South Korea’s Ko Un, This Side of Time


This Side of Time: Poems by Ko Un - Ko  Un, Claire Young, Richard Silberg

Ko Un is another poet I found while browsing Many of us (Westerners) have come across Japanese or Chinese poetry, but rarely Korean poetry. That’s a shame. The Korean Wave has brought us Korean popular culture–K-pop and drama–and I hope the country’s literature rides that wave.


Ko Un is a big deal in South Korea, and translations of some of his many works (over 100 volumes of poetry) have brought him to a larger context. I subscribe to the Dodge Poetry Festival on YouTube, and noticed they have videos of him reading (in Korean, with a translator). He’s been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He’s also one of those poets who’s led quite a life: soldier, zen monk, teacher, political prisoner, and political activist.


This Side of Time, translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg, presents poems from three collections. The poems are mostly short, many with the sort of surprise turn at the end that delights or moves. In a way, it’s like reading the best parts of longer poems: that shift at the close that brings the whole poem into focus and makes you revisit it. I’m a longtime fan of concision, too, of the highly lyric moment, and these poems are great examples of that. They’re often witty, earthy, sometimes sad but not depressing. They offer a deep caring about the world.


An example:


Regular Guy


We trust there is sun

when it’s covered by clouds.

We believe in the world

even though we all die.

We believe in this world of trees and grass.


This is a collection you’d be able to enjoy no matter how familiar or unfamiliar you are with poetry.


I copied down a couple poems from the book and put them on my brother and sister-in-law’s refrigerator when I visited recently; they hadn’t yet noticed them before I left. I hope when they did, the poems changed a moment of their day.

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South Korea’s Ko Un, This Side of Time

Something happened on the day he died

Bowie died on my birthday this year, January 10th. Thankfully, I didn’t find out until the next day, so I didn’t spend my birthday crying on and off, prostrate on my couch listening to a mix of his songs that I found comforting, made years ago (I called it “Anodyne Bowie”). Bowie’s own birthday was two days and 32 years before mine.


I mention my birthday not just because it was an awful coincidence that I’ll think of every year now, but because, like me, Bowie was a Capricorn. I’m not a horoscope fanatic, but through his songs, interviews, and persona(e) generally, I closely identified with his Capricorn-ness, traits of which include reserve, remoteness, pragmatism, ambition, and determination. (I’m too lazy for the last two.) I responded to his Major Tom and Thin White Duke personae especially: Want an axe to break the ice, he sings in “Ashes to Ashes,” a sort of future “Space Oddity.”


In a recent Rolling Stone article written after his death, Bowie is quoted describing his enchantment with the Catskill Mountains: “I love mountains […] I’m a Capricorn. I was born to be gallivanting on a peak somewhere… I was never a Woodstock-y kind of person, at all, ever. But when I got up there, I flipped at how beautiful it is.” I was born in the Catskills and lived there until I was almost six. My late grandmother had a house there that my family visited in the summer and over the holidays; this house was about half an hour from Woodstock, which we loved to visit. There was an artist’s colony, at least one recording studio, and later I learned Bob Dylan had a place nearby. The idea of Bowie making an album or living in the area, where I might have encountered him, makes me giddy, if bittersweetly now.


The closest I ever came was seeing him live in Philadelphia in my twenties, when he was on what turned out to be his last tour, for the album Reality. An androgynous woman next to me had binoculars, and I asked to borrow them. Bowie was right there. I was so delirious after his performance, I didn’t care to stick around for the next headlining act, Moby. During the car ride home, I felt drunk on the experience.


Bowie released his last album, Blackstar, on his birthday. I’d already watched the eerie, mysterious videos for the title track and “Lazarus.” Given his lack of public appearances and live performances the past decade, I’d been worried, as a fan, about his health. I knew he’d had a heart attack and bypass surgery. A few years before, I’d been relieved when The Next Day came out. He was okay, and he was still making music.


Listening to Blackstar those three days before he died, I thought about its ominous images and lyrics. It’s hard to ignore a song called “Lazarus,” whose video begins with Bowie in a hospital bed, singing, “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” The video for “Blackstar” contains references to previous periods in Bowie’s music, videos, and film work, but that’s nothing new for an artist who continually moved forward and valued the new while revisiting past personae to transform or comment on them.


