History’s Grounds? Lee Si-young’s Patterns

  • onDecember 18, 2015
  • Vol.30 Winter 2015
  • byDan Disney
Tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé and Yoo Hui-sok

Patterns, an anthology of 125 poems from Lee Si-young’s ten previously published collections, is a hefty pocketbook that maps out a major Korean poet’s work, and announces his voice to international readerships. Born in 1949, a year before the Korean War, Lee’s work scans an increasingly unrecognizable homeland; his poems are often ironic, humorous pastorals that seek to explore sites too-quickly disappearing or disappeared.

Lee Si-young can perhaps best be characterized as a wandering humanist, actively making sense amid flux and chaos—from colonization to civil war to military dictatorship to industrialization and onto rampant neoliberalism. The book’s first poem acts as his ars poetica “Preface” opens with the line “Come soon! I long to see your face,” as if the poet is calling to lost memories while opening “tightly closed windows and look[ing] about me with grieving eyes.” This essentially announces a poetics in which each poem persists in peering unsentimentally, deeply, and lyrically across historical domains while (as Lee would have it) “making the ground ring” with resonance.

Here is an anthology, then, which promulgates a poetics of place; these texts are often homecomings, or, alternatively, beacons beckoning readers homeward. But from the outset, amid the “intensely green apples” (31) and acacias spreading “dark yellow/ flowered cushions over the sidewalk” (96), the dragonflies at the tips of persimmon tree branches (134), and baby minnows “busily climbing the icy rapids” (209), we understand Lee is not prepared to simply proclaim some kind of ahistorical utopia. Indeed, as co-translator Yoo Hui-Sok indicates in his preface, Lee “was imprisoned several times in the 1970s and 1980s for his part in the democratic struggle against military dictatorship.”

These poems about home are full of disenfranchised and displaced people, often disconnected from origins Lee seems to yearn for. “Mother,” for example, traces an arrival in one of Seoul’s ubiquitous “very high apartment block[s]” backward, across tilled fields once crisscrossed by occupiers, wars, and their murderous armies. With hair white as “the roots of a leek,” this is Lee’s ode to a mother—surely his own point of origin?—who has witnessed Korea’s transmutation from a ruined place to its currently hyper-accelerating economic successes. That she lives in an apartment “silent as a grave” (42) is a telling indictment which seems to energize Lee’s oeuvre: simply put, he would have his readers believe that this kind of urbanized life is “no way to live” (43).

Indeed, this is a poet prepared to stand up for values “squandered in the course of modern Korean history” (17). Lee undertakes an encompassing flâanerie, exploring places where “gun-smoke never clears” (41) we see curfews (36), underground interrogation rooms (225), and police approaching civilian protesters “as enemies” (278) comradely magpies (121) nestle beside blue-skulled monks (151), and laden trucks veer dangerously along riverside highways (189). A range of the poems also introduce strangely adult versions of the poet’s childhood friends; the poem “Jeong-nim” tells of a girl who:

[…] used to come first
in the relay race and win a rice-pot at every sports festival        (34)

and who, decades later, tugs at his arm at Yongsan Station (there are rumors that some have seen her “in a Yeongdeungpo whorehouse”) before disappearing down a dark alley.

Similarly, in “30 Years Later,” a haggard face vehemently denies being the same person the poet remembers as a child who could not afford to attend school: “I’m not that Jeong-Sep,” the man insists. This all seems congruent with Lee’s desire to excavate his origins, perhaps in the hope of stabilizing narratives in a time of exponential change. Whatever his motivations, Lee remains clear-minded, asking elsewhere “Can it be that things, once summoned, never return?” (56) If these poems are partly about origins and partly about irretrievable losses, then one senses that for this poet memory is a critical, conceptual tool with which to reconstruct subjectivities constituted by groundswells of culture: exploring sites in downtown Seoul where a “63-storey building” shines its “dazzling gold” (183) while villages vanish under fog and then suburbia (45), these poems act to preserve memories Lee perhaps feels are too-quickly disappearing. This in turn is his most ethical imperative.

Whether working within longer formats, aphoristic turns, or his genre-crossing prose poem/ very short essay forms, Lee’s prosaic style is unerringly direct, and his expansive lines are always sharp with concisely imagined drama. These snapshots of the real—glimpsed, and passing—burst through historical spaces to momentarily peer into magnitudes. The tiny “Passing Through Seongeup Village,” cited in full here, exemplifies the complexity:

Whenever I gaze into a horse’s virtuous eyes,
I seem to see the indigent evening in the direction
the wind is blowing from.                                     (268)

Is this simply a bucolic moment apprehended by the poet, or is the text performing an allusive or allegorical function? We are not to know, and part of the enduring charm of these poems is that Lee never forecloses our reading by explaining his intentions: these images remain precise but gnomic, wonder-filled non-explanations. And in the book’s eponymous aphorism we come to understand the enormity of Lee’s quest:

Leaves gently fall from trees onto sidewalks.
Once someone tried to follow the leaves’ shadows.        (97)

Is the poem an ode? A confession? An elegy? So many of the poems in Patterns deepen particular apprehensions toward virtuosic resonance, which Lee hopes will enter his readers shudderingly:

Like a spark,
no, like a first whole-hearted uttering of love.        (132)

Yet, one senses this is not a libidinous poetics of erō, but the purview and philia of ethical enactment, and this book includes paeans to nature, eulogies to old friends, and reveries in which domiciles generate all-too-human stories. In older places of “scrap-merchants, taffy-vendors, junk sellers,/ day-laborers” (47) we see communities swarming, still, looking yet for connection, for ways toward the surefootedness of well-being.

Everywhere, memory is at play. In “Poet’s Eyes,” Lee muses rhetorically “How could we fail to be inspired?” (119) and this reviewer is reminded of what Denise Levertov says of inspiration when she plays the following word game, in “Some Notes on Organic Form” (1965):

To contemplate comes from “templum, temple, a place, a space for observation, marked out by the augur.” It means, not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is “to keep the mind in a state of contemplation” its synonym is “to muse”, and to muse comes from a word meaning “to stand with open mouth” – not so comical if we think of “inspiration” – to breathe in.

Lee’s poems are indeed auguries: the shock, surprise, instruction, and delight contained on almost every page of this necessarily long book may well cause us to each require a sharp intake of air. Here is a poet hard at work seeking for and then seeing patterns amid colossal and complexly multivalent movements of people and culture. As his translators assert, he is “an intimate seer” (19) and pliant-minded cosmopolitan, participating “in the cosmic task” (110) of naming and perhaps purifying a particular and situated dialect. Lee’s meditative reflections act as desperate ontological encounters; he never loses sight of his humans or their historical grounds. 


by Dan Disney
Associate Professor of English Literature
Sogang University