Time of Bronze, Time of Potatoes

About the Collection

Heo Su-gyeong prefaces her 2005 collection Time of Bronze, Time of Potatoes by recognizing “the irony of anti-war / songs / written by someone who hasn’t experienced war firsthand.” Though she intimates her privilege in being born at least a decade after the Korean War armistice and not experiencing war as her parents and grandparents did, the real irony is that the War—and wars in general—never ceased. That is why, for Heo, ordinary daytime is the time of war. The rising sun is not a symbol of light overcoming darkness, but an omen of slaughter. (It calls to mind the war flag of the Imperial Japanese Army.) The world may be bright in the time of the sun, but Heo sees darkness in the violences illuminated and enacted by the sun. 

In response, the speaker of Heo’s poems grieves for the burning kindling that “lose their breaths,” the water that evaporates (“Gazing at the Fire”). As the world burns on, she tries to remember the lives and memories that inevitably fade away. She stands helplessly before the fire, unable to turn away, as if fated to watch forever. In this way, Heo juxtaposes the peace of here and the war of there to invoke a too-familiar tragedy. When a girl goes missing on the same path where “you” and “I” went on a picnic, the speaker asks, “Are you really next to me?” (“The Rocking Chair”). In that moment, the speaker loses her sense of distance because empathy is disorienting. But there isn’t much we can do in the time of the sun, flames, and gunfire. We receive constant news reports, but can only attempt to carry on with our own lives. The speaker can only “stare blankly at a hole being pierced in her soul” as she waits for a train that should’ve arrived two hours ago, and a punk asks her for beer money (“The Train Station”). Yet looking up at the moon surrounded by darkness, she imagines swallowing the moon and turning bright inside. While the sun causes thirst and suffering, “the moon has swallowed all the pain inside me” (“The Moon Walks Over”). The time of the moon offers otherworldly possibilities. 

Some may ridicule such restless grief or question its purpose, and Heo understands the limitations of her empathy. Her nostalgic depictions of Jinju suggest that peace is possible, but finite in time and space. Everything is, as Heo’s background in archaeology reminds us. Perhaps that is why she ends the collection with this set of questions: “will I disappear, what will I become, will I be forgotten” (“When Those Tides Come”). Though I am not the first to do so, I am responding to her call—her desire to remember and in turn be remembered—by translating her words and introducing them to a new audience. I do not know what she has become, but I hope she will not be forgotten. 

About the Poet

Heo Su-gyeong (1964-2018) was a diasporic South Korean writer, translator, and archaeologist. Born in Jinju, Gyeongsang Province, she studied Korean literature at Gyeongsang National University. She published two poetry collections in four years, emerging as one of the leading literary figures of her generation, before moving to Germany in 1992 to pursue a PhD in ancient Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Münster. After a nine-year hiatus from publishing, Heo continued to write award-winning poems, novels, essays, and children’s books in Korean while living in Münster. She also translated works by Michael Ende, Maxim Biller, Anette Bley, and the Grimm Brothers into Korean. She died of stomach cancer in November 2018.

Book Review

  • “In Heo Su-gyeong’s Time of Potatoes, Time of Bronze, the present and past (the past on an archaeological macro level) overlap on the principle of cyclicity. Many of the poems in this collection illustrate this overlap through what can be called the archaeological imagination.” – Literary critic Sung Min-yeop
  • “In Time of Potatoes, Time of Bronze, Heo excavates languages and bodies as if to excavate ancient ruins. Like the grave goods and fossils now in the poet’s hands, the languages that she excavates returns to present time. However, these languages confront the present as if entering or exiting a ‘mirror field,’ just as the moon inside of oneself walks out and shines in the night. The forgotten or hidden relics of the war are likewise reflected in the mirror of reality flattened by false peace. From a faraway country, Heo constantly illuminates her hometown in the mirror of her body as well as her body in the mirror of her hometown.” – From the publisher

Table of Contents

Part 1: in Jinju dialect, or my own words in other words

Part 2: Dawn Excavation

Part 3: Gazing at the Fire

Part 4: When Those Tides Come