A South Korean Poet’s Work Honors Cats


Most nights, Hwang In-suk pushes a procuring cart up and down the steep alleys of her Seoul neighborhood, trailed by stray cats that emerge from shadows to greet her below glowing streetlamps and comfort retailer marquees.

Her neighbors have a tendency to consider Ms. Hwang, 64, merely as somebody who feeds cats on the street. Just a few know that she is a celebrated poet whose work explores loneliness and impermanence within the South Korean capital.

Her a long time of writing span a time during which South Korea has cycled via a dizzying variety of identities, together with these of a rustic dominated by repressive army dictatorships, a fledgling democracy and, most not too long ago, an financial energy and worldwide cultural juggernaut.

Ms. Hwang stated her nocturnal cat-feeding routine permits her to quietly observe not solely cats, her favourite muses, but additionally her altering neighborhood and the underclass of a megacity that’s more and more identified for its flashy exterior.

“I’ve discovered worlds that I wouldn’t have discovered if I had not been feeding cats at evening,” she stated in a close to whisper on a latest stroll via her neighborhood, Haebangchon. The streets had been largely silent apart from the occasional automotive, taxi or supply truck.

Along with cats and different topics, Ms. Hwang’s poetry paperwork the milieu of comfort retailer clerks, road sweepers and different late-night staff. “I don’t even know his face as we meet solely at the hours of darkness,” she writes of a newspaper deliveryman in a latest poem referred to as “Don’t Know The place You Reside”:

He wouldn’t know my face both however

How come he acknowledges me so properly

We stay at evening

Haebangchon, or Liberation Village, lies close to Seoul’s central prepare station and what was as soon as the principle U.S. army base within the nation. The neighborhood was carved out of a hillside forest after the tip of World Struggle II, when Korea emerged from Japanese colonial rule.

Most of the individuals who settled there have been North Korean refugees who arrived throughout or after the Korean Struggle, stated Pil Ho Kim, an skilled on South Korean cultural historical past at Ohio State, whose father grew up within the neighborhood after fleeing the North.

Within the a long time after the conflict, South Korea skilled dramatic upheavals, together with fast industrialization, a presidential assassination and a bloodbath of pro-democracy demonstrators. So did Haebangchon, a spot initially often called a “moon village,” a time period for city slums constructed on hillsides.

Within the Seventies, South Korean financial migrants helped flip Haebangchon right into a hub for small-scale garment factories. It later grew extra residential and fewer working class, and commenced to draw younger artists. Many artists’ studios had been in flip displaced by cafes because the gentrification continued, stated Cha Kyoung-hee, 38, who has owned a bookstore within the neighborhood since 2015.

Ms. Hwang, who grew up close by and settled in Haebangchon within the Eighties, has been quietly observing the main points of those modifications ever since with a eager eye. She settled on a profession in poetry after finding out artistic writing at a Seoul arts institute and made her debut with a poem, “I’ll Be Reborn as a Cat,” that gained a 1984 award for rising South Korean writers. It was the primary of many nationwide literary prizes that she would win through the years.

She stated her poetry partly displays her conviction that Seoul is a spot the place the wealthy and poor stay in separate worlds, and the downtrodden are victims of cutthroat competitors.

“They weren’t keen to cheat others to advance themselves on this society,” she stated throughout a latest stroll, her breath escaping in tiny clouds as she rounded a bend of a darkish, hillside alley. The lights of skyscrapers blinked within the metropolis under.

Her poems are likely to fuse particulars of her nook of Seoul, a metropolis of about 10 million individuals, with the feelings of their wry, melancholic audio system. One describes Haebangchon’s roads as main “all the time uphill/like my life.”

However Ms. Hwang is maybe finest identified for poems that make wistful, whimsical observations about cats, and the people who wrestle to know them. She stated about one-fifth of her oeuvre has been cat-related.

For the final 16 or so years, Ms. Hwang has been feeding cats nearly each evening, often out of recycled instant-rice containers. Every cat has a chosen eating spot — below a parked automotive, say, or amongst a restaurant’s rubbish bins. Some strategy her within the method of a well-recognized outdated pal, meowing as they rub in opposition to her legs. Others should be coaxed out of hiding locations with a gentle psst.

Ms. Hwang stated her cat-feeding routine began when a single stray started turning up, hungry, outdoors her condo. Among the dozens of cats she now cares for have names; most she simply calls “fairly.”

“I do that as a result of the cats are ready for me, and nobody else is keen to do it,” she stated flatly. “It’s an obligation.”

However her affectionate method with the cats — and her many poems about their quirks and personalities — suggests her relationship with them is greater than perfunctory.

Anne M. Rashid, a professor of English literature who translated a few of Ms. Hwang’s work with a late colleague, Chae-Pyong Music, stated she was significantly keen on this passage from the poem “Ran, My Former Cat”:

I didn’t know the place you got here from.

All the time swiftly

you appeared

at a time when no one was round

at a time when time belonged to no one,

hanging in regards to the roof of a rented home

as if from inside my coronary heart,

as if from the sting of the moon

with a small half-cry,

you appeared.

All through the poem, which ends with the cat disappearing “to a spot the place you couldn’t invite me,” the speaker needs to carry or contact her muse however is aware of it’s not potential, stated Professor Rashid, who teaches literature at Carlow College in Pittsburgh.

“They’ve a bond, regardless, of their solitariness,” she added.

When Ms. Cha hosted Ms. Hwang for a studying at her bookstore final 12 months, the viewers was unusually numerous for such an occasion, and included former residents of the neighborhood who missed it and wished to listen to descriptions of its earlier incarnations. Some cried once they heard her poems learn aloud.

Ms. Hwang stated she shares a cramped condo with two ailing, rescued strays, one among them named Lauren after the Hollywood actress Lauren Bacall. She doesn’t personal a cellphone and has by no means earned a residing via something apart from poetry.

“She’s not the kind of one that tells individuals who she is,” stated Yang Jung-ok, 60, who owns a restaurant in Haebangchon and has identified Ms. Hwang for years.

Ms. Yang stated she has lengthy admired her soft-spoken neighbor for spending a lot of her restricted revenue on meals for stray cats. However she solely realized of Ms. Hwang’s poetry from a journalist who accompanied her to the restaurant and talked about in passing that she was an eminent poet.

In the course of the latest stroll, Ms. Hwang appeared stunned {that a} reporter could be eager about her work, and declined an invite to recite a poem of her alternative. “I can’t say which one would convey a reader pleasure,” she stated, shortly earlier than midnight.

The people in her poems additionally are likely to hold low profiles. In “Above the Roofs,” the speaker marvels at how the power inside cats’ our bodies sends them hovering within the air to a “huge territory” above rooftops. Then — in a fragile, nearly catlike method — she locations herself of their midst.

On this metropolis the place again alleys have disappeared,

on the again alleys above the roofs,

on these alleys above, so to talk,

gently I place my breath.

Youmi Kim contributed reporting.


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