January. 1. 2021
[Book review] Pandemic-weary poets around world muse on life
|“Staying on Earth” by Kim Hye-soon et al. / Courtesy of Nexus|
By Park Han-sol
“Hey, I thought my enemy was communism or imperialism… Or aliens or nightmare… / But it was you all along.”
In “Location of an Enemy,” poet Lee Jang-wook comes to realize that the enemy he feared all his life was neither patriarchy, terrorists nor racists; it was another person, a potential host of the virus, greeting him.
His poem is one of many pieces included in “Staying on Earth,” a poetry anthology first published in September by CUON in Japanese and later translated into Korean. CUON is a Japanese publishing house that was established to introduce Korean literature to the country.
As a global literary project centering on COVID-19, the collection features 56 poets from 18 countries, who muse on life, pain and hope in the wake of the destructive pandemic.
Although we are constantly seized with fears of the virus and our surroundings, holding back our coughs and becoming fixated on masks, the poets’ emotive language that crosses geographical boundaries attempts to bring people together.
Kim So-yeon looks at how she has “too much time” alone on her hands, while festivals, funerals and the seats next to her become emptied.
“The predictions made by the disaster movies are wrong. / There is no city filled with ashy remains / but the blue sky and white clouds greet every morning, which sounds like a lie,” she writes in “Like a Lie.”
One poet sees the coronavirus as the “cough webs” built by the evil, lonely spider overlord, imprisoning all people in the cities while at the same time making them realize how much they need each other (Jang Ok-gwan’s “Built by Dark Spider Overlord”). Another views it as either an unexpected trigger for her mother’s own dog to bark at the mask-wearing poet during an evening walk (Daniela Varvara’s “Breathing Practice”) or a threat that forces people to shout at each other “Stay home,” an order usually made to a dog (Seiko Ito’s “Us Staying on Earth”).
In Um Won-tae’s “New Nation, Stardust,” the Diamond Princess cruise ship that harbored 3,711 people while the virus ravaged the ship in May became a miniature, newly established nation off the shore of Yokohama declaring independence from the rest of the world.
Some try to find hope in this world of despair.
Michael Brennan describes the rules one should keep in mind during the pandemic, including asking others about their aunts and dead pets, what their interests are even if they have none and whether they like David Bowie, ending the list that everything will be alright.
While some die and others continue to walk towards death, an eventual destination we are too familiar with, Fiona Sampson hopes there to be at least a trail of footprints left behind in the sand.
“Everyone warns and guards against the fact that extinction and ruin will eventually come. They whisper to each other that COVID-19 is the embodiment of that fact. Because those whispers hurt us, we gather together. It is too cold and dark all on our own,” literary critic Ra Min-ae writes in the anthology’s prologue, adding that collecting poems is like writing a survival report.
“In the age of darkness, let us meet with the language of darkness. The glitter of one’s eyes writing and reading the poems is a kind of light that can twinkle in this shadow.”