About the Poem:
“Me and Natasha and the White Donkey” was published in 1938, amid the violence of Japanese colonization. Soon after the devastation of WWII, Korea saw war one more. The Korean War divided the peninsula into a North and a South. The writer of this poem, Baek Seok, remained in the North. It's difficult to know what came of his life after. But without question he was witness to some of the most horrifying violations of human rights, atrocities that became the foothold for the current totalitarian regime.
For a long time Baek's name was unspoken in the South, a nation under an oppressive militarist government of its own. As a victim of cultural politics, Baek was labeled "a North Korean poet" and his words were banned. His work was not published again until 1987, the year democracy was officially restored in the South, which also happens to be the year I was born.
To me, Baek Seok's poetry seems to always search for an essential soul that does not change in the face of war, politics, desperation, or ideologies.
In this poem, the speaker's desires are quite simple—to live tucked away from the world in a quiet kind of love. His love is someone named Natasha, an exotic name of someone perhaps from a very different land. But no matter. There are no boundaries. There is no end. He will wait. She will come. They will find their white donkey and ride to safety in the camouflage of the snow.
The surface simplicity of this poem was also perhaps a subversive camouflage for the act of poetry itself. Under Japanese rule, Korean artists, considered politically incendiary, were blacklisted or imprisoned. But in this gentle poem of quiet love, the writer and reader can also ride away together, undetected.
Translating this poem presented many difficulties, but the difficulties only serve to highlight the beauty of Baek's language. For adjectives, he chooses to use many native korean words, which are often onomatopoeic. The descriptor for snow falling hard is 푹푹—puk-puk—which is a descriptor for nothing but the sound-shape of something abundant, overwhelming. Same goes for 'lonely'—쓸쓸—sseul-sseul—and 'hungry'—출출—chul-chul—and the sound of the donkey 'braying'—응앙응앙—ung-ang-ung-ang. He also uses many words native to northern korea that were unfamiliar to me, a twenty-first-century reader in the south. The nature contained in this poem also reflects the nature of our northern landscapes—the mountains, the snow, the straw dried into covers for houses, and of course the donkeys.
Che Yeun is a fiction writer from Seoul, Korea. She can be found on www.cheyeun.com.