[KS] KSR 2004-12: _Sending the Ship Out to the Stars: Poems of Park Je-chun_, by Park Je-chun,

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Wed Sep 1 00:31:59 EDT 2004

_Sending the Ship Out to the Stars:  Poems of Park Je-chun_, by Park 
Je-chun, trans. Ko Chang Soo, 1997.  Ithaca:  Cornell East Asia 
Series no. 88.  100 pp.  (ISBN 1-8854-4558-X).

Reviewed by Scott Swaner
University of Washington
swaner at u.washington.edu

	In the translator's introduction to Sending the Ship Out to 
the Stars:  Poems of Park Je-chun, Ko Chang Soo describes Park 
Je-chun (Pak Che-ch'ôn, b. 1945) as a "spiritualist poet [who] shows 
himself to be well rooted in everyday reality" (xi).  The description 
seems strategically intended to place the poet somewhere other than 
within the traditional, and too often strict, categorization of poets 
since the 1950s as either "pure" or socially "engaged."  Ko's 
description aims at transcendence, an attempt uncannily recognized in 
the poet's work as well.  In fact, Ko invokes the term "spiritualist" 
to suggest just one sub-group among all of the traditionally oriented 
poetic voices of modern Korea, those with which he contrasts the 
voices of the so-called experimentalists and politically oriented 
poets.  Achieved through a style that draws simultaneously on melodic 
and prosaic elements, Park's unique voice inquires into universal 
philosophical (predominantly existential) questions, all the while 
remaining rooted in local tradition and culture. Park's poetic 
projects include:  (1) explorations of language that hovers between 
prosaic form and lyric melody; (2) attempts to ground poetry's 
imaginative power in the Eastern traditions of Buddhism and Taoism; 
and (3) efforts to confront historical reality with poetic 
transcendence (Kwôn Yôngmin, Han'guk hyôndae munhaksa 268-269).  All 
these projects are represented in Sending the Ship, which is made up 
of selections from several of Park's books.

	Among other themes suggested by the title of this collection 
is the metapoetic. The thematized act of writing, a characteristic 
that inheres in all poetry to some extent,  features prominently in 
Park's work and specifically highlights his sensitive engagement with 
language.  For the poet, his poems are like "little ships" sent out 
to the readers' universe of stars and space.  For example, in "Recent 
Status" we read, "Each night I send off several newly built ships. / 
My little ships which become full / with only loads of waterlight and 
moonlight . . ." (69).  A diligent shipwright, the poet works to 
build these little ships, sends them off, and waits, but throughout 
his poetry and this collection he seems to wait in vain.  Such 
waiting points to the paradoxical if not dialectical side of his, 
otherwise generally acknowledged, transcendent tendencies.  An 
existential cloud of emptiness, questioning, and simply waiting hangs 
over his poems.  Thus his attempts to peer into the "vacant sky"-a 
recurrent trope in this book-of existence provide the reader with 
insight into the potential purpose of not only life but poetry as 
well.  Readers may refer to Park's 1997 book Si rûl ôttôhk'e koch'il 
kôt in'ga (How to fix poetry?) for a more explicit authorial 
exposition on the writing, working, and meaning of poetry.

	Concerning the poet's sending and waiting, that is, his quest 
for answers and his concurrent quest to stop caring about those 
answers, the poems in this book repeatedly suggest a terrestrial 
overcoming (or ch'ogûk) sought through nihility or non-existence. 
For example, "Void No. 4" reads:  "The voices of insects leap into 
the empty sky. / . . . / Why do you and I exist in the heaven and 
earth / full of those insect voices? / Are you and I utterly futile?" 
(81).  Park's poems marshal the imagery of objects in order to 
explore Buddhistic themes of human transience and karma, and Taoist 
themes of peaceful acceptance of one's cosmic place in a life lacking 
meaning -- in other words, of being-in-itself.  And yet despite the 
existential(ist) overtones pervading his poetry, it would be 
inaccurate to read these moments as nihilistic complaints rather than 
liberatory endeavors carried out through a poetry concerned with the 
objects we experience here and now:  "It is simply that I abandon the 
futile shadow / in order to jump over the fence of this mind" (59). 
Enlightened transcendence through the mundane and the banal: we get 
the feeling Park wants to write his way through the particular in 
order to reach the universal.  In the poet's words, "A world waits 
for me, / a world in a drop of water" (55).

	And yet, despite the way Park's poetic gaze hovers around the 
particular (the material object), a profound sense of unworldliness 
pervades this collection.  Striking is the absence of nearly anything 
we can identify as "modern" or "urban" in these poems written in the 
last three decades.  One feels Park's existence is rather like a 
contemporary gentleman-scholar in exile, a modern-day Yun Sôndo.  His 
poems, accordingly, are possessed of near complete timelessness.  One 
poem is written to Baudelaire (80), another mentions a supermarket 
(76), "barbwire" appears twice (64, 66), and we also encounter one 
photograph (61), a postage stamp (50), Apollinaire and a pipe-organ 
(45).  While objects feature prominently in Park's work, it is not 
modern items or figures so much as the rustic, traditional, and 
folk--a pre-industrialized world filled with birds, trees, mountains, 
clouds, rain.  In one especially well-rendered phrase, the speaker 
seeks, hears, and writes of "the applause of shapeless things" (49). 
Park works on his little ships, not in cities, but in temples, 
villages, fields, mountains, and the empty skies.  In this sense, he 
well represents poetry of the so-called pure school.  In the poem 
entitled "No. 1," the speaker evokes the spiritual realm through 
natural imagery, alludes to a temple bell through the image of its 
fish-shaped striker, and then, after hanging a "desolate painting on 
a temple gate," he stops to think and a question comes to mind. 
Rather than ask with Yi Sanghwa, "Does spring return to stolen 
fields?", Park poses a more fundamental, spiritual, and nearly 
ontological, as opposed to legalistic, question -- as we picture the 
speaker gazing about himself, then wondering aloud -- "Whose land is 
this anyway?" (53).

	Given the persisting dearth of modern poetry translations, 
not to mention competently (let alone skillfully) translated Korean 
poetry, Sending the Ship is a welcome addition.  What is more, even 
though Park is widely anthologized in Korea, this volume brings us a 
less commonly heard poetic voice that maintains itself despite 
variegated translation quality.  A number of these poems have 
previously appeared in US literary journals and these previously 
published translations stand out as the most poetic, highest quality 
pieces in this collection.  That said, a number of the translations 
might well benefit from some revision, perhaps in a second edition. 
Overall, this book serves as a reminder to all of us who translate 
that, in the words of the poet Giacamo Leopardi, "a translation is 
perfect when the author translated is not, for example, Greek in 
Italian, or Greek or French in German, but the same in Italian or 
German as he is in Greek or French."  Nevertheless, to cite one of 
the brightest ships Park sends out to the stars, we hope the poems 
will endure as "A flame I make and then send away / flickers like 
starlight" (60).

Swaner, Scott 2004
_Sending the Ship Out to the Stars:  Poems of Park Je-chun_, by Park 
Je-chun, trans. Ko Chang Soo (1997)
_Korean Studies Review_ 2004, no. 12
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr04-12.htm
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