This book is, technically speaking, not the #47 book of the year. It’s just that, as I looked through my shelves for something to read, it occurred to me that I’d brought a spare copy to have passed on to a poet-friend (my old teacher, Tim Lilburn) — and read it on the plane ride over to Canada — last summer. It’s probably more like book #22 of my Lunar New Year list, but I’m not going to go back and adjust all the numbers. They can be left to signify my reviews, rather than my readings.
Between Sound and Silence is a bit of an oddity to me, because I’ve only read — and imagine that I shall only ever really be able to properly read — half of it. It is a parallel text in Korean and English, with both texts produced by the same poet, a well-respected translator and award-winning Korean poet. He also happens to be the father of John, of John and Ritu of Gurgaon, friends with whom I stayed during my visit to India. It was because of this fact that I picked up the book, and I’ll admit that I came to the book with a faint prejudice in favor of Ko; but the prejudice was generally unnecessary. I found some of the lines absolutely stunning on first browse, and when I finally sat down and read through the book, I actually could see why the poet had won an award for the text. There are parts of it that are quite stunning and beautiful.
I’ll admit, I suspect the Korean verses are a little tighter than the English versions, but one of the wonderful things about the English verses is that they capture so much of an image that I can almost feel what the Korean verses must say. Lime, when she read some of the Korean poems, was very struck by their quality and tightness, and she is someone who actually knows enough to have a favorite Korean poet.
Most striking to me in his poems are these vivid moments, like from the end of “Night Sky”: :
When I look out the window
on nights like this,
something reaches me from the night sky;
something flows out from me toward the sky.
Or this one, from “The Man in the Field”:
A man stands in the field.
From within him a flame rises.
His face burns like charcoal.
As if drawn by his pointing finger,
A wild bird flies toward him.
Like the eyes of a cat
Who once peered into my room,
His eyes glow with strange radiance.
Or, finally, from section III of his long-poem “Mohenjo-Daro”:
You once gripped a handful of starlight
And threw it into the dark.
Your voice still resounds through your time-space and ours.
That was your intended music and non-music.
Your light still glares in our visions.
Potsherds and skeletons
Lie strewn over your ruins.
Mute animal hands thrust out of your silence.
But lest you think Ko a dreadfully serious poet, he is not wholly so. There are moments of mischief, as well, such as the very tightly-constructed (and this one, at least, I can almost grasp in Korean, certainly enough to appreciate the structure), “Joke about Culture”, which I quote here in full:
Our culture in its broadest sense largely determines:
Whether we practice monogamy, polygamy, or hierogamy
Whether our madness is schizophrenia, spirit-possession, or psychedelic
Whether we love monologue, dialogue, or paradox
Whether our viewpoint is bird’s-eye-view, fish-eye-view, or simply belle-vue
Whether we love logos, mythos, or chaos
Whether our music is monophony, polyphony or cacophony
Whether we dance clockwise, counter-clockwise or otherwise
Whether our rites of passage involve circumcision, circumambulation or bungee-jumping
Whether our god is anthropomorphic, cosmogonic, or binary
Whether we consider nature a friend, a foe or a dump
Whether our eschatology directs us to utopia, heaven or nirvana
Whether our suffering is lebenssmerz, infernal or samsara
Whether our time is linear, circular or recyclable
Whether we accomodate, exterminate or incorporate our opponents
Whether what really matters for our system is input, output or kaput
Whether our life is dominated by by-laws, in-laws or outlaws.
At 7,000 won (roughly $8 CDN), this hardcover book is not only worth it, but a downright steal. I’ve already given away a few copies to people I know, and probably will give away more, too. While, as I say, one gets a sense with the second reading that the book might be just a little tighter in Korean, the English verse is pretty damned good too, and gives a pretty good sense, I think, of what the award-winning Korean originals are saying.