Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Earthbound and Transcendental - 2 poems by Chŏng Chi-yong


      by Chŏng Chi-yong

The place where a rill, babbling old tales,   Meanders on eastward toward the end       of a broad plain   And a mottled bull ox lows   In dusk's plaintive tones       of golden indolence  
Could it ever be forgotten, even in one's dreams?  
The place where ashes grow cold in a clay brazier   While over empty fields the sound of the night wind       drives the horses   And our aged father, overcome with drowsiness,   Props his straw pillow  
Could it ever be forgotten, even in one's dreams?  
The place where I got drenched       in the rank weeds' dew,   Searching for an arrow recklessly shot   In the yearning of my earth-bred heart   For the sky's lustrous blue  
Could it ever be forgotten, even in one's dreams?  
The place where little sister, dark earlocks   Flying like night waves dancing in a fairy-tale sea,  
And my wife, not pretty but passable       and all the year barefoot,   Bent their backs to the sun's tingling rays and       gleaned ears of grain  
Could it ever be forgotten, even in one's dreams?  
The place where sprinkled stars       wend their way in the sky   Toward sand castles just beyond our ken,   while beneath drab roofs,       hoary crows cawing past,   People sit, softly murmuring,       round the faint firelight  
Could it ever be forgotten, even in one's dreams?  

     (Translated by Daniel Kister)

Window, I

    by Chŏng Chi-yong

Something cold and sad haunts the window.
I dim the pane with my feverless steam.

It flaps its frozen wings, as if tamed,
I wipe the glass, wipe again—

Only black night ebbs, then dashes against it,
Moist stars etched like glittering jewels.

Polishing the window at night
Is a lonely, spellbinding affair.

With your lovely veins broken in the lung,
You flew away like a mountain bird!

                                     (Translated by Peter H. Lee)

I have drifted back to these poems many times since discovering them and would like to share them here.  I have sought permission last fall but have not yet heard back from either the translators, the institutes or their universities. 

Daniel Kister, the translator and a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Sogang University, Seoul, Korea, wrote, "Modern Korean poetry owes much to the pioneering body of work left by Chŏng Chi-yong who expanded the poetic possibilities of the Korean language through ingenuities of expressions and disciplined incorporation of musicality. He remained wary of sentimental effusion; from his early “imagist” works to his late “transcendental” meditations, restraint and sophistication remained signature characteristics of Chŏng’s poetic language.

The natural landscape in this poem is described in "the most lasting idiom" of language which is so plain and common that it almost sounds primitive. The emotional opulence is almost overflowing, yet immaculately controled. It presents the typically Korean pastoral scenery inspired with rural naivety and humbleness.   
The peculiarly Korean landscape composed of local images deconstructs all oppressive powers and generates a poetic space that is more liberating and simple, and where the most essential and permanent part of our mind is touched. So the poem leaves an indelible impression in our mind and stirs a sea of emotion from the deepest.

Read more of Chong Chi-yong's work and Prof. Kister's sensitive and thorough essay here ~ Korean Literature Today, Vol 1, No. 2, Autumn 1996, a work that includes many contemporary Korean poets.

The poem Windows 1, is aided by biographical information. Chŏng Chi-yong had a son who died early from a lung disease; it is likely that the one who “flew away like a mountain bird” with his “lovely veins broken in the lung” is his son, though nothing in the poem identifies him explicitly. Thus the poem can be seen as a song of sorrow sung by a grieving father. The poem shuns direct exposure of the speaker’s emotional state, but intimates it instead through the useless activity of “polishing the window at night.” The depth of sorrow the father feels is suggested by the fact that he remains awake in the still of the night, and the sudden flooding of memory in the last stanza, delicately accentuated with the exclamatory tone and the apposite use of the adjective “lovely,” is equal to the task of expressing the gravity of his loss. The language is tempered and the sensory experience regulated; Chŏng Chi-yong’s spirit of moderation is almost classical. (Editorial note by translator Peter Lee)

I will share more, through added links, soon.  Thanks!