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Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women.

Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women, by Ch'oe Sungja, Kim Hyesoon, and Yi Yon-ju, (trans. by Don Mee Choi). Zephyr Press, 175 pp., $16.

Anxiety of Words is a bilingual anthology featuring work by three Korean women poets, Ch'oe Sung-ja (b. 1952), Kim Hyesoon (b. 1955), and Yi Yon-ju (1953-1992). More than twenty poems by each poet, published between 1981 and 1994, are here available in English for the first time. The right-hand pages show Don Mee Choi's translations, and those on the left display the original poems in Hangul, the written Korean language established in 1446 that consists of fourteen consonants and ten vowels. This anthology includes biographical notes on the three poets and begins with an introduction on women's poetry in Korea, contextualizing the poets' work and providing context for their innovations.

These poets share similarities other than gender and nationality. They were born after the Japanese occupation and educated only in hangul. They became adults during the military dictatorships of Presidents Park Chung Hee (1961-79) and Chun Doo Hwan (1980-87), when the government suppressed student-led pro-democratic protests and enforced censorship. They belong to a culture, still influenced by Confucian ideals of womanhood, in which a woman is expected to be ch'onyo (a young virgin), ajumma (a wife with children), and halmoni (a grandmother). Their poems depict a reality in which many women fulfill none of these roles or all of them at once. The language of the poems can be plainspoken, gritty at times, and it takes various forms, defying traditional yoryu (female) poetry, which prizes a certain type of gentleness expressed in refined language. Ch'oe, Kim, and Yi challenge social and literary expectations.

The work of each poet is distinct, as each woman possesses her own voice and concerns. Ch'oe Sung-ja uses what Kim Hyesoon calls a "confessional device" to resist an external world, dominated by patriarchy and military rule, for this world turns the body into a "coffin" or makes it so ill that "the core of pus glows / like a halo." Kim Hyesoon defines identity with a "conversational device," exploring multiple selves within a woman. In "Memories of Giving Birth to a Daughter," she describes labor as entering a series of mirrors and finding "all the ancestral mothers are sitting inside." Yi Yon-ju documents the lives of neglected women, women in poverty, and women working as military prostitutes, in what Kim Hyesoon describes as a "diary-like" style. In "What's Wrong," she brings to our attention a woman who chooses to be childless, and in "Lying on a Mat at the Market" a woman who sells dried sardines. This poetry moves beyond the polemical; it is grounded in details of everyday life, family, and loss.

Don Mee Choi's thoughtful translations convey the originals' despair while preserving, in some poems, a matter-of-fact tone and playfulness. Her selections for this anthology suggest that poetry can be a force for social change. Yet, like any anthology, Anxiety of Words is limited in its scope. This book provides only a glimpse of what these three poets--or any woman writing in Korea today--have to offer. Still, it is a must-read for anyone interested in Korea and modern women's literature.
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Author:Park, Diana
Publication:West Branch
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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