It has taken me longer to get this done than I promised. I started writing it just before I was due to move to Exeter. I am beginning to settle in here. But Jeju & Korea are never far from my thoughts.
Yoon Yong as both hero & poem germinated together. I had read Trevor Joyce’s The Immediate Future published online at Smithereens Press & though it has nothing much in common with Yoon Yong it burrowed the nascent idea to write a narrative poem.
The poem was to be unbroken originally, heavily abstracted & more suggestive of a clear plot than acute enough to actually have one. I recoiled from this. Yoon Yong was persuasive, she wanted to be rendered.
My initial conception had begun from a lack of intrepidity. I was & remained & still am concerned that this could all be misconstrued by the current climate of criticism toward the stale pale male. But writing is about a certain willingness to challenge yourself. In tandem with this, I had direct experience of not only Jeju, but also of Korean women married to English men: I was in such a marriage & it was going badly.
Yoon Yong is not my wife & I am not the belittled husband. The characters are completely fictional. But the loss of identity that Yoon Yong is struggling to get a handle on, is not. It was something I felt as someone who was speaking less English. My wife & I did not know each other’s language to a refined enough standard that there was absolute understanding between us. This created tension. So the germination of Yoon Yong’s identity crisis was a fictional realization of my own & my wife’s communicative struggle taken further. There are plenty of Westerners in relationships with Koreans who speak hardly a word of Korean & make a poor effort to familiarize themselves, or make a gestured attempt at understanding their partner’s culture. Too many Westerners in such relationships are prone to assume the superiority of their culture because of its standing in the world. Cultures are different & familiarization breeds understanding & understanding breeds acceptance. It isn’t always easy, but it is simply arrogant to assume superiority. Regardless of efforts to familiarize yourselves with each other, cultural barriers do assert their effects on the relationship. There need be extra vigilance & acceptance, & a certain amount of letting things slide, if such a relationship is to succeed.
Yoon Yong is complex, in large part because of her Westernization. Through the prism of her identity crisis, we find her using westernized habits of behavior, but using them to criticize the west, which is an irony caused by the replacement (or temporary exchange) of one cultural characteristic for another, more recently conditioned characteristic: she complains, which is not what I’d consider a Korean attitude; Koreans tend to keep shtum about anything worth complaining about, rather opting to do something productive. In the opening poem, Yoon Yong exemplifies this critical attitude:
Nor fall in line with the cultural stereotype like
young couples taking in-flight selfies | nuzzled
in the crease of one another’s elbows | dressed
in couple-clothes & silly hats—they look inter-bred |
arms numb with romance.
My ex-wife would not see any point in criticizing people for something this shallow. But by thinking this way, Yoon Yong becomes an individual, her isolation from both cultures comes into focus.
Why I didn’t use my own marriage, was owing to it not being challenging enough, moreover it felt impossible to make it interesting. By weaving the fictional with the experiential, I could materialize a much more coherent & cogent world.
Fictional poems using the individual poem to develop a narrative have always grabbed my attention. John Berryman’s Dream Songs are ever present, & ever pressing on me as an influence, an anxiety-of. But I am under no illusion where I am as a poet, career-wise.
In addition to Berryman, Roethke’s Meditations of an Old Woman is something of a precursor, if loosely.
Who is Yoon Yong?
The name Yoon Yong is simply one of my favourite Korean names. I have only met one woman with this name. Each character when written is almost a mirror of the other (윤용) but the mirroring is thrown by the ㄴ swapped for ㅇ. This is symbolic of her relationship with her husband & her culture(s)—she is so near to being balanced but that slight hitch is enough to discombobulate the balance: it has aural similitude to yin yang. In Marriage is crap Yoon Yong explains:
He still can't say my name correctly | (is that it?)
pronounces it | ironically as Yin Yang—how does he
continually mistake the ‘i’ with ‘oo’ | which makes
a deep ‘you’ sound—the ‘a’ with diphthong ‘eo’.
He is an idiot of the rarest sort.
It is panic at being confronted with alien
forces beyond his control. I gave up on him getting
it right | he calls me by my English (slave | lol) name
Rose | which sounds ridiculous…
I know the way out of a rose…
Her explanation of how to pronounce her name reveals a deep rooted, subconscious issue with “you”, an incongruity in not just his being taken out his cultural comfort-zone, but with her blind reluctance to sympathize with him; she knows well enough the difficulty of adjusting to new environments as we discover in Homesickness in Birmingham where the husband’s action of making her a pot noodle is both a foreshadowing of their strained relationship & also comfort to her. So the problem is established as each other: “you”. This is hyperbolically analogized as a slave name, which even Yoon Yong in her ire, realizes is “lol”.
The final line adds to the irony if the rose is a metonym for Englishness. She thinks she knows the way out, but her conflict suggests otherwise. The line is taken from Roethke’s Her Becoming, part of Meditations of an Old Woman. Where the rose is obviously seen as a labyrinth out of the subterranean depths of consciousness.
Language is a key element to understanding Yoon Yong. It is both her success in utilizing it & her failure to use it for the purposes she would prefer to use it for, which hint at her dissatisfaction. Yoon Yong’s precursor is Kim Seung-hee, a poet who writes about being a domesticated woman in patriarchal Korea. She writes poems on domestic boredom, children, pregnancy, films, dream, body, & all in a muscular, idiosyncratic style. Only Kim Seung-hee could be Yoon Yong’s precursor. It is her struggle & accepted failure to be a translator of Seung-hee that destabilizes her intentions & her confidence. There would be meaning to her existence if she were able to do this, so we must not be fooled by her examination of poet & translator in the poem There’s no need to be a poet (time is forgotten):
It’s probably for the best I never became a poet
or translator: a poet has the anxiety to write
something new |to transmute so much mundanity
into a coagulation of symbols that raises bpm
—else they must make a life busy with happenings |
dilemmas & so much heart ache & madness.