I thought to myself, laughing, that Bowie would probably live forever, like Keith Richards: someone who’d done a lot of damage with drugs and drink but came out the other side. I wondered how I would react when he did die, surely a very old man, probably still charming when he smiled, and forward-thinking. I imagined I’d be sad, but how sad? My strongest point of comparison in terms of being a fan was Kurt Cobain, who died when I was 15. I’d been more shocked than anything by his death, despite public knowledge of his health problems and substance abuse. I shared my grief with friends, all of whom loved Nirvana, and practically my whole high school. I watched tons of MTV and listened to Courtney Love read Kurt’s suicide note.


Before Kurt’s death, I listened to Nirvana for maybe two to three years. I’ve known David Bowie’s music my entire life; even if I count from when I truly became a fan, around my sophomore year of college, that would still be almost twenty years. Yes, I was sad when he died, even sadder than I anticipated. I was wrecked the whole day, but I couldn’t share my grief in quite the same way as I had with Kurt Cobain. I have friends and family who liked Bowie, but no one I’d call a fan. (Only since his death have I learned that my best friend was turned onto him by me; she texted me recently that she’d been listening to Ziggy Stardust and crying.) Those who know me well enough messaged condolences or shared things related to him; it’s strange to receive condolences for the loss of someone you never met.


Change is Bowie’s legacy, something difficult for a typical Capricorn—the stubborn goat. But the goat has a fish tail that suggests fluidity, a hybrid being comfortable on land or in water. As a writer I’ve always valued change and frustrate and challenge myself with its imperative. It’s a preoccupation; how can I move forward, produce something different than what I have before, if not in subject then in style? How can I—someone often paralyzed by and fearful of change in my life—be a chameleon, as Bowie was?


Last week I began reading an article in the latest Writer’s Chronicle on this very subject. The author contrasted her desire for artistic change with the way we often love other writers because we recognize something of them in everything they write. She expressed an interest in recurring dreams, a parallel to the obsessions that carry through in our writing. This made me feel better, encouraged me to reframe how I think about my writing. However, as a reader of poetry, I am more demanding of change across a poet’s oeuvre. Poets I once loved no longer dazzle me in the present if their craft remains the same, if it hasn’t changed with me. This is an unreasonable expectation, and I’ve learned to read poetry that engages me NOW before my tastes change again.


Or was I spoiled by Bowie’s music and career? Even in reflection Bowie is not nostalgic; his rare backward-looking manages to be made into something new. I can be as demanding of the musicians I listen to as the poets I read, and Bowie never disappointed. If I have an idol, a patron saint, as an artist, it’s him. It devastates me to think he’s no longer walking the earth, making things, but I’m profoundly grateful for all he made

Something happened on the day he died

Down the Rabbit Hole of Sarai Walker’s Dietland


Dietland - Sarai Walker

I bought this book shortly after it came out but moved it up the queue when I learned it’s being made into a TV series helmed by Marti Noxon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and UnREAL fame); having read it now, I’m excited for the show. Here’s a synopsis of the book from the Entertainment Weekly article announcing the series:


Dietland follows 300-pound Plum Kettle, who is saving money for gastric bypass surgery. She thinks her real life will begin once she’s finally thin, but her plans are disrupted by an underground feminist collective who take it upon themselves to show Plum the error of her thinking. At the same time, a guerrilla feminist group known to the public as “Jennifer” is wreaking havoc on the male-dominated world, kidnapping rapists and dropping them from planes, and blackmailing the CEOs of sexist newspapers.


I’ll keep this spoiler-free because Dietland functions partially as a mystery–who is “Jennifer” and why is/are she/they doing this? The story is Plum’s, but alongside hers, and ultimately connected to it, the feminist extremists’ actions, and the media and public’s ensuing reactions, are interwoven in their own brief sections, in a different font. It creates a context for Plum’s struggles, as well as those of the girls who write in to the teen magazine where Plum works. It also serves as a contrast between what the feminist “terrorists” are doing and what the collective at Calliope House undertakes together and as individuals. There’s no easy “this is right, this is wrong” morality being touted, though the women at Calliope House certainly don’t endorse “Jennifer’s” violent tactics. These two strands of the book are skillfully braided throughout.


Uniqueness and novelty are qualities I admire in books, and I can say I’ve never read anything quite like Dietland. At moments I felt an odd double-reaction where I’d both laugh and be horrified. In part this reminds me of how I react to shocking or extremely violent moments in movies (though the book isn’t extremely violent; however, it is true to life in its depiction of violence against women). But it’s also due to Walker’s excellent prose; I highlighted many passages of the book not just for content, but for language. Some examples:

It seemed there was no part of the American landscape that was not soggy with the tears of so many girls.


