, or Dickens, or Anita Brookner...) because you inhabit the same culture, because of inwardness. I enjoy it too. But it is an untypical model of how most people, even those living comfortably within their own culture, experience language and make significations of it; and it's merely inapplicable to the strange spaces discoverable in a culture not your own, a strangeness that transcends the genius of a language, but lives in its niches, known only to the stranger.
2. Jim Goar is also the editor of "past simple", which is a top ezine. Check the British-writers number. Out of what I browsed there it was Sean Bonney's contributions (not for the first time) that stood out for me. And in the most recent issue (guest-edited by the excellent Marcus Slease) there's some Danish, Polish and Czech things that I liked a lot, as well as Anselm Berrigan. My favourites are: Krzysztof Śliwka (little thorns that challenge you to find them poems); Krystyna Miłobędzka (structures out of silence and waiting to speak); and Morten Søndergaard - "The Ornithologist in Question", "Night Blog", "Poems" ("more and more Danes are finding work") - but the latter doesn't half remind me of Kai Nieminen's "Finland's cultural life is in good shape"; perhaps this disaffected, amused commentary is a sub-genre in Nordic poetry.
Jim Goar's Seoul Bus Poems was published by Reality Street in 2010 (ISBN: 978-1-874400-46-2).