A Spanglish blog dedicated to the works, ruminations, and mongrel pyrotechnics of Yago S. Cura, an Argentine-American poet, translator, publisher & futbol cretin. Yago publishes Hinchas de Poesia, an online literary journal, & is the sole proprietor of Hinchas Press.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Ko Un's This Side of Time, (White Pine Press, 2012) Translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg

This Side of Time (White Pine Press, 2012), Ko Un's newest collection of poetry, is drawn from several collections of terse poems by the South Korean author. So, for example, the first chapter's, "Little Songs," are taken from Poems Left Behind, whose title suggests a natural disaster, or an ephemeral methodology. Clare You and Richard Silberg have manged to order and translate an eclectic range of poems that highlight Ko Un's utterly Korean, yet unflinchingly human registers.

I hope you're asking yourself what utterly Korean means, because the poems concern themselves with the natural world, "My poor old mule," and spirituality, "Zen Master Imje", but in acutely cosmopolitan and post-modern brushstrokes. None of the poems are titled or numbered, which aligns harmoniously with the voice in these "Little Songs," but the whit is whip smart. On page 32, a five line intimation anchors us to the bottom of the page, to the absurdity of existence,

On the trash by the road
a thrown-out fan
was turning in cold wind.
It fanned fiercely.

I stopped for a long time.

While the songs in Chapter 1 are stout, they expand the parameters of timeless themes, like pluralism versus xenophobia. On a continent that followed a a serious program of isolation, Ko Un is saying something especially salient about perception, and how contradictory and sometimes conflicting ideologies occupy the same moment in time and space. Ko Un is also saying something political about what constitutes "a foreigner" and how locals might never understand the pain and emotional numbness associated with exile

If she doesn't understand what I say
I'm a foreigner.
If I don't get her silence
she is just a mute.

Chapter 2, "A Few Small Songs," continues with its cavalcade of tiny, mostly nameless (title-less), almost random, procession of meditations that range from the expansive and humbling, "If wisdoms/ not love,/ love is/ not wisdom,/ wash them/ off our hands./ A breeze startled the calf from it doze," to the searingly political and preemptive, "Once/ when Iran's Tehran oil pipeline was laid,/ didn't he wallow in lust all night...The sun's going down; the darkness deepening." Likewise, the impending romantic history between two star-crossed lovers is put off once again by the pure caprices of Time. In "1:30 AM," (page 50) the poet writes

The light went out in Unit 506 on the 18th floor.
on the 19th floor, the light in 706 went out soon after.

Sleep Well.
Get to know each other tomorrow.

"1:30 A.M." sounds like something that Paul Auster might write about: two protagonists in opposing brownstones in Brooklyn, or what Murakami might pen about two loveless Tokyo types stuck in heartless publishing scenes. In other words, there are "songs" about natural subjects, "cranes," "Hwenggye Mountains of Kangwon Province," Yunpyung Island," "Ch'uja-do, the vacant island, etc., but there are just as many about the terrestrial and tangible, like the "pipeline to Tehran," or "Torture" (page 94)

If you're tortured
you know a human is inhuman.
Both the torturer
and the tortured
deep at night in the second basement room

Politically, and somewhat aesthetically, Ko Un reminds me of Turkey's Nazim Hikmet and the poets of Generation 27, especially Alberti whose poems are sometimes compact, nano dynamos. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a little but of Jose Marti's crazy idea that South America and North America should be considered one America. Ko Un has vigorously encouraged reunification between North Korea and South Korea in full frontal view of the military games engaged in by both governments.

But, more than anything, Ko Un's poetry is full of the mind, that gnarly entity that stands before what is thought and all up in what is written. In many ways, if the mind is a variable just waiting for the light of understanding, then maybe a filament of pure light might help to unlock a higher order of knowing. Ko Un is South Korea's most revered poet to be sure, but chances are you have probably never heard of him. According to White Pine Press, Un has published "over 100 collections of poetry, and many volumes of fiction and non-fiction in his native Korea." Along the way, he has opened up the playing field for South Korean Lit., making it kosher for South Korean writers to write about things of a particularly non-Korean pedigree, to openly question the South Korean government, and the carriers of small tunes. Ko Un's little songs are not only keen in the sense of music, but also as a marker of space and time, transcribed through language.

This title would be perfect for community college libraries, or for any program on international relations with an emphasis on Asia. I think any class on contemporary South Korean politics would be greatly enhanced by reading "This Side of Time," and introducing students to the work of Ko Un, South Korea's greatest living author.

"Ko Un." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 21 July 2012.

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