Poetry That Fights with Itself: Karma Ocean by Moon Chung-hee

  • onJanuary 4, 2017
  • Vol.34 Winter 2016
  • byJaime Collyer
Mar de Karma (Karma Ocean)
Tr. Chung Mi-Gang

If I had to pinpoint a thematic nucleus in this very versatile book of poetry by Moon Chung-hee, Ariadne’s thread would surely proceed from the title, a suggestive pairing—in beautiful paradox—of the oceanic whirlwind and the inconceivable vastness of karma. Just as in prose, in which our own Western tradition yields itself to a struggle of opposites, while the East cultivates, by way of generalization, a contemplative tonality, in poetry, most likely, a similar divergence occurs, with very different expressions in each hemisphere. As these verses seductively attest: while for us the subconscious dominates, introspection and narcissistic exploration proliferate, in the East—or rather here, in the poetic universe of Moon—the external and minimalist aesthetic dance nimbly, the silent contemplation of how much surrounds us or assaults our eyes, out of all of which she herself extrapolates, more than once, the pain that lurks in the background.

Hers is an oceanic and multifarious karma that delicately grazes innumerable edges, like a feather carried by the wind, sometimes gracefully, at others arbitrarily, abandoned to the ungovernable topography of space and time. A poetic seemingly associated with the immediate, from which arises the pathos that inhabits objects and natural elements in a somewhat heartbreaking fascination like the paintings of Edward Hopper—immutable people, trapped in a dimly lit bar or a hotel bed—with details of the day to day. It is that melancholy associated, by way of example, with the cold feet of an inexperienced girl facing her imminent wedding, or that which springs from us when we see a church exposed to the clamor of tourists, a simple plate of rice, a seesaw in a plaza that someone shares with the darkness, barely that.

The metaphor of the sea is not, in this sense, gratuitous, but rather the dark, calm background on which the bottles tossed by Moon float, in each sensation or spontaneous association that her verses arouse, encompassing the many subjects she touches, all of them stubbornly universal. Like the fleetingness of love (“Love is short! Love is a moment!”) or its inescapable synonymy with death and pain (“No sooner is love born than tears dampen it”), despite which, she tells us, we gamble it all in each romance that overwhelms us, succumbing deliberately to its fire of trickery. As does the underlying voice of these verses, like that of Peggy Guggenheim whom she herself pays homage to in passing (“You were an heiress wasting millions on the madness of artists / Panting your harried breath…”).

Sometimes Moon treats apparently more pedestrian, yet equally moving, themes, like a lifeless bug that the holder of this voice surprises on the floor of her apartment, killed by chance after climbing with difficulty over the vast wall to her window. Life, as Sartre said, is a useless passion, nevertheless we don’t stop living it, nor climbing the infinite wall of our lives, giving ourselves over without hesitation to passion and its frequent anxieties. This seems to be the latent message in some of Moon’s spot-on verse, as clearly suggested by “Mudpuddle,” a poem related to these ups and downs and that appeals in its brevity to a curious fact: “It is said that over a lifetime a person sheds about 70 liters of tears / I must have shed two-and-half times that many.”

But perhaps the great theme in the background, the one Moon won’t let go, is that of the consubstantial impossibility of poetry before the reality that faces us each day. This impossibility is another paradox that her poetic effort resolves on its own, first presaging its imminent defeat and just as soon avoiding, by the mere fact of presaging it, that impossibility. As happens near the end of the volume, in one of the most beautiful and revelatory poems of the collection: “There is an elderly man on his feet supported by a cane / His head has entered the thin void, / Uneasy without knowing what to do, he pauses to face the sunset // I can’t even wedge another line of poetry in // Would anyone dare to look / Such sad beauty in the eye?” (“Sadness in Lido”).

This poetry is, in sum, a bit implacable and at war with itself, a battle from which it always emerges with flying colors, victorious despite itself. 


by Jaime Collyer
Author of People on the Prowl

Author's Profile

Moon Chung-hee is a poet and Endowed Chair Professor at Dongguk University. She has won prestigious awards such as the Sowol Poetry Award, the Chong Chi-Yong Literature Prize, the Mogwol Literature Prize, and Sweden’s Cikada Prize. She has participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. English editions of her books include WindflowerWoman on the Terrace, and I Must Be the Wind.