Tense Pasts, Present Futures? Contemporary Korean Poetry

This constellation of new translations necessarily updates our view of Korea’s literary firmament. The collection is structured into three chronologicallyordered sections and opens with “Poetry of Today,” containing the work of twenty-one poets (all but one still alive, and the three youngest born in 1970); “Survivors of the War” contains the work of six poets, each of whom is still alive; “Founding Voices” houses the work of seventeen canonical poets. Rather than an independently published anthology in its own right, and despite being a special edition of the esteemed literary journal Mānoa, The Colors of Dawn is a prodigious advance on David R. McCann’s The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry (2004). Boldly opening onto vistas of contemporary creative production so as to contextualize those gestures that came before (ethical and aesthetic, stylistic, and thematic), editors Brother Anthony of Taizé and Chung Eun-Gwi have delivered an agenda-setting translation event which seems to seek conversation with the future by speaking equally to both the present and the past.

 

Make no mistake, the collection carefully valorizes the important legacies of Korea’s early- to-mid- twentieth century poets. Surveying from the New Poetry movement onward, The Colors of Dawn is also greatly assisted by a critical introduction historicizing the poets and their work, situating them within a mesh of mutating social and political conditions. The introduction makes clear how Korean poets have always been in the business of making sense amid the flux and chaos of often-competing shifting ideologies, from occupation and colonization to civil war to military dictatorship to industrialization then rampant neoliberalism and on, to today’s hyper-capitalism. A common point of origin is never far from the gaze of coeditor Brother Anthony of Taizé who, when surveying the era of Japanese occupation, informs his readers how that country’s colonizing plans “entailed the systematic stripping away of Korea’s cultural heritage, beliefs, arts, and, in particular, the Korean language” (p. 13) By scanning the last century’s poetry as both a sovereign artifact and suite of generative modern origins, this collection is a celebration and testament enshrining a pantheon of famously courageous challenges in which poets have spoken back to injustice while imperializing forces visit violence and erasure across the Korean peninsula.

 

Of course, these conditions did not wholly disappear after the Japanese were forced out of Korea; what this collection makes...