restricted access Selected Poems of Kim Sakkat ed. by Kevin O'Rourke (review)
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Reviewed by
Ksenia Chizhova, Ph.D. Candidate
Selected Poems of Kim Sakkat by Kevin O'Rourke, ed. and trans. Daegu: Keimyung University Press, 2012. 219pp.

This anthology presents English and Korean translations of the poetry of Kim Sakkat (1807-1863), a failed civil service examination candidate and an itinerant poet, whose witty compositions, mostly in literary Chinese with only one poem in vernacular Korean surviving, offer sketches of the everyday and the mundane, musings imbued with self-irony, and tongue-in-cheek comments on the pettiness of the wayside hosts to whose patronage Kim applied during his ceaseless wanderings. Kevin O'Rourke, the English-language translator and editor of the anthology, arranges the writings of Kim Sakkat thematically-since Kim's poetry lacks an authenticated chronology of composition, this anthology's classification serves as a useful guide that allows the reader to draw comparisons between selected poems and also to trace the central motifs in Kim Sakkat's work.

The book contains an introduction that describes the life of Kim Sakkat- most of it is undocumented and based largely on anecdotal evidence-and offers a brief sketch of the historical background of the poet's life that spanned the turbulent nineteenth century, a time of multifarious changes. Another section of the introduction includes a note on the written conventions of hansi, or poetry in literary Chinese of which Kim Sakkat was a master. The editor also documents in detail the extant bibliographical materials that were used in modern compilations of Kim Sakkat's poetry. Overall, the introduction provides a good background for the reading of Kim's poetry, although there are some [End Page 218] imprecisions-it must be noted here that Queen Dowager Chŏngsun was most certainly not a member of the Noron faction, even if she might well have been a strong proponent of their views. Even if swayed by factional politics, a Korean monarch could not really be a member of either party, at least by the nature of the royal station situated above factional interests.

The poems presented in the anthology are accompanied by short notes, which are very useful, since Kim Sakkat's poetry is often based on the playful exploitation of the disparity between the literal meaning of the Chinese characters and their sounds that pun on spoken Korean, the poems thus being enriched by their auditory line superimposed on the literal, graphic meaning. A short but powerful example of this logic is the name for a house, requested of Kim Sakkat by a person who was not entirely to Kim's liking. Kim Sakkat comes up with the name that from the literary Chinese can be translated as "The Hall of Precious Delight" or 貴樂堂. The Korean reading of the characters would be kwiraktang, which, if read in reverse order would produce tangnagwi-a Korean word for "donkey." The anthology abounds in such examples that not only vividly embody the smart playfulness of the author, but also provide an interesting view of the connection between literary Chinese and spoken Korean that would have been felt in everyday life during the Chosŏn. Korea's diglossic culture comprised of unspoken but written literary Chinese, the language of the official sphere, and vernacular Korean, the language used in everyday life, has claimed significant scholarly attention. Kim Sakkat's literary exploits will certainly not shed light on the workings of power that defined the social and cultural uses of each language, but his poetry is a captivating instance of the possibilities of the cultural vocabulary born in traditional Korea's diglossic culture.

While reading Kim Sakkat's poetry would require some basic knowledge of literary Chinese, necessary to understand the disparity between the visual image and the character's pronunciation in Korean, which he exploits, the editor's notes provide maximal support to the readers not very familiar with literary Chinese. The notes are especially handy for explaining the poems that "deconstruct the characters," breaking the Chinese characters into their elemental graphic composites and then playing the meaning of these parts against each other. Thus, at the sleight of Kim Sakkat's hand, Buddha, written in literary Chinese as 佛 can be understood as "not human," as...