- Walking on a Washing Line
Tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé 2010272pp.
When poet Kim Seung-hee’s most recent volume, Pots Bobbing, was awarded the poetry prize in Korea’s 2006 “This Year’s Art Awards,” I decided that I ought to translate it. I had already translated a few of her earlier poems, and admired her work for its originality and vitality. She suggested adding a few poems from a previous volume and also gave me some poems she had not yet published. The resulting book was published earlier this year in the Cornell East Asia Series. It is very difficult to find a publisher for translated Korean poetry, or for Korean literature in general, and we are immensely grateful to this series for accepting translations from Korea.
The most important characteristic of Kim Seung-hee’s work is that it is written by a woman and is almost entirely about being a woman. Korean male literary critics have notoriously been inclined to belittle women’s literary ability; their insistence that they should always be called “women poets” to distinguish them from “real” (male) poets, and should invariably write pretty little verses in a delicate, “feminine” style, derives from deeply-rooted paternalistic, Confucian attitudes that to a westerner seem positively pre-Victorian. The most appealing aspect of Kim Seung-hee’s writing is her toughness. Her work has often been termed “feminist, surrealistic” and this is hardly surprising given her interest in feminist literary theories. In addition, she has long been an admirer of the work of Sylvia Plath.
The underlying theme in very much of her work, naturally enough, is the pain of being a woman in a strongly patriarchal society. What makes her poems especially interesting is the way this very Korean experience of pain is expressed with humor and related to the life of women in general. The last poem in this book is a pastiche of a conventional Korean death-announcement for a widow who had no sons. She is only identified as the mother-in-law of four men, her daughters’ husbands. It seems that conventionally, only the male members of a family are mentioned by name in such cases. The poem remarks: “It should be obvious that several names are missing here. Five of them in all!” The reader is left to wonder if the fifth absent name is that of the dead woman herself or of a daughter who had no husband! References to pot-banging demonstrations by women in Argentina, to a famous Mexican woman artist gravely wounded in a traffic accident, to the tragic life story of Marina Tsevetaeva, and others are interspersed with mentions of familiar Korean figures such as Yun Sim-deok and Na Hyeseok.