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Poetry of Paradox for a Long Road to Discovery

“For Nirvana: 108 Zen Sijo Poems”

By Cho Oh-hyun, Translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl, 118 pages, $25.00/£19.00, New York: Columbia University Press [2016]

In many ways, “For Nirvana: 108 Zen Sijo Poems” is a paradox. As pointed out by literary critic Kwon Young-min in the introduction, Musan Cho Oh-hyun’s poems are sijo in form. Unlike the traditional lyric form of poetry, though, they are often narrative in nature so much that Kwon coined a new term to describe them: “story sijo.” Thus they are sijo, yet they are not sijo. Also, as the translator notes in the afterword, “Zen poetry is inherently ironic, as the basic tenet of Zen is antithetical to text.” That is, Zen Buddhism seeks enlightenment without recourse to words or texts, and thus it might seem odd to combine Zen with poetry. Finally, the book itself is paradoxical in its structure: The 108 poems are bounded by an introduction written by a critic whose occupation was judged by the poet himself to be a “useless discipline" and an afterword written by a translator who admits that the poems are “almost, by definition, impossible to translate.”

These multiple levels of paradox seem appropriate. The way to understanding these poems — an achievement that this reviewer can by no means lay claim to — is not straight, but serpentine. The penultimate poem, “My Lifelines,” hints at this: “poetry is woodgrain, knotted, / & Zen is wood’s grain, straight.” It is only through many twists and turns of the mind that progress can be made and the journey will only end when the seeker stops seeking.
When first faced with these poems, the initial instinct is to ask what they mean, to try to tease out the hidden kernels of wisdom and thus solve the riddles that the poems pose. And, indeed, it appears there are portals leading into the inner sanctum of Musan’s poetic world. The series of 10 poems titled “Musan’s Ten Bulls” follows the Zen tradition of using 10 poems or paintings depicting the search for and taming of a wild bull as a metaphor for one’s progress toward enlightenment through meditation. Another series of poems written in the second person addresses the character of Bodhidharma, the famous patriarch of Zen in China. Yet another series of poems is titled “Speaking without speaking,” perhaps alluding to the Zen mistrust and simultaneous recognition of the necessity of language. This ambivalent attitude can be seen throughout the volume, such as in “Waves,” where the poet claims, “The 1,000 sutras, the 10,000 treatises, / all just waves blown in the wind,” or in the final work, where he announces: “These words I’ve spewed ‘til now — they’re all drivel.”

The impatient reader may at times be tempted to take the poet at his word here, for, as noted above, these portals and passages are not straightforward; the poems do not provide any easy answers. Instead, they function very much like Zen koan (or gong-an in Korean), which means that there are no “answers” and there is no final destination. There is only a process of discovery. Patience here is a virtue, for the more time one spends with these poems, the more they seem to reveal, not merely about the Zen philosophy of the one who wrote them, but about the inner nature of the one who reads them as well. To simply read this collection of poems takes less than an hour. To gain all that might be gained from them would no doubt be the work of a lifetime. And yet, as the poet says: “one lifetime / barely as much as a single step / go on, go on / just walking in place.”

Korean History for Young Readers

“Letters from Korean History, I–V”

By Park Eunbong, Translated by Ben Jackson, 1264 pages, 55,000 won, Seoul: Cum Libro [2016]

The five-volume history book, as suggested by the title, is written in the format of a series of some 70 letters. Each chapter starts with about three to four paragraphs of friendly chit-chat kind of writing that poses questions and invites the reader to join the author in discovering the answers and exploring history.

While it may seem like a daunting task for young readers to finish the entire series, the simple language and vocabulary make for a not-altogether-difficult read. Also helpful are the numerous illustrations, maps, and diagrams that accompany the texts. They are useful in understanding the various periods in history, as well as visualizing the lifestyles of respective periods.
The five volumes are titled “From prehistory to Unified Silla and Balhae,” “From the Later Three Kingdoms to Goryeo,” “Joseon from founding to later years,” “From late Joseon to the Daehan Empire,” and “From the Daehan Empire to the North-South rapprochement.” In these ambitious volumes, the author attempts to chronicle the history of what occurred on the Korean peninsula from the Paleolithic Age (circa 700,000 B.C.) to 2000 in one fell swoop.
Unless the reader is a young history buff, some of the chapters might be of little interest. Indeed, some of the details might not be easily appreciated when Korean words are presented in their Romanized forms.
Yet, because the series is written in a narrative style using easy vocabulary, reading about life in the Three Kingdoms period is made fun. The use of ancient murals, paintings, and artifacts to illustrate the lifestyle of the people of Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo make history come alive.

The book may be enjoyed as individual chapters. They are rich in storytelling and for the uninitiated, chapters that focus on historical figures make for an interesting reading on their own. For example, the story of Korea’s first Olympic medalist Sohn Kee-chung, the marathoner who won the gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is told in the context of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea.
The author chose to end the book in the year 2000 with the topic of the “June 15 North-South Joint Declaration.” Hence the title of the fifth and final volume “From the Daehan Empire to North-South rapprochement.” It is a positive and forward-looking finale to a long journey of history of the Korean peninsula.

Traditional Instruments for Today’s Music

“Mask Dance”

By Black String, £17.50, Munich: ACT [2016]

Geomungo, a Korean six-string zither, is the star of “Mask Dance,” the latest album by the four-member band Black String.
The fact that the band is named Black String, a literal translation of the word geomungo, is indicative of the central role of the ancient instrument, dating back to the 7th century, in the band. Heo Yoonjeong (geomungo), Lee Aram (daegeum, transverse bamboo flute), Hwang Min-wang (janggu, double-headed drum), and Oh Jean (electric guitar) make up the four-piece band that primarily performs jazz.

While traditional musical instruments and modern day jazz at first seem counterintuitive, the pairing is actually an excellent one given the characteristics of Korean traditional music.
Traditional Korean music is noted for its freewheeling, improvisational style. Just think about pansori, a form of narrative singing accompanied by a drum, and its free-spirited improvisational character. In Korean folk music, although there are specific beat patterns, even a casual listener will notice that there is a lot of improvisation going on during a performance.
“Mask Dance” is a tour de force. Any preconceptions about Asian music will be dispelled at once. It is not the New Age-type of ethereal meditative music that many associate with Asian music.
With the geomungo functioning more as a percussion than a string instrument, “Mask Dance” on the whole is dark and powerful. The electric guitar lends a sharp metallic sound to the music for a slightly psychedelic mood. The thick silk strings of the geomungo are struck with a wooden stick to produce the characteristic deep timbre.

It is a decidedly masculine sound: Indeed, the geomungo was known as the instrument of the seonbi, or literati.
How to define the music of Black String is entirely up to the listener. But one thing it should not be labeled as is “crossover music.” Black String’s music explores the realm where traditional Korean instruments and music are headed.

Charles La Shure Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature, Seoul National University
Kim Hoo-ran Culture Editor, The Korea Herald

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