This guest post is by Kevin Prufer, whose newest books are National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008) and Little Paper Sacrifice (Four Way Books, forthcoming). He’s also Editor of New European Poets (Graywolf Press, 2008) and Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.
The speakers in these carefully crafted poems are, first of all, keen and imaginative observers. One sits in a cafeteria watching a workman eat boiled rice until the grains “carried by the chapped hand / . . . gather and scatter like clouds between the blistered lips.” Another stands outside at night observing the moon, telling us how “I turned around / and caught her furtive eye, her soiled feet. / Blushing, as if she were being watched, she hid behind a cloud / and reappeared in the distance.” A third narrator stands in a hospital corridor listening to the agony of the others, “a judge of cries,” teasing stories out of pain. “Every cry is singular,” she tells us,
like a bird’s feather,
so that even without touching the trembling shoulder
you can tell if the crier has just learned the name of his disease,
or if he has been sentenced to death,
or if he weeps over a cold body.
Heeduk Ra’s poems, set in Korea’s cities (a hospital elevator, a church’s back stairway) and natural landscapes (where graves become boats and falling snow becomes feathers, flowers, rice), are filled with intricate detail, surprising turns, and moments of sadness, transcendence and breathtaking grace. Here, the daily minutia of Korean life are rich with imagery, reflecting not just their own details, but the brilliant and unpredictable mind that would tell us about them and, in so doing, imbue them with deeply personal turns of phrase and sharp, often witty, metaphors.
In one of the book’s most lovely poems, the speaker contemplates renting a room, finding in the mundane task a deep connection with Korea’s history and the lives of others:
To rent a room in Damyang or Changpyung,
to visit it like a chipmunk,
I looked in every village I came across.
Walking past a place in Jasil,
I saw common flowers in the yard
between the traditional Korean house and a modern annex.
When I entered through the open gate,
a man was sharpening his scythe on the grindstone
and his wife’s scarf was wet, as if she had just returned from the fields.
“Excuse me, I wonder if I could rent a room.
I’ll stay here two or three nights a week.”
When I pointed at the traditional house
she smiled. “Well, our children moved to Seoul,
so we live in the annex. Yes, the main house
is unoccupied, but we hold it in our hearts.
Our family history lies there.”
Listening to her, I saw the clean wooden floor
on which lay day’s last light.
I didn’t press for the room, I left,
wondering if the couple knew
that I’d already rented it, was living in their words—
that in their hearts they lived in the vacant house.
Heeduk Ra, born in Nonsan in 1966, is widely regarded as one of Korea’s preeminent younger poets. Woo Chung-Kim and Christopher Merrill’s plainspoken, moving translation makes it clear why. Distinguished for their graceful sensibility, rich imagery, and subtle intelligence, these poems will hopefully bring a wide English language readership to this valuable poet.
A couple weeks ago, the National Book Critics Circle hosted a panel at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City entitled “Why Translation Matters?” and featuring Sarah Fay, Christopher Merrill, Cole Swenson, Russell Valentino, (incorrectly identified as Rudolph Valentino on the NBCC info page, which isn’t necessarily the worst person to be mistaken for) and Robin Hemley. (More on all of them below.)
I remember hearing about this panel and hoping that it would be recorded and made available at some point, and thankfully, it now is.
Here’s a bit from the NBCC on all the participants:
Sarah Fay is an advisory editor at The Paris Review. Her work appears regularly in the New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, Bookforum, and The American Scholar, among others. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Iowa.
Christopher Merrill has published four collections of poetry, including Brilliant Water and Watch Fire, for which he received the Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets. His work has been translated into twenty-five languages, his journalism appears in many publications, and he is the book critic for the daily radio news program, The World. He now directs the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa.
Cole Swensen is the author of twelve books of poetry, most recently Ours (University of California Press, 2008). Her work has been short-listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the National Book Award and won the Iowa Prize, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Book Award, and the National Poetry Series. A 2007 Guggenheim Fellow, she is the co-editor of the Norton Anthology American Hybrid and a professor at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Russell Scott Valentino is a translator and scholar based in Iowa City, Iowa. He has published eight books and numerous essays and short translations of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from Italian, Croatian, and Russian. He is the publisher of Autumn Hill Books and Editor of The Iowa Review.He teaches in Iowa’s Translation Workshop.
Robin Hemley is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently Do-Over (Little, Brown). His work has been anthologized widely and he is the recipient of numerous awards including a 2008 Guggenheim, The Nelson Algren Award for Fiction, an Editor’s Choice Book Award for Nonfiction from The American Library Association, and two Pushcart Prizes. He currently directs UI’s Nonfiction Writing Program.
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