Poetry from Korea: Offerings of Hope

Book Review by Dustin Pickering

Title: Prescriptions of Civilization

Author: Wansoo Kim

The increasingly complex world or society we live in today allows little room for reflection. Technology fuels growth and sophistication while the population increases exponentially. The old plagues are still with us: famine, disease, war, and poverty. These social ills overwhelm us and often make us feel powerless.

In Prescription of Civilization, Wansoo Kim, an academic in Korea, tackles these harsh truisms. He is willing to look at them both objectively and sympathetically. In the poem “Science” he writes:

Though you act big pretending to know everything

Always tapping on a calculator

And arranging numbers

Looking into a microscope or telescope,

Aren’t you a hardheaded rube

That doesn’t know or feel

what is love

That two souls meet to become one?

In these stanzas, Kim divorces himself of modern conceptions out of frustration with their lack of human desire and spirit. We are often told science can eliminate the worst of human problems. In all truth, it is working hard to improve the human condition. This, however, does not distance us from its over-rationalizations and lack of humanism. The poet here introduces us to an often-overlooked insight. The contemporary world is difficult precisely because the humanity we wish to save is lost in the very means we employ to save it.

Early verses in this collection serve as reminders of the worst of disasters humans have inflicted on their fellow humans. The poet’s broad range of experience helps him identify with suffering all over the globe. As a South Korean, he is sorely hurt by the suffering in neighboring North Korea.

Kim further writes:

Even though I often ruminate

It’s written in the legal document,

Why do I live as the servant of fear and anxiety

Bound up in fetters of doubt

Not dancing with the wings of joy?

There is a distinct sense reflected upon in this poem “An Adopted Son”. The poem is a Christian plea to fellow Christians. An exclamation of joy in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a cry of relief at the human condition. In an earlier poem, “Tears of the Moon”, the moon is personified as a woman who has lost her lover. The ultimate symbolism is how distant we are from approaching Creation as a work of art to be appreciated. In neglecting to live in awe of Creation and instead see her as an instrument of our devices, we banish the Creator and disappoint Him. Civilization then is our downfall if we refuse to understand its ultimate purpose.

Kim reminds his readers that the sound and the fury of life is necessary for our redemption—our despair turns us into children seeking a Father; we become again as babes. This is the meaning of resurrection for us. In this startling realisation, Kim is in league with admirable poets and mystics like Rumi.

The Abrahamic faiths are powerful for the fact that they open the mind to spiritual dimensions and truths that the wise can perceive. In Proverbs 9:10, Solomon writes, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Yet fear is not the act of being afraid. It is the sense of being alone in dread and anxiety, the existential condition. It is in realizing that your salvation depends on acknowledging you are a creation, a being wisely framed and entrusted with a task. Reverence and awe are rooted in fear. The sacred sense is developed by learning to approach objects of veneration with calm resolution. When an object, whether of contemplation or being, is properly understood it is given its faith because the faith within it is realised.

In “House of a Poem”, the poet reflects on the meaning of art itself, especially the art of poetics:

I’ll build a house of a poem

Even tearing all the flesh of my soul to pieces

Because it doesn’t prevent all the things of life

From going into the tomb

But it can be a work of art to make alive forever

Brilliant moments of disappearing things.

Poetry is life and life is poetry. We cannot escape our mortality, but we can preserve the most uplifting of our sentiments and moments in history. Our struggles and dreams are kept within the glass of poetic sensibility like the objects of reverence previously mentioned. Poets can live in a state of awe, deep reflection, and mystery at once. John Keats called this state “negative capability”. Kim astonishes the reader with his ability to be entranced in this state in works such as “Tears of the Moon”. The poem is a cry for the lost humanity that becomes a victim in a long war against vulnerability and prayer. In a sense, the poem “House of a Poem” recognizes that civilization is humanity’s Nature. We are creating a world of our own through work and self-domestication. Yet something must relieve us of our fears and hopelessness. We must release tension from the bitter efforts of the day somehow. Kim gives us the reason for the arts — they relax us, reflect our deepest emotions, move the spirit, and keep us in touch with the reason we live. The arts are a prescription for civilization as well.

It seems as though Kim’s prescription for civilization is recognizing the reality of life’s purpose, of stepping away from the pragmatic capitalism that considers only use-value, distraction, entertainment, and profit. Did God condemn greed, gluttony, lust, and the like because these primal vices anchored us in materiality rather than the search for spiritual depth? As we remember the words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, “All is vanity!” it is safe to say that this truth is understood but ignored. The world doesn’t seek God. The fundamental revelation in the Scriptures is that God alone is rest, shelter, and peace. Material comforts are short-lived and ephemeral. Too much obedience to the world and its will is a recipe for disaster—each person is created distinctly, given a purpose and pursuit of happiness, and faces a challenge to love fully. The enjoyment of the arts, the exercise of restraint and compassion, and strugglng against the dark principalities are the true wellsprings of life.

Suffering is something we cannot eliminate entirely. We try to reduce it and often it takes us when we least expect it. Civilization is cause for a curse, but it makes individual lives more fulfilling and challenging. Christians believe that Jesus Christ suffers with them and they are not alone. This is the meaning of the Crucifixion. With Christ’s resurrection, we are granted immortality. Through death and resurrection, Jesus saves our souls.

The prescription for civilization, then, is a holy devotion to Christian principles. The fact we need a prescription shows us what sort of malady causes our suffering. While other humans are not to be trusted, God Himself was willing to lay his own life down to testify to His mercy. Living within civilization is stress and life is a disappointment, but a reminder that Love is universal, and we are all deserving of it is a positive message. Kim writes this collection not for moral instruction or harsh denunciation, but for the purpose of offering hope in a bleak world of continuous conflict and misery.

In the poems, we see a man who is raised from the death of his fears and desires into the proper understanding of living. Forgiveness is a release from debt. Christ’s Passion was a forgiveness of all debts. His final moments on the Cross tell us that he wanted the redemption of sinners—even in their last moments. He knew human nature because he was human and divine. In his understanding, he too wrote a prescription for human suffering. The forgiveness of sins, unbridled compassion, pity for those unfortunate, and strong faith in God and His plan are Jesus’ living legacies.

Kim realises the need the world has for such a message and explores it in Prescription for Civilization creatively and fondly. His anger, sadness, fear, and doubt are all on display to remind us of our humanity. This is a task only a poet accepts.


Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post. 



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