The Subtle Power of Ra Heeduk’s Poetry
by Claude Mouchard March 22, 2018
Le ver à soie marqué d'un point noir
Le ver à soie marqué d'un point noir is a wonderful and unique collection from poet Ra Heeduk, now available in a bilingual edition from French publisher Cheyne. Kim Hyun-ja, already known as a translator of Korean poetry into French, provides a remarkably lucid and natural translation, with a preface from poet and essayist Jean-Michel Maulpoix. It must also be said that, physically, this is a beautiful book.
Ra’s poems all convey the experience of fleeting, sensory events. Here is a flowering peach tree; its delicate colors are captivating. But the tree is immediately at a distance, already located in the past. No sooner do these poems bring something close to us than it slips away again. It seems to be precisely this experience that awakens poetic desire.
Let us return to the peach tree. The poem tells us that it seems a little bored. In Ra Heeduk’s poems, do plants, or even things in general, experience feelings? Are they alive with intentions? Are they capable, in fact, of uttering a form of language?
Another poem gives us an oak tree; one that we hear, rather than see, as it tosses its acorns into the forest. Does it want to make itself heard, even to speak? Ra imitates the resulting sounds. Will these become onomatopoeic words (as often happens in Korean)?
In Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti sees the process of transformation as an essential resource for certain modern works. Gone is the pretense of a cosmic, or even a social, order; on the contrary, through this kind of transformation, any sense of belonging to a stable whole is shaken. And yet, are the works of many modern Korean authors—the extraordinary poet Yi Sang, for one, and in particular poems written by women—not full of disturbing transformations?
One of Ra’s poems speaks of a “new moon.” With a degree of humor, this moon here becomes a human body, or more specifically, a human “behind.” And the shape of this behind appears to leave its imprint on the ridges on some of Korea’s countless mountains. This description of the moon may seem prosaic, even somewhat comical. But to evoke its brilliance further, the poem offers a sublime image from the Bible: the lips of the prophet Isaiah touched by burning coal.
Sometimes, in Ra’s poetry, language itself is subjected to cruel material transformations. Words have barely been spoken when they freeze in the air and become spider’s webs. “My heart” becomes nothing more than a “handful of soil” thrown into a flowerpot. In a moment of pure dread, a “pupil” is revealed to be made of “mud.”
In between these troubling developments, the poem seem to point furtively to a central void—a historical, social, and symbolic emptiness.
At the heart of the strange events that her poems reveal or create, we sense the activity of this dangerous void, implied throughout but never overtly declared as such.
And then, suddenly, the violent history of Korea in the twentieth century imposes itself. In the magnificent poem entitled “He Was inside the Dark Clouds,” we discover what at first seems to be a human presence. But no—in fact, the entity gazing at us from afar is “Mount Mudeung.” The mountain has “dark green eyes” and a “gentle and profound” expression. Its presence is marked by pain—its “chest” bears an “oozing wound”—but also, by remarkable kindness. During the night, the mountain descends step by step to watch over “my troubled sleep” before departing just as mysteriously. However, in the middle of the poem, we discover that this mountain is a “crater of memory”; “its eyes” have “witnessed a great massacre” (that of Gwangju in 1980, as explained to French readers in a translator’s note).
In these poems by Ra Heeduk, individual and collective tragedy lie half-hidden, glinting at us from among the fleeting presences whose unforgettable qualities they convey.
by Claude Mouchard
Emeritus Professor, Paris 8 University
Assistant Editor-in-Chief, Po&sie
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AUTHORS Ra Heeduk Ra Heeduk is a poet and professor of creative writing at Chosun University. She has authored eight poetry collections, including A Disappeared Palm, three essay collections, and two volumes of literary criticism. Her collections in translation include Scale & Stairs, Wild Apple, and Le ver à soie marqué d'un point noir. She has received the Kim Su-Young Literary Award, Today’s Young Artists Award, the Hyundae Literary Award, and the Midang Literary Award.