Kim Nam Jo’s early poetry focused on honoring the invaluable nature of life. In Life (1953), her first poetry collection, Kim expressed her attachment to life by exploring various forms of human loss precipitated by war. Her affirmation of humanity, reverence for life, and the warmth of her poetry founded on spirituality have ensured her place in history as a great artist.
Kim started writing poetry in her childhood, a time characterized by the absence of her mother tongue, the devastating aftermath of war, and severe deprivation. In such conditions, she reflected on the human condition, and realized a healing amidst pain, and an aesthetic of spirituality and love. In her second collection, Fragrant Oil of Nard (1955), Kim introduced Mary Magdalene as a new character in her poems, where Mary Magdalene is described as a saint of sin and contrition, and a woman who embraced Jesus’s soul in its entirety. To Kim, Mary Magdalene, who has become a symbol of the greatness of motherly love along with the Virgin Mary in the Catholic doctrine, is an existence akin to a textbook that is difficult to understand. Kim once revealed that her world of poetry was able to originate through the presence of Mary Magdalene. The poet summoned into her poems a woman who has been alienated and subjected to discrimination, and raised her in the name of the holiest and most beautiful form of embrace. That is, the “woman, the one of sin, repentance, and pealing resonance,” arrived “with her soul seared by burns” and was reborn into an existence that renders the poet into someone who “cannot approach such a woman” and whose “spirit [is] faint as [she] kneels in prayer.”
On such a religious foundation Kim unearths the deepest depth of poetry that sees through the dichotomy of extinction and generation, death and life, pity and love. Her representative poem “The Winter Sea” is about a yearning for the will to live, to rise back on one’s feet after the futility and despair of reality through the medium of soliloquy and prayer. In this poem, winter and sea both have the dual meaning of extinction and generation. Where it is cold enough to freeze one’s tears, the only way one can endure one’s own existence is through fire. As such, the intensity of one’s sense of futility also grows stronger. In such a hopeless reality, the poet confesses that ultimately it is only time that enables her to endure. The winter sea then transforms into a space for prayer and yearning in order to obtain the ability to endure the ordeals of reality. The repetition of the line “The days remaining may be few” emphasizes how the poet pursues a life of truth within the limitations of being human.