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Weaving the LightChoi Jeong-rye

『Weaving the Light』

Author : Choi Jeong-rye
Publisher : Changbi
Publication date : November 13, 2020
Number of pages : 132
Format : 125x200mm
ISBN : 9788936478476

Choi Jeong-rye

She was born in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi-do in 1955 and completed her graduate studies at Korea University with a degree in Korean Language and Literature. She debuted in 1990 with The Contemporary Poetry. Her work includes the poetry collections A Tiger in Sunlight, Red Fields, A Kangaroo Is a Kangaroo and I Am Me and the English-translated poetry collection Instances. She won several awards including the Baek Sok Prize for Literature, Hyundae Munhak Award and Midang Literary Award. She passed away on January 16, 2021.

Becoming the Weave of Light Within and Without


Being a master of something has its own pros and cons. Since one has already become skilled, one rarely fails. However, one is also confined in one’s own way and ends up producing works that are repetitive. It is every artist’s dream to age with stability while also maintaining fresh perspectives. Choi Jeong-rye has achieved that dream. That is the reason why she continues to be an inspiration to future generations of poets and keeps instilling a sense of tension among critics. It would be better to focus and summarize the one idea that keeps surfacing in this poetry collection, rather than going back to what she has been doing well. The word “weave” will cover that idea.

Weaving, between one person and another

The ideas that I jotted down while reading her poetry seemed familiar somehow, so I went through what I wrote after reading her 2006 work Lebanon Emotion. Similar expressions were there. Expressions such as “Don’t know whether to do this or that” or “Can’t laugh, can’t cry.” Choi Jeong-rye is the master of capturing the moments that can only be expressed by these phrases. She sees a goat above a tree and says, “It just climbed the tree/for the sake of climbing/and just hangs in there/because it cannot come down,” (“With Three-Tier Expressions”); rather than saying the goat climbed the tree to eat or live. Another example is how she is drawn towards the story about a boy who led out someone else’s bull, couldn’t control it and was led about instead, then threw a rock at it in anger and ended up killing it (“Borrowing Someone Else’s Cow”). It is a signature Choi Jeong-rye style.

We cannot describe her unique character with prim phrases such as “dealing with the irony of life.” The essence is ultimately brutal conflict with another. Let’s take a look at her classic, superb poem “A Duvet Seller.” It is about a story of a person who walks into a duvet shop and puts a hand on one, then falls prey to the duvet seller’s business skill to end up buying a duvet that they did not want in the first place. The words that frequently appear in this poem are “reject” and “stuck.” “I” try to reject someone who tries to take advantage of me, but “I” am stuck with that person because “he knows me better than I do.” A person who is afraid of getting criticized by others sometimes even risks being a victim simply to avoid criticism. This is not just an episode, it’s a war. The story of Ophiocordyceps (a kind of fungus that gets inside a head of an ant, turning it into a zombie-like creature), which the poet adds at the end of the poem, is not simply a joke.

Let’s look at another example. In “A Cicada”, the poet laments the fact that “how a cicada waits underground for seven years to be born,” and just sticks itself into random places and cannot stop crying. When we recall that a cicada cries on and on for the sake of mating, and we come to think “there’s something heartbreaking about their way of life.” But this is dangerous, because we will also be too tender-hearted in front of the men who are like those male cicadas. That cry is the “a weak story bag” from those “cunning men,” who pass by women after saying, “I once wrote poetry too.” “A man who ran away after spending the first night of his marriage” is probably unrelated to the poet’s spouse, but the poet seems to understand those women who were hurt deeply because she represents their voice in the last part of the poem. And the language is similar to that of  “A Duvet Seller.”

You will lie down with your duvet after swallowing an anti-depressant pill. You want to bolt right up and call the consumer’s complaint service. But you cannot do anything.
– From “A Duvet Seller”

It felt somehow unfair so I suddenly bolted right up and sat up in bed. I will get him. I will kill him. After muttering those words, I throw myself on the bed and fall asleep again.
– From “A Cicada”

These excerpts seem a bit awkward since they were referenced from prose poems, but we get to know that the protagonists of these two poems are the type of people that “bolt right up” from their sleep. The word “pent-up” describes this situation. The characters feel helpless because of their suppressed feeling that was caused from unfair situations. That’s why they “bolt right up and sit up.” “Rage” is the result of this pent-up state. It means their helplessness is burning inside. It is the fire that only exists in our mind, so it ends up burning our mind. The stories sound so common that they rather seem like ordinary complaints, but in fact, they are stories about “freedom.” The essence of freedom is one’s free will. But those people end up hurting themselves with “resentment” and “rage” because they failed to decide for themselves. Choi Jeong-rye’s poems are written with the language of “bolting up and sitting up.” Explaining it in this way offers further insight into her world rather than talking about “Not knowing what to do.”

We can even say this is the universe of “getting woven” with each other, woven in the sense of being connected to another by chance, not by my own decision. Some people get tangled in this web of relationships and cannot escape. Should that be due to their nature, it would be a personal matter. However, if it is the case of “can’t help it because you’re the underprivileged one,” it becomes a social issue. What is left after “getting woven”? Enduring “pent-up” feelings and “rage”? In the aforementioned poem, the poet says “After doing some somersaults, I was left alone” (“Somersault”) In another poem, she writes “Even though I live, the world is not mine” (“Others’ Possessions”). The poem explains that the short moment of a child staring at a flower is mine “and the rest” belongs to others. In the end, it seems that these poems seem like a quiet scream that expresses “I” want to decide for myself against “a group” or “a league.”


By Shin Hyoung-cheol
Assistant Professor of Department of Literature & Creation, Chosun University

Translated by