Michael Freeman

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The Mansudae Grand Monument in Pyongyang. Photo: WikiCommons

The Red Years
Zed (forthcoming)
Every so often, poetry come into its own, reaching beyond ruminations on nuanced subjectivities. Every now and then, the short lyric form raises its stakes to wider horizons while remaining a lyric, without becoming discursive or expository about those horizons. And from time to time, a translator evinces an authority not just in the language of the original poems but also in the poet’s time and place, the hinterland from which the poems grow. The Red Years with its North Korean dissident lyrics gets pretty close to such a moment. The poems deploy the textures and structures of the traditional lyric, folk song, children’s chant, their images and expressive cadences, to construct poems suffused with lamentation and poignancy but also amounting to a kind of resistance and intervention, an expression of existential han (grief) but sharpened by defiance. Sharpened too by the text being grounded in irony: the poetry is written by an accredited member of the [North] Korean Writers’ Alliance, the state-controlled cultural production line, yet here writing against that state’s regime. Even the title of the collection suggests a sardonic irony, as does the cover illustration with the statutory revolutionary line-up of patriotic soldier, miner, farmer in the best proletkult tradition. It’s the sort of cover image as cover story that might be approved by a state censor until he reads the poems themselves.

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