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

  • onOctober 12, 2016
  • Vol.33 Autumn 2016
  • byFrank Stewart
Night-Sky Checkerboard
Tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé

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 flesh.

The most powerful metaphor in the poems compares the natural world to a violated human body. In “A Green Skirt’s Zipper,” the lascivious farmer plows the land like a rapist enjoying his “rapturous labor.” In “Field Work,” the body of the land is prostrate with illness, then treated by the incision of a harrow. Not infrequently, the bodies of humans also suffer: suicides result from economic disasters and reminders of torture bondage, guns, bombs, and “unforgiveable crime” are strewn about.

While almost all the poems avoid naming perpetrators (and avoid the pronoun “I”), “A Kind of Prayer” strikes an odd note. Seagulls are likened to Muslims wearing “a white hijab” and praying in a mosque courtyard toward Mecca. Just before going to prayer, they (gulls/Muslims) have been “plundering,” “gobbling up offal stolen from the fish market,” “slaughtering baby fish.” And now, because of these crimes, they “confess their sins to God.” 

Simple, beautifully rendered sadness rises from the poems in Night-Sky Checkerboard, while just below is the bite and sting of the poet’s judgment of humanity in the twentieth century. In “Weeping” he writes, “Being alive is a matter of / knowing how to cry, / of knowing how to make another cry.” In this vale of tears, even objects learn to weep. The particular sadness here describes brokenness, grief at parting, and longing for a lost harmony. The collection’s heart is best exemplified in a poem explicitly about the division of North and South. In “Ideology (2),” the poet likens the armistice to a gate “still / firmly locked.” And on the gate is a “rusty name-plate,” which “shakes dangerously whenever the wind blows.” 


by Frank Stewart
Series Editor
Mānoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing