Sky Nest is not a work in Korean, but it is very much a Korean work. Jongyoll Choi lived in the United States for fewer than two years and published just this slender volume of poetry in English. Choi has also published a Korean collection entitled A Bullfighter Leans on the Morning Sunshine, and has translated several Korean works into English. But Sky Nest is a landmark work. Interesting as verse it is also intriguing as an opportunity to see poetry that is only “partly translated” from Korean to English. Choi’s work is excellent Korean poetry at the same time it is excellent English poetry. It addresses issues, uses images, and features poetic devices that are common to both languages but which rarely completely, or largely, survive translation. Choi’s ability to render Korean tropes and literary devices into English as an integral part of his writing process is extremely rare and this renders his poetry valuable for the artistic insight it can bring to English readers.
Conceptually, Choi sets his sights on a goal that is often common to Korean and English poetry; to describe the shared language, or perhaps the simultaneous translation, of humans and nature. This kind of task has been the task of traditional Korean poetry as well as many genres of English poetry (e.g. Romantic).
Thematically, Choi’s poetry is not radical. Nature, writing, and communication feature in most of it. In the Abstract of his Master’s Thesis, for which most of these poems were first written (of the ninety poems in Sky Nest, Choi had seventy-three in his thesis and of these most are nearly intact in the book), Choi noted that he wished to, “show a poem as organic being in which every thing in the world can communicate with each other’s language.” This task might well interest a man navigating dual cultures – the issue of communicating from one world to another. Choi also noted that, “this collection may show that writing a poem is just a process of transferring non-human beings’ words to the readers.” As one reads that line, one wonders if Choi is not making a sly anti-anthropomorphic reference to working between one culture/language and another. While the introduction to Choi’s thesis is missing from his published work, I believe it is useful to a reader who wishes to understand the (once) explicit task of Choi’s work.
In the first poem of the volume, “A Book of Snow” Choi sets his topic, metaphorical field, and writing style:
A book of white words
someone has written on the field
an epic of wind or a legend about winter
The sun opens the book and tells a story
under the eaves and through the ditch
In just one day
sunshine has read
through the winter’s bulky book.
Choi writes about a near literal transcription of nature into the world. This combines his main themes of, nature, communication in general, and writing in particular. Choi explicitly ties literary forms to nature (“epic .. wind” and “legend …nature”). Choi’s writing style seems simple and traditionally Korean, particularly to an eye that is used to Korean translation. But there is something unusual, even in this restrained and reflective start. The first stanza, though recognizable as ‘Korean’ also contains a subtle, but unusual, use of alliteration (both explicit and created “w” sounds); the second stanza concludes with a ghostly echo of Lydia Child’s “Over the river and through the woods,” and; the poem concludes in alliteration. These are literary devices uncommon to translated works and it is here an attentive reader’s inner ear might first prick up to note a profoundly Korean sensibility clad in comfortable English clothes. Choi’s work is profoundly Korean in one way and profoundly in English in another.
When Choi uses traditionally western literary devices, such as alliteration or assonance, the hop sharply from the page precisely because we have not previously seen these devices in works translated from Korean. In Sick Choi’s verse slithers and slides with a serpentine aspect and repetition one might expect to find in Walt Whitman: “The sky swallows the sunlight / the sky swallows the moonlight / the sky always fills itself with a smile.” This kind of sensuous alliteration is rarely found in translated poetry, no matter how skillful the translator.
A Rock Chair stands out, for good reason, as one of the most “Korean” of Choi’s works, containing strong thematic and structural similarities to poems found in classic Korean works like “Yi-Saeng Peers Over The Wall.” Compare Choi’s verse to a verse from that work:
To the left,
Bukhan mountain with a stone-grey façade
glows more redly;
A Rock Chair
Around the twelve peaks of Wu Mountain fog closely lays,
A half-exposed apex is surrounded in red and blue rays.
Yi-Saeng Peers Over the Wall
These passages are more than 500 years apart, and surprisingly similar. Notably, “A Rock Chair” lacks the interesting literary devices of most of Choi’s other works and this is partially responsible for how completely traditional it seems. This poem also contains lines that are surprisingly constructed and rhythmically uneven such as, “The dew is the first to sit on it every morning.” Not surprisingly, conversation with the author reveals that this is one of the poems the Choi first wrote in Korean and then translated into English. It reminds us of “Korean” poetry partly by nature of its translated state. It is by no means a poor poem, but it seems written in amber – not as loose-limbed and graceful as many of his other poems.
The only dissonant notes in this collection (and this may be less a reflection of Choi’s work than my reading) are rung in a five-poem digression during which Sky Nest turns to poems about the birth and early life of Choi’s son. These poems stand apart from the remainder of the collection in theme and subject, and interrupt its natural flow.
On other occasions, though, when Choi is addressing issues not directly related to the natural world (normally when considering issue of culture or language) he is either incisive or uses clever natural metaphors. In “Understanding Another Culture“, writing about translation between cultures, Choi considers currency and comes to a realization. “I count the number / and begin to understand America / / Culture is numbers!” In “Brown Dog”, Choi crafts an extended metaphor about a dog, mysteriously borne of cats who, even when he fails, defines his success in his attempt to erase barriers, “For a moment he thought / “I am somebody.”” Running through each of these lines is the recurrent question of communication between cultures.
Choi fluently navigates this communication between cultures. Choi is not bound
ed by one language as he suggests in the following lines from “Brown Dog”: “The brown dog began to go bow-wow. But he meowed while he was barking.” Choi’s poetry is a unique opportunity for an English reader as it offers a partially obscured window through which Korean poetry can be glimpsed. Choi’s poetry draws from dual poetic conventions while simultaneously melding them. In interview Choi says, “writing in English … gives me a freedom to change and interpret my own poems.” Choi’s language is revealing here. “Freedom to change” is a function of writing and distinct from the translator’s necessity to change, while “interpret” is at least one degree closer to language/thought than ‘translate.’ Choi knows, and the reader knows, that his work is writing and not translation.
Why is this important at all? Because translation is a tricky business with the simplest source text. John P. Leavey Jr. posits the “requirement of contamination” in translation. Poetry, with its arbitrary conventions and love of specific-language based devices, is more difficult to translate than prose and must suffer more “contamination.” Choi’s generation 1.25 poetry (for lack of a better phrase) leaps entirely over this problem because while it is written by a Korean, contains Korean themes and tropes, and addresses traditional Korean subjects, it is also written in English and contains English themes and tropes. Choi’s reader is privileged to read a work that is not so much a translation between cultures, as a communication between them.
In the final stanza of the poem for which the volume is named, Choi reveals his ultimate wish: “In this nest / I also want to be a poem / written by fir trees / in front of my house.” In this book, Choi has created poems, written across culture, and invited English-speaking readers to peek into an entirely different house, indeed.