…so I went to the ladies’ room [at media empire Austen Tower], winding my way through the corridors lined with the huge magazine covers–the models, with their glazed-over looks, like the heads hanging on a hunter’s wall.


I expected the women [actresses] to radiate light like they did on the screen, where a tiny movement–the brush of lashes against a cheek–was exquisite and beautiful, a raven batting its wing. In person they were ghostlike, their normally bold features faint, as if their likenesses had been reproduced so many times that they were becoming faded.


I say the novel is fresh, though it clearly and meaningfully uses Alice in Wonderland, a much-loved animating narrative, for structure, theme, and characterization. Plum’s legal name is Alicia, and one can see Leeta, the girl who gets Plum started on her journey, as the White Rabbit (or Cheshire Cat? now that I’m thinking about it…with her colorful tights). Kitty, the editor at teen magazine Daisy Chain, with her red hair, could be the Queen of Hearts. But the use of Alice isn’t slavish or overbearing; these characters and story live and breathe on their own.


In the acknowledgements, Walker tips her hat to second-wave feminism, and this is evident in the book’s treatment of makeup and porn. The critiques it makes are necessary and warranted, but to this no-wave feminist who’s engaged in Porn Studies (yes, that’s a thing) and whose brother criticized her for wearing makeup (which can be just as shaming as telling a woman to wear it), there’s more nuance to be had. This isn’t a criticism, more like food for thought as I read.


Dietland will make you angry in its accurate depiction of contemporary misogynist and fat-shaming American (and a bit of British) culture, but it also offers an antidote with its humor, cast of women, and Plum’s hopeful journey. Just from reading it these few days, I know I was inspired to be kinder to myself.


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Down the Rabbit Hole of Sarai Walker’s Dietland

Transgression and Punishment


Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Susan L. Rattiner, Paul Negri, Constance Garnett

Crime and Punishment is a novel of ideas, a philosophical and psychological story. These tend not to be my favorite reads, though I do respond to the psychological (I loved Notes from Underground). Characters can feel like they exist to defend or attack particular philosophies rather than experience a journey on which the reader is taken. This is not to say (most) characters in C&P are two-dimensional; they can surprise you. There are also many moments of high tension that are compulsively readable, and the entire last third of the book (minus the epilogue), when themes, characters, and events come together after building up throughout, pays off.


The novel was originally serialized, and you can feel the remnants of that in its structure. It came out in monthly installments, which blows my mind. The closest we have to that today is serialized television (slowly dying or binge-watched, generally written by a whole team of writers) and work-in-progress fanfic (WIP). Knowing where you’re going and where you’ve been as you write is paramount, though evidently Dostoevsky’s vision for the story changed at the beginning, and the journal editor(s) initially rejected a portion, which was re-written. There’s something Dickensian in the serialized feel, cast of characters, and morality, not to mention depictions of the lower class and city life. It was unexpected. Doestevsky’s use of third person omniscient was also unusual for the time and place.


I struggled with the characterization of Sonya, the hooker with a heart of gold–she’s that very archetype, forced into prostitution by her family’s circumstances yet good and pure; she’s the one most directly responsible for Raskolnikov’s confession and fate. There’s been some debate about the need for or tone of the novel’s epilogue, where we learn everyone’s fate, including Raskolnikov’s time in Siberia and his eventual spiritual awakening, inspired by Sonia’s love and an almost pastoral scene he witnesses. Like the epilogue to Harry Potter (yeah, I’m making this comparison), there’s little we can’t predict, but here not knowing the details would make the story feel incomplete. The shiny, happy, hopeful tone at the end is a bit much to swallow, however.


Raskolnikov’s sister, Dounia, on the other hand, was a favorite and the most interesting character. She’s smart but has a sharpness and aloofness shared with her brother. That mix was intriguing. I’d love one of those books popular lately where an author takes a side character from a great novel and expands on their story.


According to the bit of reading I did about the book, the title in Russian translates more closely to “transgression” rather than “crime,” a border being crossed or going out of bounds. This matches the theme, the spirituality, of the book much more closely, but is less catchy, I suppose. 😉 In the novel, it’s not so much breaking the law that’s the issue as sinning. This is why the book doesn’t simply end with his imprisonment in Siberia.


Speaking of translations, I do wish I had a more recent one; the language can feel antiquated. I had no problems with the Garnett translation of Anna Karenina, so perhaps it’s more a difference in style.


So, not a favorite, but I’m glad to have read it.



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Transgression and Punishment