22 May 2011
Oz-Ko (韓 – 濠)
Pattern recognition algorithms only give us ‘fuzzy’ matches,
eschewing the exact in favour of the textual, or else the sublime.
This text, then, serves as a warning that “Oz-Ko”, the present
object of study, is not an object at all – rather, an attempt to trace,
using machine translation and serendipity, the metamorphosis
of tiger into bear. In fact, there’s an app for that, like most things.
The opening screen locates the user inside a terrace house,
the kind that students used to occupy in the early nineties but
which is now a facade for something else, something bigger.
Just like Agent Orange, the evening descends without mercy.
Once inside the zone, you experience strafing runs that paint
oil on air, feel the shock and awe. There are Australians here,
fighting both for and against the Koreas. Post-apocalypse,
some sing nesting songs, in voices filled with the quiet hope
of reconstruction, while others write poems without mothers,
or texts hollow and sad. In a perfect evocation of melodrama,
looking to the south, we see the compass points have switched:
convoys perform thirty-eight-point turns, crossing the Han river
and driving north. Having reached the old Mintongsun Line
we exit the vehicle and buy a couple of energy tonics from the
conveniently-located convenience shack/PX. The young guy
serving us grins at our grey watches, or our Antipodean tans.
The sign says something we cannot read or understand. This
is only to be expected: we begin from a position of ignorance.
For example, it takes a certain kind of person to interpret that
sign as saying Do not feed the lion when there’s no zoo for
miles and the strokes country cries out for sustenance, rains.
Nothing much surprises anymore. That’s the way of cliché.
It sounds familiar when you travel back to the world made up
by that White guy in Voss. The sky becomes blue as a new
Renaissance, internet explorers ride URLs through the desert,
the hooves of their camels pressing hyperlinks into the sand,
while faraway Laura tweets the sudden rain in Tilba Tilba.
Between these two imaginary notions – the Oz and the Ko –
lies an interface of skin, a winding path of dim calculations.
You don’t meet many anthologists along the way but then
again, you hadn’t expected any. The sound of the old bark
peeling away from the trees holds you captive, makes you
wince. You have no names for any of these trees, either, so
you concentrate on the farmhouse instead. Ants crawl over
your hands and make jagged patterns. There is an old canal
that’s teeming with carp. They, like us, have been imported,
shipped in barrels and bred in tanks. Let them loose in stolen
rivers, introduce them to the peace pagoda’s ponds. We see
smoke rising and experience some kind of volcano meditation.
Out of water, we suck in the still-free air, to no avail. It would
take more than the tricks of an everyday magician to save us
from our own planned obsolescence. Again with the arrogance:
if attacked by a shark, blame the shark. When travelling in a
strange land, hate the strangers. And don’t forget to take some
photographs and post them on your blog. Come on now, we’ve
all been caught calling Korea at some stage. But who are we?
Is your history, when it comes down to it, just a blog entry with
no previous post? Okay, this sounds pompous, but then so do
many poems when read out loud. Are you a member of the new
carless generation, or does your life revolve around road trips,
the cinema strips of tar? Pity the bus drivers outside Tongdosa!
Stuck there for hours at a time while the tourists seek Buddha!
Does this sound familiar? What is this place at which we think
we’ve arrived first? How can we go out to be in time, when
our moments collapse into memes, instead of correspondence?
Tiring of the narrator’s rhetoric, another poet pens five sijo for
her raider. Noting that the plural of sijo is also sijo, all the sijo
in the world merge into a single sijo, just as all the coastlines
you have ever known eventually turn into one big empty road,
or a wave. Suddenly a bagnier pulls you from the surf, saving
your modesty as much as your life. You peruse the next slide:
a view from the memory in which we try to kiss each other.
The border guard inquires as to your state of origin but you’ve
left your passport behind in the burning village. Similarly, two
sisters found at the central railway station in 1907 were unable
to provide identification; just three years later, their country was
annexed. Recycling the possible proves to be the only option –
but how? The wind says it is not possible. The buildings swaying
like trees scream “Don’t be stupid” and sound like they mean it.
Apparently healing is harder to practice than it is to recommend.
Still, your survey of bearded men produces startling results; in
fact, several journals are interested in publishing them. It’s all
very well to talk about translation studies but aren’t the gaps
between what make language and communication really interesting?
The next slide, a view from the Yarra Bend with two men, stops
that train of thought in its tracks. Maybe this is just as well. After
all, it’s midnight and the convenience store is closing in an hour.
We’ve been here once before, although the context was different:
you were running after Hwang Jin Ye. We bought Pocari Sweat
because it was humid outside and the bottle mentioned something
about ion supply. I was compiling a book of lepidopterists’ anecdotes,
entitled Colourful Moths of North Korea. Some things you just
can’t make up. A Host is an organism that harbours parasites. Yes,
true. It says so right here in Wikipedia. You pulled out a notebook
and penned a paean to the God Skype. After that, we decided to
go shopping. The malls were all open, and the smoky street stalls
looked inviting as well. Eventually we chose a Korean triptych:
silkworm larvae, sundae and beers. Strangely enough, they didn’t
sit too well together in our stomachs, and we lurched towards the
subway entrance crying Aa-zaa-dee!, which has no meaning here.
According to The New Scientist, North Korea could make two
nuclear bombs per year. At that rate, No-Ko will be the world’s new
superpower in 4550, give or take a decade. Nevertheless, as old
Gough Whitlam might have said, It’s Time, It’s Time to dust off
the stereotypes once more, to reduce an entire culture to puppets.
Or just one puppet … Students know the drill: copy, photocoffee
Till the library closes! Nick Cave may be popular in Seoul but
we just can’t tell yet. Do you know what “Here’s To The Regular
Air Force Korea” is really about? Tell everyone what you think.
Ah, “Mea Culpa”. That was just the Internets, stalking my bad.
A double abecedary on tertiary teaching sounds like trouble.
Extra points awarded to students who can render said abecedary
in four dimensions. There’s that temporal ghost again, sprawling
on the footpath outside the HQ like an exhausted cyclist, crying.
The compass point swings north again, like a turnstile in reverse,
or a screen-printer’s squimjim, or a crème brûlée. Young people
are sitting in cafeterias, not following instructions. Fall in love.
Do it now. That’s an order of magnitude for you. Take a number.
Languages that were never spoken where “I came from” sound
beautiful and dangerous to the ear. In the mouth, they taste just
fine. Is this it? The zero turning into one? Call it an approach, an
invitation. Just don’t pretend you came here for enlightenment.