This week’s post features a poem by Daniel Paul Marshall. Marshall writes about the Haenyeo, female divers from the Korean province of Jeju. The Hangul for the word, (해녀)roughly translates to sea women, and serves as the title for this poem.
When I informed Marshall I planned on featuring this particular poem, he was kind enough to share the following:
The tradition of the Haenyo, the lady divers of Jeju, sometimes mythologized as the mermaids of Jeju, dates back some 1500 years.Their tools, other than their updated wet suits, have not changed. They dive as a group, for safety & socializing. They dive in all weather, all seasons. Their strength & endurance to the elements is astonishing.Their shamanic traditions are dwindling from what i gather, their mean ages is 70 odd & the younger generation is not being trained in this ancient custom.
This poem finds them after a dive. They were changing in a public toilet near Sanbangsan & my wife & her friend were waiting for them to finish to see if they could purchase some of their catch. Eating sashimi this fresh, straight from the Haenyo is the best & rarest means of eating it. The divers make a lot of money selling this way, they charge $40 for a belly full.
Along with this insight into the culture and poem, Marshall connected me with the work of Joey Rositano whose book Spirits: The Story of Jeju Island’s Shamanistic Shrines helps “recover the tradition of Jeju shamanism, which he believes stands at the center of Jeju identity itself.” The two photographs in this post are from Rositano’s project. His work raises awareness about their dwindling culture due to over development.
Reading the poem below, I am stunned by the freshness of the language. A line such as chattering like clam maracas, arms brachiate blustered replies is vivid both in terms of sounds but also in its tone. Respect and awe are evoked here indirectly. Through moves of lyrical richness, Marshall’s poem takes us down into the details of this world.
해녀 – Daniel Paul Marshall
you can see them in shoals by drainage puddles after a hunt,
de-snorkeled & out their trademark wetsuits & flippers
they no longer resemble baby seals.
in their mammalian clobber : nylon padded paisley coats & neckerchief.
the tourists’ timidity quashed, they peddle more raw creatures of the sea.
any place with an outdoor water source they squat,
peeling onions & garlic, slicing the ends off & scrubbing them clean.
all they hunted in red or blue plastic buckets
: abalone, sea snail, mussels & clams;
their rudimentary cells throbbing in the cold salt water.
chattering like clam maracas, arms brachiate blustered replies.
i see tourists with questions halted at the portico of their mouths;
eager to know how mermaids feel whilst rummaging coral nooks
– i know how they’d reply
: why talk romance without even a pocket of oxygen.
To find out more about Daniel Paul Marshall’s work check out his site.
To find out more about Joey Rositano’s photography & documentorial work on behalf of the history, language, and identity of the people of Jeju, check out his site as well.