Though Jeongrye Choi is the author of four books of poetry in her native South Korea, her work has been largely unavailable to American audiences; however, with Instances, a translation of Choi’s selected poems by Brenda Hillman, Wayne De Fremery, and Jeongrye Choi herself, English readers now have the opportunity to encounter one of South Korea’s most intriguing women poets.
In a prefatory note to the collection, Brenda Hillman quotes Robert Hass on Choi’s background: Jeongyre Choi “belongs to the explosive generation of poets who came of age after the thirty-five-year Japanese occupation of her country, after the Korean War, and during the long struggle to rebuild South Korea’s shattered economy and to transform its military dictatorships into a democratic government.” While many of Choi’s poems do not directly comment on this history, they speak from a distinctly Korean landscape. In “Red Tubs,” Choi captures South Korea’s rapid change, stating, “It’s the year 2000 at my grandmother’s house. / There’s a kimch’i refrigerator and a water filter in the kitchen. / No mash from the home brew, sticky rice cakes, or yot.” Though readers may need to flip to the “Notes” section at the back of the collection to ascertain the meaning of some of the terms in these sentences, Instances provides a visceral account of contemporary South Korea—a geographical location that remains all too unfamiliar to most Americans, despite the two countries’ long and involved relationship.
While the opportunity to engage with poetry from another culture is reason enough to read Instances, Choi’s work is also an instructive lesson in the value to be found in viewing our present as inundated with the ghosts of the past. Though what economists call “the miracle on the Han” may have radically transformed Korean culture, Choi’s poems, as she says in “In Front of My Old House,” continually “pass that unfamiliar old house like a ghost,” seeking out the whispers of memory that shimmer under the surface of our daily existence. In a beautifully lyrical afterword, “My Language and Its Moments,” Choi explains her preoccupation with memory: “These memories are scattered inside me, and they wander in the mist of time. In the fragments of memories, I feel like I can find my real existence, and I think it is the way I understand the world and others.” Within Choi’s poems, the blurring of memory, the way it hazes the line between past and present, dream and reality, creates a surreal echo effect; yet Choi asserts that such an ill-defined place provides a powerful vantage point from which to probe human existence.
Indeed, it is these deep questions that compel Choi to write: “Someone gave me life and I should answer. Now that I am alive and have a memory and can feel things deeply, I have to answer the questions of who I am, and where I am. So I write.” Reading these poems, one gains the sense that Choi takes her profession as a poet seriously; as a sort of mystic, she engages with the contradictions of reality: how we end up living one life and not another, how our past is overlaid onto the present, and how we can continue to live despite heartache and the knowledge of death. While such metaphysical musing could weigh down a poem, Choi artfully explores these questions via engagingly surreal images.
“Motes,” the opening poem of the collection, is typical of Choi’s work; profound, mysterious, and yet humorous, it uses the image of dust motes to discuss the time-space continuum of human existence: “We arrived, passing through that dust, / passing through that worm; / we arrived, after passing endlessly through.” As with many of Choi’s poems, such metaphysical, timeless observations are interwoven with the ordinary moment; “I let the baby down off my back and, / while I ordered and ate sundubu [spicy tofu soup], / and sniffed and wiped my nose.” Though this description situates us in the present, Choi also connects her moment to the moment in which we are reading the poem: “My age and yours—/ I can’t count the ages / that began in that dust.”
Though this poem, like many of Choi’s, features two strands of discourse—one in the “ordinary” present, and one in the world of memory, perception, or existential questioning—the power of her work comes in the way she interweaves these themes. In “Motes,” she performs this fusing by asking, “The dust that clings to dark clothes— / little pale things holding on so stubbornly, // what do you want to be?” Choi refuses to walk away from the shadows of these dust motes, convinced as she is that they remind us not only of our humble origins, but also of our insignificant ends; instead, she acknowledges them, calling out: “Hey, dust / clinging to dark clothes— / hey, abyss.” Normally we turn away from the abyss, yet Choi actively calls out to it, evoking the alluring possibility that our return to dust may not be the fearful end we expect.
Choi’s work often practices a kind of mindfulness about time and memory, while also capturing the way such awareness destabilizes our sense of self. In her afterword, Choi explains: “[S]ometimes I lose my sense of direction and time…These moments are usually short, but sometimes they last long enough to build a kingdom. These moments inspire me to write poems.” In every poem, we sense Choi working at her quest to share with us these poetic kingdoms that can provoke a productive questioning of our reality; as she says in “An Arrow Lying on the Road,” “I write that I’ll follow the white arrow bending left. / That hope behaves outrageously / so, every day, chased by it, I go a little farther.” Choi’s poems ask us to reverse our expectations; rather than chasing hope, we should come to see that the forward motion of the quest may be all the destination we need.
Ruth Williams is a Ph.D. candidate in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati. Currently, she is a Fulbright scholar in Seoul, South Korea. Her chapbook, Conveyance, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press.
Instances: Selected Poems
Translated by Brenda Hillman, Wayne De Fremery, Jeongrye Choi
Parlor Press, September 2011