WORDS WITHOUT BORDER, 2015
Reviewed by John Zeiser
"Lee Si-young's 'Patterns'"
A writing professor of mine once admonished my class for praising a story simply because it jibed with our personal understanding of an experience or thing: in the case of the workshop, a student's short story about an Alzheimer's patient. Instead, my professor argued that fiction is effective when it makes us believe, regardless of or even in spite of its resonance with personal experience. Such advice obliges me to acknowledge my own bias, hopelessly intertwined with my reading of Korean poet Lee Si-young's Patterns. Having had the fortune of two fruitful years in Seoul, South Korea, I have strong memories of both city and country, and at times while reading Patterns I couldn't help thinking, yes, this is exactly how this looked, smelled, sounded, or seemed; ergo this poetry is good. I chuckled at his wry observations on Korean idiosyncrasies and shared in his depression about the peninsula's continued division. However, I would like to think that Lee's poetry, aided by limpid translations from Brother Anthony and Yoo Hui-sok, would have struck me even if I had never stepped foot in South Korea.
The selections in Patterns span more than thirty years, beginning with 1976's Manweol (Full Moon), and provide a careful outline of Lee's development as a poet. From the outset, his style is deceptively simple. Lee's poetry is influenced by the tightness of sijo, a traditional Korean poetic form marked by simple diction, aphorisms, and sudden line endings. The language is often serene, and bound to nature. The whole of the title poem "Patterns" reads:
Leaves gently fall from trees onto sidewalks.
Once someone tried to follow the leaves' shadows.
But what seem like small, self-contained lyrics often cut much deeper. Take for example the short prose poem "On an Escalator":
I have never before seen so many lively living creatures transformed in a flash into death's complexion.
The image in the poem is beautifully unsettling, and embodies Lee's tranquil gaze, disturbed by the crushing speed of modern life.
It's refreshing to encounter poems both lyrical and political. When poetry addresses significant, worldly issues, it risks being elliptical or ham-fisted, which distracts from the purely artistic merit of a poem. Lee, however, navigates these pitfalls adeptly. Concerns about capital, hypermodernity, the erosion of ancient traditions, and his country's division are all fitted neatly into Lee's natural, lyrical style.
Korean culture, with its orthodox Confucianism, is bound to family and place, which are often one and the same. But modernity has displaced many Koreans from their ancestral homes, much as it has displaced other traditions. Lee is especially adept at using family as a means to understand larger cultural anxieties that have been so pressing over the course of his life. In particular, it's his mother's biography and his relationship with her that stand as a microcosm for societal anxieties. In "Mother", published in 1986, Lee addresses what Korea is leaving behind by examining what he literally leaves behind every morning:
but once your son and his wife have rushed off to work wearing glasses
your day's only work is to take your grand-daughter
to kindergarten, holding her by the wrist.
His mother's life was not easy (colonial rule, two wars, and a life of farming), yet Lee also finds the rhythm of it, a repetitive contentment that accompanied the seasons:
When the rice sprouted in the plains you'd hum songs you'd picked up
in the factory, dig fields, do all kinds of work
like a manual laborer coming home with the moon high above
After all she had been through, Lee wonders, "How could you imagine you'd end here, cooped up like a bird/ in a cage at