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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #25 (June 20, 2006), page 15.
Questions, silences, laughter
The Depths of a Clam: Selected Poems of Kim Kwang-Kyu
Translated by Brother Anthony and Kim Young-Moo
White Pine Press, 2005
Paperback, 159 pages, $16.00
By Josephine Bridges
Western readers of these translations will perhaps not immediately realize how revolutionary such poems were in the Korean literary world of the 1970s," notes the writer of the introduction to this book, which familiarizes American audiences with the work of the award-winning contemporary poet Kim Kwang-Kyu. "The mainstream of Korean verse was at the time dominated by often florid and puzzling expressions of intensely private emotion couched in mainly recondite language with fragmented grammar that was felt to heighten the note of sometimes incoherent ecstasy." Thank goodness for Kimís understatement and humor. Itís about time we got to know him.
The Depths of a Clam ó itís the peculiar title not only of this collection, but of a poem about disenchantment ó contains selections from eight of Kimís nine published books. Many of the poems in this collection contain "disquieting questions," but Kim muses on them with a light touch. In a recent poem called "Ultimate Questions," Kim notes that heís been advised not to try to repair the electronic equipment he uses once it stops working, and he carries this idea to disturbing, amusing extremes:
Then, our family
world too Ö does that mean
they canít be repaired?
That they have to be thrown away?
"City of Anxieties," where "the price of land gets higher year by year / as cockroaches and parasitic pine-flies increase daily," brings the destruction of wetlands along Koreaís west coast to our attention. According to a note on the poem, this is "an ecological crime of global dimensions that the Korean government seems completely unwilling to restrict."
Kim Kwang-Kyu was born in Seoul in 1941. In 1960, he was among the students of high schools and universities who participated in peaceful demonstrations against the then presidentís attempts to secure a third term in office. On April 19 of that year, many of those students were massacred. "Death of a Baby Crab," one of Kimís most celebrated poems, incites readers to cheer for the tiny creature trying to cross the road in front of an army truck, even though we know from the title how the story ends. The crab
tumbles out of the hawkerís basket
and crawls off sideway, sideways over the roadway,
in quest of past days of hide-and-seek in the mud
and freedom of the sea.
A number of Kimís poems make reference to silence. "The Price of Silence" is a record of a telephone conversation between a daughter in Europe and her father in the Far East. The call, which ends up costing 27,849 won, consists mostly of silence.
Kim is one of those writers who can create beauty out of the most unlikely raw materials. "Bones" is prompted by an X-ray:
Dust of anchovies and eels
piling up over a few dozen years,
hardening and growing into bones
that I have never once seen
and have taken too much for granted.
Similarly, "The Garbage-Collectors," with its narratorís voice of moral authority and its mesmerizing cadence, reads like an anthem:
All you who can hear only an idle spring dayís languor
in the clacking scissors of junk- and scrap-dealers
and run as far as you can from the garbage-tip
on your way to the bank,
on your way to church,
you know nothing at all about us.
Translator Brother Anthony of Taizť, born in the United Kingdom, has lived in Korea, where he teaches English literature, since 1980. Thanks to his astute English translations of these poems, we can now come to know a great deal from reading Kim Kwang-Kyu.