Review:Magnolia & Lotus
Selected Poems of Hyesim
Translated by Ian Haight and T’ae-Yŏng Hŏ
Chin’gak Kuska Hyesim’s Buddhist poetry survives from 13th century Korea and arrives in this present translation, which includes tightly-phrased imagistic poetry that draws its spiritualism equally from nature and social settings. This collection offers layers of meaning, both from the Buddhist unfolding of significance and from the pairing of the introductory notes with the text of the translated poems.
The opening notes are instructive in how poetry seeks to embody meaning through image and metaphor instead of through direct statement. For example, Haight explains how the boiling tea kettle is a frequent metaphor for meditation in Hyesim. With that one bit of information, the deceivingly simple poems take on new layers. Many water images appear in the nature poems: flowing, frozen, and misty. It’s an easy leap to see water as states of consciousness. “Tea-Spring” brings these images together:
Old moss conceals pine roots–
From a granite hole, a spring gushes its spirit-fountain.
Opportune refreshment is not easy to find–
in this place, I’ll try to brew tea.
Translation in poetry is not transliteration; it is always a creative act, and especially so given the distance from Hyesim’s time and language to contemporary English. The end notes reveal this distance: one poem contains a “six-eyebrowed monk” about whom the translators say “the meaning of ‘six-eyebrowed’ is unknown at this time.” This and other notes offer insight in the meaning of meaning, in terms of both translation and the nature of the universe.