[ENGLISH] "To Make a Light, It was Dark"
by Shin, Sun Yung June 14, 2022
Invisible Land of Love
The poetry book Invisible Land of Love by Chonggi Mah, was originally published in Korean in 1980, and the 2022 edition is now translated into English by Youngshil Cho. These graceful, often minimalistic poems are occupied with desire, memory, loss, and impermanence. The collection is suffused by the interpenetrating duality of life and death, where the boundaries between those on either side of the veil reach across in intimate gestures. Water is a frequent motif, signifying the fluidity of life shading into death and death returning to the living. Light—which gives visibility to porous forms in the daytime world—is not static but ever cycling, decaying.
Mah’s narratives use repetition to layer images, transparency building toward but never reaching opacity, bending back on each other to repeat things that melt from object to the subject, as in the poem “Love Song 9” which shares a fleeting moment:
A dead friend quietly comes
to whisper in my ear
under water on a spring day
Dying and living is like water sound.
Is that so, the spring day already darkening.
In the first instance, the spring day is an object and in the second instance, the spring day is a subject, darkening, fading, dying.
It’s no surprise that Mah, as a physician, would write poems that explore the juxtaposition of death and life. He sometimes renders scenes with a touch of the Gothic, which, as a literary movement, often contrasted innocence with decay:
during my medical school course, toward dark
daybreak after a vigil in the anatomy classroom
lined with corpses, I confess my innocent love.
Amid whispers of dim lightbulbs and corpses.
Words such as “vigil” and the solitude of the narrator lend a monastic feel to the scene and action. Mah’s lone narrators, surrounded by shadows and reminiscences, often seem to haunt the settings into which they are placed.
Space is important here. It is given shape by architectural features, which make emptiness bounded and visible. Mah’s poetics of space often honors this duality, of the tension between outside and inside. Here is a world in which natural forces have agency, have spirits, as in the poem “Illustration 5”: When I pass by the public cemetery / it always smells of mint. / A square window redolent of mint, / the dawn outside the window / needs to practice to see the inside. Images are additive; there is the window and then the dawn outside the window, and in this way even transparency is layered. Each poem is like a palimpsest in this way. In Mah’s poems, speakers exclaim how human makers enclose space in order to create emptiness, as in the poem “Drawing” which begins:
I’ve taken up drawing.
Decided to be simple like winter.
The tree outside the window’s fallen asleep
and images of snow pile up inside a wanderer’s bones.
I’ve started drawing an urn.
Decided to live like an empty field.
There is a contrast between the continuous action of the speaker (who has taken up drawing) and the stillness of the sleeping tree, the images of snow, the motionless field. Mah’s poems make the human equal or less important than their environment, emphasizing the transience of human life while the elements persist, whether we are alive or just “bones.”
Narrators here exist in surreal possibilities. They are alone, invisible in the dark, but still, perhaps instinctively, unavoidably, make movements toward communication: At night / I take out my rumpled shadow / and try waving it / like a forgotten banner. In this collection, shadows are constant companions, reminders that that which is visible may still be evanescent, mercurial, expressive, and can even impinge on the solid body. Scale becomes elastic: Lately I experience to the point of discomfort / a pocket rather great in size / the music of my own shadow.
With this English translation of Invisible Land of Love, Chonggi Mah and Youngshil Cho have produced a delicate, sometimes wounded, text. English-language readers, regardless of their relationship to twentieth-century Korean history and its undeniable traumas and separations, will find their own existential conditions reflected in the universality of these poems, which elegantly consider both the terrible and the tender.
Sun Yung Shin
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