Looking at a Yi Dynasty Rice Bowl
Seeing this plain porcelain bowl
laundry hung on a line
in the corner of my yard...
white clothes, trousers and blouse
I shall leave unfolded forever.
Like my brother taken
north during the war,
these clothes strung out
like a brother who will never
I am ready now
to have as they are.
The poem in English limps and stumbles. But I feel I can see its beauty through the halting poetics of the translation. Without knowing Korean, without the original poem, and without another version of the poem in English, I still judge the poem. I don't love the translation, and I know that I can't judge the translation's accuracy, but I know I like the poem! How can that be, really? Where is discernment located? How can I trust my perception of the poem through so many imperfect filters?
The poem is from "Collected Poems," 1972.
"Strung out" is probably not meant to sound like a heroin junkie. Or did McCann put in the double meaning on purpose, because the Korean had a double meaning? I'm doubtful!
The last lines, "I am ready now/ to have as they are" doesn't make much sense. I imagine it might be "to have them as they are"; I'm ready now to keep my awareness of my brother's uncertain fate, and these clothes as they are, in an indeterminate state. Couldn't there be a better way to phrase this in English? How frustrating!
"Plain porcelain bowl" is a graceless phrase that brings up unfortunate images of toilets.
From the title, I know it's a rice bowl. I don't know anything about the Yi Dynasty. Perhaps it's very ancient and brings to mind the whole long history of Korea. Perhaps it evokes a particular set of stories about that period, or a certain shape of bowl or glazing style. Later, I'll look it up. For now, I can picture the round bowl with the white laundry, juxtaposed without explanation. The bowl is the poem's title and beginning; it doesn't return: an attractive invitation to read the whole poem again, forcing the reader to ask, "Why a bowl?" It invites circularity. As I thought about this bowl, I realized: The bowl's historical weight, its solidity, its artistry, and its possible status as a valuable art object counterbalances the empty suit of clothes, so ephemeral, personal, mundane. The brothers' separation gives a personal dimension to Korea's political division into North and South. Bowl, clothes left out on the line, and a family torn apart forever. It's very powerful!
I thought of many ways this poem might be written as a terribly bad poem in styles current today. How can the beauty of this poem be destroyed? Made dull, obvious, ham-handed? Imagining this is useful. Then I can avoid those mistakes in my own work.
I enjoyed many other poems by So Chongju, especially the ones from Flower Snake (1941) which mention Verlaine, Baudelaire, and longing to travel to other continents. I dug So's later prose poems, but they are too long to quote here.
Here's another good poem on a difficult subject :
The Child's Dream
In the child's dream a butterfly
has flown away, leaving sunlight behind.
Waking from that dream laughing,
reaching with eyes and cheeks,
the child tries to grasp the sunlight
falling to the floor
from a hole in the paper window.
If mother could be like her child
this way, life would truly be perfect.
Again, it's in ponderous unpoetic English that can't hide the subtlety of the poem's soul. I admire this poem because it talks about parenting in a way that isn't trite, despite having sunbeams, laughing child, butterfly, all the elements of a Hallmark card, and a doting mother; beyond that, it says something lovely about imagining. Think of mother and child, but also think of poet and poem. As a mother, I imagine my child into being just about as effectively & relentlessly as a baby tries to grab intangible light. So Chongju, here, enjoins the poet to feel a joyous innocence in creation and in striving to write, despite it being impossible to convey the butterfly. Well, that's what I'm seeing!
When I read work like this in translation I feel a keen sense of pleasure mixed with regret for what is missing, and what will always be missing for me. I enjoy trying to see things that are beyond my understanding. I think we have to try as hard as we can to read beyond the particular instance of translation, even if that is an act of hubris...