In some books—and some writers—the relation between art and autobiography is much more visible and, you might say, more necessary than in others. This is the case with Han Glassman. Her poems almost always touch on her life story in some unexpected and subtle yet distinct way-they touch on a long life that has been devoted to things good in a world that seems bent on ruining good and replacing it with evil.
Han was born in 1930, in Korea. As a young girl, she lived through the criminality, oppression, and horror of the Japanese occupation in World War II. Not much later, she lived through the ruinous trials of what we call the “Korean War.” And, after all of that, she lived through the universally-known difficulties and hardships of making a new life in an entirely new and foreign culture.
For all her life, Han has been a reader of poetry, and for all her life she has been a writer of it. For her, writing poetry is an almost religious act, a way of seeking protection, a life-long invoking of such small images of calm and safety as can be found in a brute world of titanic danger, threat, calamity, pain, cold, and darkness. For her, the arts are very real: They are the actual doing of something, the taking of action to help protect life, inwardness, meaning, and animal well-being. Consider the powerful simplicity of these lines, for example:
A window with lamps inside.
The old typewriter is still working.
A tavern violin, hanging on the wall
Is ready to play for
the safe return of the gypsy
from the snow storm.
One would like to go in behind the window
and relax in the beauty of an old place,
waiting to hear the violin
play again for the
return of the gypsy
from darkness and snow.
Of Autumn Lamp in Rain, someone said that “with its deft hand and unfailing delicacy of image, it is reminiscent of haiku.” In fact, the entirety of Han Glassman’s mind, and the entirety of her spirit, are themselves also very much like haiku. For Han, poetry is inextricably woven together with family. With that fact in mind, consider her words, thoughts, and images from the prologue to Autumn Lamp. “Family ,” she writes, “means home, work and peace. The rest is not in our hands. We cautiously hold each other trying to cross a reed bridge.”
This quiet and powerful book looks straight down, unflinchingly, at the vast abyss that yawns below us. Han Glassman’s small book has the delicacy and frailty, and yet also the enormous strength, of the simple reed bridge that supports us, and, somehow, gets us across to the other side.