Poetry That Fights with Itself: Karma Ocean by Moon Chung-hee

If I had to pinpoint a thematic nucleus in this very versatile book of poetry by Moon Chung-hee, Ariadne’s thread would surely proceed from the title, a suggestive pairingin beautiful paradoxof the oceanic whirlwind and the inconceivable vastness of karma. Just as in prose, in which our own Western tradition yields itself to a struggle of opposites, while the East cultivates, by way of generalization, a contemplative tonality, in poetry, most likely, a similar divergence occurs, with very different expressions in each hemisphere. As these verses seductively attest: while for us the subconscious dominates, introspection and narcissistic exploration proliferate, in the Eastor rather here, in the poetic universe of Moonthe external and minimalist aesthetic dance nimbly, the silent contemplation of how much surrounds us or assaults our eyes, out of all of which she herself extrapolates, more than once, the pain that lurks in the background.


Hers is an oceanic and multifarious karma that delicately grazes innumerable edges, like a feather carried by the wind, sometimes gracefully, at others arbitrarily, abandoned to the ungovernable topography of space and time. A poetic seemingly associated with the immediate, from which arises the pathos that inhabits objects and natural elements in a somewhat heartbreaking fascination like the paintings of Edward Hopperimmutable people, trapped in a dimly lit bar or a hotel bedwith details of the day to day. It is that melancholy associated, by way of example, with the cold feet of an inexperienced girl facing her imminent wedding, or that which springs from us when we see a church exposed to the clamor of tourists, a simple plate of rice, a seesaw in a plaza that someone shares with the darkness, barely that.


The metaphor of the sea is not, in this sense, gratuitous, but rather the dark, calm background on which the bottles tossed by Moon float, in each sensation or spontaneous association that her verses arouse, encompassing the many subjects she touches, all of them stubbornly universal. Like the fleetingness of love (“Love is short! Love is a moment!”) or its inescapable synonymy with death and pain (“No sooner is l...

Moon Chung-hee is a poet and Endowed Chair Professor at Dongguk University. She has won prestigious awards such as the Sowol Poetry Award, the Chong Chi-Yong Literature Prize, the Mogwol Literature Prize, and Sweden’s Cikada Prize. She has participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. English editions of her books include Windflower, Woman on the Terrace, and I Must Be the Wind.