The translator must be at the beck n’ call
of this poet of happenings this force of nature
prone to the altercations of time & the motions
of weather with such acuity it makes my cells itch.
& isn’t the outcome of the translator |jealousy?
No permit by the public to be reckless & intense.
The poet gets to be the eyes of God.
The lodestone of the universe.
The precious birth of atoms damming space & time.
There’s no need for me to be a poet.
I need to be plain & pleased
with the me that I am. If I’m not what then…?
At the point where “time is forgotten” Yoon Yong makes an effort to forget her anxiety of influence. In the following poem More insight we find Yoon Yong in a laconic mood, where “There is so little effort needed to be alive | it’s mostly automated”. Her insights on the poet & translator, encourage her to a state of “plain & pleased”, which turns out to be too direct, leading to dull, repetitious, just-being-sterility. But in almost the same lung of air, she hastens back into her critical habit: “Most people are still animals. Aren’t we beyond that? / “Man is not a beast” (thanks Kim Chi-ha). / Why does low intelligence equate to lower entropy?” Quoting Kim Chi-ha, she quotes a poet who was imprisoned for speaking out against the government of Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye’s father (note that Yoon Yong marched against Park Geun-hye in the December marches & was successful where Kim Chi-ha was imprisoned, perhaps she has taken for granted her power to alter fate).
I wince, but Yoon Yong is, at a structural level, a travel poem. The decision for this narrative structure was a simple one, if you understand who visits the island, & for how long. Koreans rarely spend more than a couple of days touring Jeju, as it is less than an hour’s flight from Seoul Gimpo Airport, & ticket prices aren’t exorbitant. Out of season, hire cars are relatively cheap, as is accommodation. The place became a vehicle for the passage of time, thus the narrative structure.
Using the sub-title enabled me to dissolve the time as Yoon Yong became more detached from her Seoul-life. Thus the passage of time moves from precision, to inexact, to not even thought about.
I have written many poems in Jeju about Jeju & my will to show the island through poetry would still not dissolve when it came to writing Yoon Yong. It is crammed with atmosphere. It really is an ideal place for a contemporary fiction on the dark night of the soul.
The poem is an invitation to a place. A place fraught with tension between an indigenous populace (of sorts) & an El-Dorado for mainlanders to get rich & most importantly, escape Seoul. For tourists Jeju is freedom from city landscapes. It is an unfamiliar landscape, with its foundation of scoria, its temperate & almost tropical climate in the summer & its white sand beaches & turquoise ocean, offer a taste of paradise—a paradise seen on digital billboards in the subterranean depths of the Seoul Metro.
I would often see women travelling alone in Jeju. Some were very young, perhaps testing the waters of independence, seeing how they’d get along with only themselves for company. It was a no brainer to have Yoon Yong alone, in an environment that symbolized freedom. The poem became a single soliloquy. But what is interesting about Jeju is that it is Korea, so Yoon Yong becomes a tourist in her own country (essentially) & so we have another contextual device alluding to her identity crisis.
Why Yoon Yong will not be resurrected
Yoon Yong is a series & I do not see it as essential, nor am I curious to take her further than where I have gone. Yoon Yong had to break out of the loop she was caught in. She has. The weather of her psyche materialized actually & helped her make the decision she needed to make. You can assume Yoon Yong made the right decision. Leave it at that. The loss of her ring is the clearly symbolic sign she needed, which in collusion with her 2 days of dreaming & seeing, is not something to ignore. I leave to the reader to envisage Yoon Yong’s future.
Though Yoon Yong is done for me, the narrative poem isn’t. I wrote Yoon Yong without access to books. I had little for intellectual stimulus other than what I could forage from my reaction to my own imagination coupled & massaged by my experiences. With access to a larger pond of ideas, I am certain I can construct a not necessarily more complex, but certainly a different & potentially better informed characterization.
I am currently working into notes another Korean character, this time a young man, early twenties, who is very sensitive. He is not very good at making money. He is estranged from the particularities of the orthodox Korean manner. A photographer who is trying to evade his military service. His name is Pureum, which has an interesting meaning. Pureum, is the feeling you have when you are looking at a turquoise ocean, or a blue sky, or even an emerald. It isn’t the colour but the feeling toward the colour. Pureum is based on a young lad who worked for me in Korea. He is a friend of mine & I think his story, fictionalized, will provide me with ample material to write another series.
Despite a non-fiction foundation, the poem about Pureum will be a fiction. To write a fiction is not to lie. Terry Eagleton in How to Read a Poem explains that “to fictionalize, then, is to detach a piece of writing from its immediate, empirical context and put it to wider uses.” Bearing this in mind, if I write the truth it is biography, which would make it difficult to put signifiers to symbolic use, which provides the poet with opportunities to make the poem ambivalent, ambiguous, more literary, in short; the poem chews off more than it can bite. “Fiction instructs us in what we are to do with texts, not in how true or false they are.” Just because I fictionalize a person I know, does not mean the poem is full of lies. The poem will still get something done, it may even, were the real Pureum to read it, reflect his character in a truthful way he recognizes, & if not, it may be that it provides a spur for him to reassess, or simply assess, the characteristics of the fictionalized Pureum in relation to what he understands about himself. As Shenandoah Fish considers in Delmore Schwartz’s story America! America! we cannot know ourselves accurately unless we add to this how everyone we know perceives us.
Due to the volume of interesting people I became acquainted with in Korea, it isn’t out of the question for me to write a number of these narrative poems. Here’s to hoping.