The Snow Falling on Chagall's Village: Selected Poems by Kim Ch'un-Su, by Kim Ch'un-Su (trans. Kim Jong-Gil). Cornell East Asia Series, 93. Ithaca, NY: East Asia Program, Cornell University, 1998 . (ISBN 1-885445-53-9 cloth; ISBN 1-885445-93-8 paper).
The Hanguk Ilbo recently (5 January 1999) asked a group of 100 well-known poets, novelists and literary critics to choose ten poets and ten poems from the 20th century which would remain as classics in the 21st century. A glimpse of the contemporary importance ascribed to Kim Ch'un-Su [Kim Ch'unsu (1922- )] is revealed by the fact that he was selected as the ninth poet (tied with Ko Un) on the list. In addition, his "Kkot" (Flower) was ranked ninth on the list of poems. While critical of Kim Ch'un-Su's "desire for compromise over struggle, tranquillity over suffering, faith over inquiry," Kim Yunsik and Kim Hyôn nevertheless acknowledged as early as 1973 that "along with Sô Chôngju and Kim Suyông, he has exerted the strongest influence on poetry in the post-liberation period. The vast majority of poems known as poems of being [chonjae ûi si] or poems investigating interiority [naemyôn t'amgu ûi si] owe an enormous debt to Kim Ch'un-Su's poetic explorations."
The Snow Falling on Chagall's Village contains a selection of translated poems (arranged in chronological order, but with no dates) spanning Kim Ch'un-Su's long and prolific career, from his first volume of poetry, The Cloud and the Rose (1948) to his latest, The Woods that Sleep Standing (1993). Kim Jong-Gil [Kim Chonggil] tells us that his selection was aimed at providing poems which were "the best and most communicable in the entire poetic corpus of Kim Ch'un-Su" (viii). The collection of translations, which includes such well-known poems as "Flag," "Flower," "Prologue for a Flower," "The Bare Tree and Poetry," selections from "Fragments on Ch'oyong [Ch'ôyong]," as well as later works such as "Goya's Scream," "Scenes on the Acropolis" and "A Red Dragonfly," performs this task admirably, allowing the reader to trace the many transformations of a poet known for an unceasing ability to reinvent his poetic project.
Yi Sûnghun has distinguished five separate stages in Kim Ch'un-Su's poetry. The first (dating from his literary debut in 1948 to the late 1950s) is marked by an ontological exploration, in particular an investigation of the relationship between being and language, of the ways in which phenomena cannot exist separately from the act of naming. The second period (late 1950s to the mid-1960s) focuses on the development of the notion of "descriptive imagery," the invocation of an image not as a means to convey ideas, but in order to elicit another image. In this "world of images existing for the sake of images" it is the "images themselves which become objects." The third period (mid-1960s to the mid-1970s) is described as a "post-imagist" phase. Images are no longer linked to each other in terms of reference, but instead are characterized by their own effacement. An image comes into play by dismembering another image, an act which foretells its own eradication at the hands of a third image. The fourth period (mid-1970s to the early 1980s) witnesses a turn to reflections on the nature of religion and art. The fifth period (early 1980s to the present) is informed by the elaboration of a sense of "resignation and humor."
Kim Jong-Gil states that he has pursued a "policy of attempting maximum fidelity to both the text and the poetry" (viii). In The Snow Falling on Chagall's Village, Kim has indeed succeeded in maintaining a delicate balance between readability and faithfulness to the original. It is a careful, well-crafted translation. If one were pressed to find fault somewhere, however, a very small issue to raise would be the matter of punctuation in several of the poems in the collection ("Flag," "Fountain" and "Prologue for a Flower"). Kim Ch'un-Su often makes use of a comma to conclude his poems, or, more accurately, to point to a certain inconclusiveness. The translator has chosen to elide this usage.
In his introduction, Kim Jong-Gil describes Kim Ch'un-Su as "an avowed purist and experimentalist" (2). Indeed, Kim Ch'un-Su's association with the "pure literature" (sunsu munhak) camp has engendered much criticism of his work, including a less than generous psychoanalytic reading of his texts by Kim Hyôn. Cho Namhyôn and others have pointed to the relations between Kim Ch'un-Su's work and the poetry of Rilke, as well as that of French symbolists such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Valéry. Study of Kim Ch'un-Su's poetry, then, provides the opportunity both to address the contested terrain of post-liberation Korean literary history and to explore the discursive relations between the work of an innovative Korean poet, one whose project seems to remain always necessarily incomplete, and the texts of Western poets.
Kim Jong-Gil's translation, the winner of the Cornell East Asia Program Yeonam Prize for "outstanding book-length Korean work," represents a significant contribution to Korean studies. It should be a welcome addition to Korean literature courses taught in English translation.