A Subdued, Starless Beauty: Night-Sky Checkerboard by Oh Sae-young

When Oh Sae-young was a toddler, World War Two had just ended, Independence had arrived, and Korea was a Cold War battlefield. When he was a teenager, the civil war had killed nearly three million people. Then martial law and the dictators arrived.


At twenty-three, Oh began his career as a poet. But what kind of poetry could be written in such a tragic era, darkened by reminders of the previous generation’s sacrifices, and shadowed by questions of existential meaning? Not surprisingly, Surrealism seemed an appropriate stance for many in Oh’s generation: dislocation, doubt, and psychic dissonance.


Now in his seventies, Oh’s style has become lyrical, sincere, lucid, and imagistic. In Night-Sky Checkerboard, his vocabulary has become the natural world. Machines, factories, and pollution are condemned as evils of modernization, but though relevant, they seem almost off-topic among the mountains, snow, trees, and birds. The natural world’s cool vibrancy is the source of Oh’s best metaphors. For him, even inanimate objects are alive: “empty shoes prick up their ears and listen attentively”; “empty ships gazing shoreward.”


Throughout the collection, the natural world suffers the violence of man’s unconscious heart. The forces of nature, too, become metaphors for mankind’s destructiveness. The weeping world is “whipped mercilessly” by personified storms. The lightning is like a blade slashing at mountaintop trees, which fall like dynasties. When humans enter the scene, the hunting of boars is likened to the killing of war refugees by gunfire. In “A Festival,” (the collection’s most ironical and rhetorical poem), smelt festively hacked, pierced, and slaughtered bring joy to the revelers, but cause the poet to wonder how this “hellish scene” would be viewed if God, in a like manner, feasted on human...