Lee Si-young’s “Patterns”

Reviewed by John W. W. Zeiser

Image of Lee Si-young’s “Patterns”

A writing professor of mine once admonished my class for praising a story simply because it jibed with our personal understanding of an experience or thing: in the case of the workshop, a student’s short story about an Alzheimer’s patient. Instead, my professor argued that fiction is effective when it makes us believe, regardless of or even in spite of its resonance with personal experience. Such advice obliges me to acknowledge my own bias, hopelessly intertwined with my reading of Korean poet Lee Si-young’s Patterns. Having had the fortune of two fruitful years in Seoul, South Korea, I have strong memories of both city and country, and at times while reading Patterns I couldn’t help thinking, yes, this is exactly how this looked, smelled, sounded, or seemed; ergo this poetry is good. I chuckled at his wry observations on Korean idiosyncrasies and shared in his depression about the peninsula’s continued division. However, I would like to think that Lee’s poetry, aided by limpid translations from Brother Anthony and Yoo Hui-sok, would have struck me even if I had never stepped foot in South Korea.

The selections in Patterns span more than thirty years, beginning with 1976’s Manweol (Full Moon), and provide a careful outline of Lee’s development as a poet. From the outset, his style is deceptively simple. Lee’s poetry is influenced by the tightness of sijo, a traditional Korean poetic form marked by simple diction, aphorisms, and sudden line endings. The language is often serene, and bound to nature. The whole of the title poem “Patterns” reads:

          Leaves gently fall from trees onto sidewalks.
          Once someone tried to follow the leaves’ shadows.

But what seem like small, self-contained lyrics often cut much deeper. Take for example the short prose poem “On an Escalator”:

          I have never before seen so many lively living creatures transformed in a flash into death’s complexion.

The image in the poem is beautifully unsettling, and embodies Lee’s tranquil gaze, disturbed by the crushing speed of modern life.

It’s refreshing to encounter poems both lyrical and political. When poetry addresses significant, worldly issues, it risks being elliptical or ham-fisted, which distracts from the purely artistic merit of a poem. Lee, however, navigates these pitfalls adeptly. Concerns about capital, hypermodernity, the erosion of ancient traditions, and his country’s division  are all fitted neatly into Lee’s natural, lyrical style.

Korean culture, with its orthodox Confucianism, is bound to family and place, which are often one and the same. But modernity has displaced many Koreans from their ancestral homes, much as it has displaced other traditions. Lee is especially adept at using family as a means to understand larger cultural anxieties that have been so pressing over the course of his life. In particular, it’s his mother’s biography and his relationship with her that stand as a microcosm for societal anxieties. In “Mother”, published in 1986, Lee addresses what Korea is leaving behind by examining what he literally leaves behind every morning:

          but once your son and his wife have rushed off to work wearing glasses
          your day’s only work is to take your grand-daughter
          to kindergarten, holding her by the wrist.

His mother’s life was not easy (colonial rule, two wars, and a life of farming), yet Lee also finds the rhythm of it, a repetitive contentment that accompanied the seasons:

            When the rice sprouted in the plains you’d hum songs you’d picked up
            in the factory, dig fields, do all kinds of work
            like a manual laborer coming home with the moon high above

After all she had been through, Lee wonders, “How could you imagine you’d end here, cooped up like a bird/ in a cage at the top of this city apartment block?” On the fourteenth floor she is completely severed from her past: “there is no one to speak to, no one to talk to, / just a suffocating void of isolation.”

In looking at photographs of South Korean cities, one quickly comprehends how rapid and violent change (read: development) was in South Korea. Photos taken in the late ‘70s of Gangnam—now the posh, ultramodern district of Seoul made globally famous by Psy—show little more than farms and fields bounded by mountains. Then came the Miracle on the Han River, and reluctantly the old joined their children, obliged to finish their lives amidst the ubiquitous apartment buildings draping the peripheries of rapidly industrialized cities. Lee exclaims “This is no way to live” and his observations make it easy to see why.

Lee’s treatment of the perils of modernity is effortless yet unnerving. In the prose poem “Idleness” a local butcher washes his hands of blood and stretches out for a nap after his morning’s work. The narrator passing on his way to work seems wistful for such a respite but must hurry on, “rubbing hard at my bloodshot eyes.” Modernity holds no promise of idleness or rest for the office-bound narrator, only the harried, constant hustle of the city.

Although these issues appear again and again, Lee’s poetry is not defined by this tension. Instead, his poetry reveals a willingness to engage with, even embrace, memory’s unreliability. He often reduces language to the kind of hazy approximations writers are told to avoid in favor of specificity (the word or prefix “some” appears a lot). But these, somehow, work; they build into a kind of equivocal truth of how difficult it is to recall the past. The six-poem sequence “The Heart’s Own Home” conveys how tangible yet far away memory remains. In “The Heart’s Own Home 2 —That Hill,” Lee concedes immediately, “I don’t know why I cannot forget that spot,/ old Nonsil’s paddy across from our field”. He can half-recall odd, wonderful moments, yet by the end he is no closer to understanding why he cannot forget. His only answer: a metaphysical “Something seemed to be calling me.”

Lee has long experimented with prose poems, but in recent years he has come to favor the form more exclusively. Despite their bulletin-like appearance, they brim with Lee’s humanity and gleam with his poetic sensibilities. They reveal a man getting on in years, more grounded in the mundane and the present, more preoccupied with his mortality.  There are trips, to India (“Marathon”) and North Korea’s Diamond Mountains (“Homeland”); TV news reports (“Amusing News” and “CNN”); and the deaths of friends, poets, and fellow revolutionaries (“The Death of an Old Revolutionary” and “Relation,” a particularly striking and humanist piece). Lee’s perspective has not disappeared; his gaze has just shifted with his culture’s changing vernacular.

Though awareness of recent Korean history can imbue Lee’s poems with increased urgency, as translator Brother Anthony points out in the preface, one needn’t have the firmest grasp of historical minutia to appreciate them. For beneath the weighty, worldly issues Lee raises lies something more purely poetic. In “Did I Ever” he tells readers that “a true poet / has to be capable of participating in the cosmic task.” With characteristic humility, Lee questions repeatedly whether he has contributed to this endeavor, but if the poem, and Patterns is any indication, he can rest easy.