I divide a December night
into halves down its length.
One part I fold in pleats and plaits
to store under my spring quilt,
and unwind coil by coil
for whenever my love arrives.
Notes on this poem
The kisaeng was a female courtesan class during dynastic Korea. A kisaeng simultaneously belonged to the lowest caste and was trained in the arts, whereas most low-caste women were not allowed this education. A kisaeng could express her sexuality despite strict Confucianist social ideals. However, this artistic and sexual ‘agency’ operated within the nature of her work, as kisaeng were technically government slaves. Though she had intimate interactions with the elite, she was not granted social mobility. While kisaeng art was enjoyed as entertainment in its day, it has not been preserved with care.
Hwang Jini is an exception. Famous for her intellect and beauty during her time, Hwang Jini and her work have persisted. She is arguably the best-known kisaeng, living on through anecdotal histories and film or television re-imaginings. As a result, Hwang Jini has been celebrated as a kisaeng pop icon more than a significant literary figure, although her sijo initially contributed to her longevity.
Sijo is a traditional Korean verse form totalling an average of 44–48 syllables (about 14–16 syllables per line) for three lines, following the structure of theme, development, and a conclusion usually containing a volta. The kisaeng often sung sijo with musical or percussive accompaniment. My translations aim to keep the narrative progression and do not exceed 48 syllables. I have translated each line of the Korean into a non-rhyming couplet, resulting in a six-line poem in the English, where Korean had three. In translating Hwang Jini’s sijo, I reject the kisaeng’s supposed destiny of ephemerality in the hopes of letting her sing again.
– Ainee Jeong