The Age of Disgrace and Illusion: Silk Mountain at the South Sea by Lee Seong-Bok

  • onNovember 3, 2014
  • Vol.10 Winter 2010
  • byKim Yonghee
Silk Mountain at the South Sea

Poets have always had an uncomfortable relationship with the age in which they live. Such is the discord modern literature has by birth. Georg Lukács has said that literature is the logic that seeks truth in life with subversive methods in a restless era.

It is necessary to call our attention to a Korean history that has gone through a number of upheavals in the past century. In the last 100 years, Korea entered the modern era through colonial rule, was liberated, fought an ideological war (Korean War), and endured decades of military dictatorship. Politics were always unstable and the times were always turbulent. Human rights were easily ignored under the military dictatorship and a great number of people died of torture and lynching. The most terrible scene of massacre was the Gwangju Uprising that took place in May 1980.

It was still a long time before Korea became democratized even after the Gwangju Uprising. It might be too much of a reductive error to link modern Korean poetry with the hardships of the times simply because Korean history has been full of upheavals. Poets are the ones, however, who respond most acutely to the oppression of the times. Korean poets in particular have internalized the idea that they should voice their opinions on politics and the age they live in. This is perhaps a natural result of an overly turbulent national history.

Korean poetry entered the most abundant season in the 1980s. This was the paradox brought on by the Gwangju Uprising. A great number of citizens fell before the military force in Gwangju while people in other regions only heard rumors about what was happening. People only found out through the terrible photos and articles reported by the foreign media. Poets screamed and wrote poems as if they were vomiting blood. Anger at the sight of labor struggles was turned directly into poetry. This was the result of an epochal and realistic sympathy; laborer-poets or farmer-poets emerged.

Living in such times, poets could not help but internalize the oppressive mechani sm ca l led censor ship, and consequently, modern Korean poetry had to bring to the fore more stylized experiments and avant-garde writings; such at tempt s shaped poetry. In a situation where poets could not explicitly express the truth, they tried to resist the times by destroying the poetic form and experimenting with it.

In the midst of this background is poet Lee Seong-Bok. The title poem “Silk Mountain at the South Sea” from his collection of poems Silk Mountain at the South Sea (1986) reads like a love poem between a man and a woman. This collection certainly has the romanticism of love poetry. There is a mountain called Geumsan (Silk mountain) in Namhae, Korea. At the top of the mountain is a stone monument with Lee’s poem “Silk Mountain at the South Sea” inscribed on it. “A woman was buried in stone / For her love, I followed her into the stone / One summer, it rained a lot, / And weeping, she left the stone / Helped by the sun and the moon, which drew her out / In the blue sky of the South Sea and the Silk Mountain, I’m alone / Into the blue water of the South Sea and the Silk Mountain, all alone I sink.” The reason Lee’s love poem “Silk Mountain at the South Sea” is beautiful is because it portrays the love and desire for the beloved in a symbolic sense. The poet buries meaning and specific reality and also retracts the surface tension of expression as much as possible. This is to prolong the lingering scent of the symbol. He merely evokes situations that were full of intense emotions between the woman and the narrator through natural objects such as a stone, the sun and the moon, the South Sea, Silk Mountain, the blue sky, and blue water. Enjoying the lingering scent in the purest sense with signs and symbols is the joy of association and fantasy that Lee’s poems provide. In other words, this is the “sensual depth of symbols.”

Unlike the title poem “Silk Mountain at the South Sea,” however, the rest of the collection is filled with illusions of disgrace. “The younger sister cried out in a low, low voice / It’s a disgrace, older brother, a disgrace!” (“Shame, like a tortoiseshell”); “Often ancestors were crying / They were crying under the root of the grass, Sister, what we believed to be the sky was a field of stones.” (“Our Ancestors Were Often Crying”); “Red fruits are rotting silently” (“Red Fruits Are Silently”); “Today again a mother pulls out nails deeply rooted in the hands, the feet, and the heart of her son, exhausted from selling toilet paper.” (“Mother 1”); and “My dear mother is sinking in water” (“When It Rains Again”). Just as in Lee’s first collection of poems, puss is running from the little boy’s penis, the sister’s body is polluted, the mother is sinking in water, and the son’s heart is always deeply rooted with a day’s worth of nails. Ancestors are crying and the red fruits of the tree are rotting in silence. While all living things suffer unjust pains, the poet watches with indifference or says paradoxically that nothing ever happens in the world. Tragedy is maximized and disgrace screams again. What did the 1980s do to the poet? He is full of disgrace about the times. The scenery in his heart is full of subversive illusions and symbolic negatives. It is a symbolic scenery that is rare in modern Korean poetry.