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Disturbing the Peace: Walking on a Washing Line by Kim Seung-hee

by Brother Anthony of Taizé November 09, 2014

Walking on a Washing Line

  • Cornell University East Asia Program
  • 2010
  • 9781933947501

Kim Seung-hee

Kim Seung-hee is a critically acclaimed poet and professor emerita of Korean literature at Sogang University. Her life as a poet began in 1973 when she won the annual contest for new writers held by Kyunghyang Shinmun. In a career spanning almost fifty years, she has published eleven volumes of poetry in addition to two volumes of fiction. Her accolades include the Sowol Poetry Prize (1991), ARCO’s Artist of the Year Award for poetry (2006), and the Cheongma Literature Prize (2021). She received the 2021 Manhae Prize for Literature for her latest collection, The Truthful Human of Pickled Radish and Bacon (Changbi, 2021). Recent collections of her poetry in English translation include Walking on a Washing Line (Cornell East Asia Series, 2011) and Hope is Lonely (Arc Publications, 2021)

When poet Kim Seung-hee’s most recent volume, Pots Bobbing, was awarded the poetry prize in Korea’s 2006 “This Year’s Art Awards,” I decided that I ought to translate it. I had already translated a few of her earlier poems, and admired her work for its originality and vitality. She suggested adding a few poems from a previous volume and also gave me some poems she had not yet published. The resulting book was published earlier this year in the Cornell East Asia Series. It is very difficult to find a publisher for translated Korean poetry, or for Korean literature in general, and we are immensely grateful to this series for accepting translations from Korea.

The most important characteristic of Kim Seung-hee’s work is that it is written by a woman and is almost entirely about being a woman. Korean male literary critics have notoriously been inclined to belittle women’s literary ability; their insistence that they should always be called “women poets” to distinguish them from “real” (male) poets, and should invariably write pretty little verses in a delicate, “feminine” style, derives from deeply-rooted paternalistic, Confucian attitudes that to a westerner seem positively pre-Victorian. The most appealing aspect of Kim Seung-hee’s writing is her toughness. Her work has often been termed “feminist, surrealistic” and this is hardly surprising given her interest in feminist literary theories. In addition, she has long been an admirer of the work of Sylvia Plath.

The underlying theme in very much of her work, naturally enough, is the pain of being a woman in a strongly patriarchal society. What makes her poems especially interesting is the way this very Korean experience of pain is expressed with humor and related to the life of women in general. The last poem in this book is a pastiche of a conventional Korean death-announcement for a widow who had no sons. She is only identified as the mother-in-law of four men, her daughters’ husbands. It seems that conventionally, only the male members of a family are mentioned by name in such cases. The poem remarks: “It should be obvious that several names are missing here. Five of them in all!” The reader is left to wonder if the fifth absent name is that of the dead woman herself or of a daughter who had no husband! References to pot-banging demonstrations by women in Argentina, to a famous Mexican woman artist gravely wounded in a traffic accident, to the tragic life story of Marina Tsevetaeva, and others are interspersed with mentions of familiar Korean figures such as Yun Sim-deok and Na Hyeseok.

The sometimes dark humor of many of her poems is what has always appealed most to me; laughter (which includes tears) plays an important role in Kim’s work. In Walking on a Washing Line, there is the laughter of unexpected reversals: “The table prepares the rice. The rice eats me.” There is the smile caused by a poem devoted to varieties of ice cream available at Korea’s Everland (Neverland). The glimpse of a homeless person dressed in a cardboard box marked “Fragile goods; handle with care” leads to a realization of human fragility. Some poems evoke strange nightmares: “I awoke one morning to find my head caught in a lion’s jaws.” Her poems move in seemingly haphazard directions, leaving the reader to find meaning where they can. A piano perched on a narrator’s chest leads her to the Aztecs’ offerings to the sun, then on to a saint seeing Jesus exchange his heart for hers, before ending with Frida Kahlo’s blood-stained skirt. One poem evokes the last moments of a woman falling in flames from the World Trade Center.

This kind of poetry is probably more disconcerting for ordinary Korean readers than for western readers, exposed as they are to all the variety of Modernist and Post-Modernist writing. The famous American critic and literary theoretician, Marjorie Perloff, recently wrote to say of the book: “It is indeed an unusual book for Korean poetry—very frank and daring—it does remind me of Sylvia Plath. She is obviously a remarkable poet and the translation seems so natural, although of course I can’t tell! Your introduction is excellent and sets the stage, telling the reader just what to look for!” This kind of comment is always encouraging. Another American poet, Zack Rogow, told me that he felt the poems were some of the best Korean poems he had seen. I am glad of that, for it means that the translations work! The main problem is that a book like this will not be reviewed, or stocked in bookstores alongside American poetry, or noticed by most readers of poetry in North America. There is little we can do about that, though. 



* Brother Anthony is a member of the Community of Taizé (France). He is currently professor emeritus in the English department at Sogang University and department chair for creative writing at Dankook University. He has published nearly 30 volumes of modern Korean literature in English translation.

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