Review: Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim

Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of HyesimMagnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim (Published by White Pine Press with the support of The Literature Translation Institute of Korea) begins with an introductory section of fifteen pages which while, plainly narrative and historical (as it has to be for western readers from whom much of the tradition from which this poetry flows might be unknown) is critical to read – Hyesim is a progenitor of Zen-master poetry, and his personal history, including that fact that his thought was a synthesis of Buddhism and Confucianism, is well explained. In fact, the introduction alone is worth the price of entry here, and it would be difficult to jump into the poetry of this volume without understanding the peculiar historical and philosophical environment in which Hyesim existed – and since Hyesim’s poetry was all about existence, nowness, and being, this background is particularly useful to know.

Hyesim was a distinctive product of his time. In the late Koryŏ Dynasty of Korea when Hyesim lived, it was not uncommon for Confucianism and Buddhism to co-exist as philosophical principles. This may come as a surprise to some modern readers, as from the Joseon period on, Confucianism and Buddhism were seen as systems at odds (in fact the Joseon dynasty drove Buddhism out of the cities). At this moment in time, however, it was possible to conceive that Confucianism was the path of practical righteousness, while Buddhism was the path towards spiritual salvation, and this combination is expressed throughout Hyesim’s work.

Haight describes the topics and themes of Hyesim’s poems as contained by four general categories: The strictures of Sŏn Buddhism, nature, the exploration of an idea or thing that evolves into or provides an understanding of Buddhist practice; and, finally, dealing with the prosaic elements of life. Hyesim’s work is often foundationally paradoxical, exploring differences with the ultimate intent of explaining the totality of existence.

A poem that might help demonstrate some of these traits is Mid-Autumn, Enjoying the Moon

If the luminous moon were a jade bead,
it could be stolen by those with power or position.
If the moon’s wheel-light on the water were taken as a pearl,
could it reflect on every humble mountain?

Many of the features of Hyesim’s poetry can be found here, The poem, like most in this volume, is a mere four lines, but it that short space it manages to contain a very William Blakeian ability to see the universe in small items, in fact to reduce the universe to small items, and then expand it back out, in reflection, to cover the entire world.

In the first line the Sŏn poet in Hyesim jumps from the universality of the luminous moon down to the much smaller jade bead, while in the second the Confucian in him cannot help but wryly comment on the fact that the difference in size and malleability makes the latter much more likely to become to subject of corruption, or systemic inequality. Then, with our focus narrowed down, Hyesim pulls as back out to contemplate the larger picture, the entire world and “every humble mountain.” In four short lines he has taken us from the universe, to the pocket of the unscrupulous, back to the world and large and, in alignment which much of his poetry, left us with a kind of Sŏn riddle.

Hyesim (and, I should note, the translators who note with considerable understatement that “Structuring a manuscript of poetry from a text composed according to standards of classical Chinese is never simple.” are good with a nice short shock as in the poem Responding to the Monk Ryu’s Suffering of Heat:

In this season of the seventh or eighth month,
humans swelter day and night.
I give you a recipe for refreshment:
realization, quick as ice on a scalding stove.

Which reads with a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan in its assonance and alliteration, and after neatly spending three lines discussing the general human condition, ends with what could only be called a zinger – reminding Monk Ryu of what is and is not important.

Hyesim’s powerful concantenation of Buddhist and Confucian thought can also be seen in his poem Sending Off the Monk Ok to Visit His Parents, in which he counsels a fellow monk to NOT ignore the sufferings of existence and instead attend to the very practical requirements of Confucianism (respecting and loving ones’ parents):

At the age of 50, the great Emperor Shun longed for his parents—
wise Lao Lai danced for his parents until he turned 70.
Much more is the need when sick mothers or fathers entreat by letter—
how could you hesitate, looking towards the sky?

Again, Hyesim addresses eternal issues cleverly, particularly in the amusing way in which he gives the “children” of his poem such advanced ages, and ends his poem with a rhetorical question which functions more as a Confucian demand.

This balance of practicality and spirituality, extreme concision, ability to look for the relationships of all things, and, dare I say it, a kind of wry wit, makes Hyesim’s poetry extremely enjoyable and as in introduction to Sŏn poetry , with just a little helping of something Confucian, a joy to read.
The book concludes with some endnotes that I found not very helpful, as the were not noted in the actual text, and it was a bit confounding to find them, nearly orphaned, before the bibliography and I wonder, if in the book these weren’t called out in the text.

In an case, a minor cavil about a book that can be enjoyed by nearly anyone, from the layman to Sŏn monk just on the verge of enlightenment.^^