Korean literature in English: 'Woman on the Terrace'

A woman on the terrace caught the poet’s attention. 

The woman is, “smoking a cigarette, holding it between long-nailed fingers, her eyes sunken.”

The poet portrays the loneliness, the ups and downs and the emptiness of her character, while saying, “I’d never met her before but she looked familiar – omnipresent!”

'Woman on the Terrace' is published by White Pine Press in 2007.

The above poem, titled “Woman on the Terrace,” is part of the self-titled collection published by White Pine Press in 2007. This book is an English version of Korean poet Moon Chung-hee’s poem of the same name, originally published in 2004.

The Korean version of the book is composed of four parts, while the English version comprises of five parts. In the first part of the book, Moon looks back on her life and the various emotions she felt, like joy, sadness, pleasure and lamentation. It includes “Once Again to My Naked Body,” ”This Autumn Day” and “Detour.” Moon’s view of herself is especially well-shown in “Once Again to My Naked Body.” 

The poet says, “You’ve betrayed me so many times… Even so, please stay naked.” She says, “Spend time in bed with a poppy in your hair rather than behind your desk,” while hoping the youth and beauty of the naked body can last longer.

According to Moon, the poppy mentioned in the poem symbolizes the beauty and the voluptuousness of both Yang Guifei (楊貴妃, 719-756), one of the Four Beauties of ancient China, and poppy flowers, which come to full bloom in the field. 

Taking my morning shower, 
I talk to my naked body:

Don’t follow me
I’m a poet
but you don’t have to be
Yesterday I aged three years.
Suddenly it’s happened—
I’m a hundred-year-old fox.
Oh, my naked body!
I pray you’ll be three years younger each day.

The second part of the collection includes poems like “Song for Soldiers” and “Letter from the Airport.” “Song for Soldiers” received a lot of attention when it was introduced at a poem recital for Korean poets which took place at U.C. Berkeley on the theme of modern Korean history over the past 100 years. “This poem talks about how Korea’s special background as a divided country can affect the lives of individuals, makes scars and changes their lives, rather than remain as a national tragedy,” says Moon, She recalled the event by saying “This poem grabbed a lot of attention from the people there, considering Korea’s special background.”

The following is part of “Song for Soldiers.”

Perhaps you don’t know this,
but every woman in this land
once fell in love with a soldier.
All this land’s young men
Once went in uniform to the DMZ,
bearing arms against their brothers in the North,
learning life’s intense yearning and bittersweet agony.

The third and fourth parts of the collection involve 36 poems, including “Forgive Me, Daughter” and “Love from the Ground.” In “Forgive Me, Daughter,” Moon expresses her critical view of Korean history and reflects on the victims who were forced into sexual slavery during Japanese colonization and who gather in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul every Wednesday. In “Love from the Ground,” she tells a love story where she found motivation from a 350-year old mummy of a child wrapped in silk unearthed in a graveyard.

The fifth part of the collection is only found in the English versions of the book. In this part, 12 poems, including “Putting on Makeup,” are included. All the poems in this part were chosen by the poet. 

Poet Moon Chung-hee

Moon was born in Boseong, Jeollanam-do (South Jeolla Province), in 1947. She graduated from Dongguk University, majoring in Korean Language & Literature, where she also did her master’s degree and where she serves as an honorary professor. She currently works as president of the Society of Korean Poets and has recently published her twelfth collection of poems. 

“Woman on the Terrace” was jointly translated by Kim Seong-kon, who currently serves as president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, and Alec Gordon, a poet from the U.K. Kim translated Hwang Tong-kyu’s “Strong Winds at Mishi Pass” and a collection of poems by 50 Korean poets. Gordon is a poet, translator and professor who has taught cultural studies, language, literary studies and sociology at universities in Korea, France, Belgium and Hungary. 

Thanks to her books -- “Woman on the Terrace” and “Windflower,” published by Hawks Publishing in 2004 -- Moon received the Cikada Prize from the Harry Martinson Foundation of Sweden in 2010.

Moon's other works can be found in English, French, German, Spanish, Indonesian, Swedish, Albanian and Hebrew. They include “Woman on the Terrace,” “I Must be the Wind,” “To Young Love” and “I am Moon.”

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