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from the August 2018 issue

Intimate Experience Feels At Once Palpable and Remote in Jin Eun-Young’s “We, Day by Day”

Reviewed by Peter Campion

"We, Day By Day" is Jin Eun-Young’s first full collection published in English. Early on, she encountered Korean poetry of the 1980s and its spirit of political protest and carried the conviction and intensity of those verses into more mysterious, interior realms.

I first encountered Jin Eun-Young’s poetry by way of her prose. Her biographical essay appeared in a booklet published by the Korea Literature Translation Institute for a conference in Seoul that we both attended during the spring of 2006. The British poet Polly Clark read the essay, too, and agreed: we needed to meet this woman and needed to read her poems. Here’s some of what that caught our eyes and ears: 


I was born in Daejon in 1970. I don’t remember much about my hometown since I left before the age of four. I spent most of my early childhood in Seongam at the outskirts of Seoul. I played in my mother’s small beauty parlor, running around my hairdresser mother and the prostitutes with slender pale legs who were her steady customers. Around the time I began to make friends with the neighborhood kids, the neighborhood hill became my playground. We would run up and roll down the mounds of graves among the pink azaleas. Next, we moved to Seongsu-doing in northeast Seoul. I vaguely remember the smell of a wig factory. And the blue uniform worn by the girls from the clock factory, but this memory is not important to me because by that time I had already begun reading the red-covered story books published by Gyemong Publishers and was slowly being sucked into a strange and fantastic hole made by those books. 


Here was someone who wrote with no pretension and total vivacity. The imagination at play in the phrases and sentences made it obvious: this was a true poet. And did I mention—the same writer who conjured these hyper-real, day-to-day details was also a philosopher, had published a book on Immanuel Kant?

Polly Clark and I weren’t disappointed. During a trip we took together into the mountains, Eun-Young led us through several of her poems and provided transliterations. Those have been sources for a few of my own translations. But I’m thrilled to report that a full collection—We, Day By Day—now does justice to Jin Eun-Young in English. The translations by Daniel Parker and YoungShil Ji are clear and idiomatic, showing remarkable sensitivity to line, sentence, and, most important, the Korean original. 

Maybe one short lyric will work best to show the sensibility that grew up noticing such priceless details as the slender pale legs of the prostitutes and the smell from the wig factory. Take “Blue Shirt”:

            He’s been falling for a while
            then gets caught in the air
            The branch is frail and delicate. Soon she will break.
            Together or separately,
            Caressing the transparent and long waist of the fall,

            Both of his freed arms stir
            The wound in the wide flank that gapes
            Like green rose petals


This poet has a talent for making the world of subjective experience feel not only vivid but somehow inevitable. Like separate tones of a single palette, the entangling man and woman, the metaphor of the tree, the insistence of the descent that constitutes the poem’s action, and the intimations both erotic and dramatic combine into the shape of the poem. Jin has such seemingly natural command of story-telling, such tonal confidence, such perfect timing—a subtle intuition for how one image transforms into another. Even when she guides us deep into the world of dreamy association, even when she erases narrative context, she carries the reader with her.

We, Day By Day is Jin Eun-Young’s first full collection published in English, but the second of three released in Korea—the most recent, Songs Being Stolen, came out in 2012. That’s important to remember when encountering Jin Eun-Young for the first time in English: this is a mature sensibility. Early on, this poet metabolized her influences. She encountered Korean poetry of the 1980s and its spirit of political protest and carried the conviction and intensity of that work into more mysterious, interior realms. Likewise, she managed to bring all of the intellectual seriousness of her work as a philosopher to bear upon her poems and yet avoid anything that would sound like an essay.      

This means that to read Jin Eun-Young is to feel, at the same moment, the mysterious singularity of experience and the necessity and possibility of human connection. This is what makes her so important to my own map of the poetry being written in the world right now and what makes We, Day By Day essential. 

© Peter Campion. All rights reserved.

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