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 
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 
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
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
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.
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
By Black String, £17.50, Munich: ACT 
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
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
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