- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005

FRAGRANCE OF POETRY: KOREAN-AMERICAN LITERATURE

Edited by Yearn Hong Choi

Homa & Sekey, $13.95,

108 pages, paper

REVIEWED BY MARK MCTAGUE

Writers put words on paper out of an urge to communicate. Such acts have always seemed courageous to me. The challenges are great. “What do I really think? Do I honestly believe that? Do these words express that belief accurately?”

Whether it is poetry, prose, or non-fiction, writers not only wrestle with their own thoughts, trying to find the precise words that express their meaning most clearly, but they also do so hoping, consciously or not, that their effort will not have been in vain. They write for others, and the road our words take to the minds of our readers is uncertain, replete with obstacles, detours, and dead ends.

Much can get lost along the way. This is particularly true of poetry, that most personal of literary modes, and nowhere more so than in translation. All the difficulties of verbal expression are magnified in the act of translating, for even cultures which share the same language don’t automatically see the world in the same way; e.g., the difficulties British audiences have with American humor, and vice-versa.

An old Italian proverb says, “Traditore tradutore,” which means “to translate is to betray.” And while that is always true in an exact sense, it obscures what is undoubtedly true for all such transcultural movements — some meanings do carry across. So it is all the more remarkable when one finds a collection of poems that manages to bridge these many divides. And that is what concerns us in this slim yet marvelous volume of poetry by a group of Korean ex-patriates in the greater Washington area.

“Fragrance of Poetry,” translated by Eunhwa Choe and Yearn Hong Choi, is the first in what one hopes will be a series of anthologies by Korean poets living in the United States. Mr. Choi, president of the Korean-American Poets’ Group, has shown great faith in shepherding the work of 15 Korean poets, including his own, to publication.

What does one find here? These are first-generation Korean Americans. And they speak to us of the immigrant life — the joy of discovery in their new homeland, the frustrating effort to bridge gaps of language and culture, and the sorrow and pain of the loss of cultural grounding. However removed this immigrant experience may be from the native born, the commonality of human experience is fresh and immediate.

There is “Mount Yudal” by Moo Il Moon, which reflects on the persistence of memory: “With the aging and the passing time / Why do these meaningless memories / Slowly, slowly surface in my heart?” Or consider “English Makes Me Laugh” by Chong Cha Lee, which takes the reader behind the counter of any immigrant-owned business:

When he walks in with an

armful of laundry

He loosens his bundle of stories,

Like a reel of silk from a cocoon.

With open ears, my eyes fol

low his expressions

Yeah, yeah, pretending to

understand … .

Like a briefly passing shower

That won’t even dampen an

inch of hard soil

Finding their jokes utterly

impossible to figure out

This late immigrant’s com

mon sense grows in

The language delivered in

awkward gestures.

The alienation of the expatriate life isn’t all that you find here; nor is it the main theme. Instead, the focus is on those experiences that unite us all — the pain of death, the joys of romance, the love of family, the beauty of nature. And in these poems the careful reader is rewarded with glimpses of the culture that grounds these reflections.

We find this in Sook Young Lim’s observation on the power of desire common to us all. In “Becoming a Monk,” the poet draws on images of serenity and mind-over-body common to Korean culture. With a marvelous economy of language, she juxtaposes them with other strongly associative images from Korean Buddhist culture. The result is an inside view of the emotional reality that can lay behind the stereotypical “inscrutability,” ascribed to Asian cultures.

The wind chimes’

Clear sound

Is the clear voice of my

mistress.

Where are thou from

The wild orchid,

Soothes the soul

Coming through

The crack of the rock,

The sound of the drumming

stick beating the sky

Tells me to end the earthly

relationship

What shall I do

What shall I do

About my mistress’ embroi

dered hair ribbon

Hidden inside my straw

shoes

Other delights await. A mother reflects on aging in Chun U Yi’s “Antique.” In Anne Park’s “Homecoming: Pepper Tree Blossoms,” a daughter comes to terms with her grief and guilt over her parents’ death. And Hae Nam Kim offers a meditation on mortality in “Birthday.”

In these and many other poems, the reader is rewarded with glimpses into Korean culture — the way they value courage and resiliency in the face of great hardship, how they seek solace in nature, the way they calmly, yet with great feeling, accept their fate.

In addition to these insights, we come away with a larger sense of our kinship as human beings, how we all face the fundamental challenges of life — finding and giving love, preserving our memories, facing our mortality. As E. Ethelbert Miller, Director of the African-American Resource Center at Howard University, said in his foreword, “It’s sad that we don’t know more about Korea and Korean culture.”

These poems help to change that. In a world of almost instant global communication, of growing interdependency, it’s ironic that we remain so ignorant of one another. That ignorance maintains our isolation. The words of these 15 Korean poets will, for those who stop to read them, open cracks in the walls that surround us. That is no mean achievement.

Mark McTague is a lover of poetry.

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