Farmers' Dance


A Cycle of Poems by Shin Kyong-nim (신경님)


Translated from the Korean

by Brother Anthony and Young-Moo Kim

Published by Cornell East Asia Series (& Dapgae), distributed by U Hawai'i Press)


Introduction, by Brother Anthony . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  i


Part 1

On a Winter's Night....................................................... 1

Country Relatives........................................................... 2

Lands Far Apart............................................................. 3

Wrestling........................................................................ 4

After Market's Done...................................................... 5

The Night We Make Offerings...................................... 6

Farmers' Dance............................................................... 7

Shadows of Flowers....................................................... 8

Snowy Road................................................................... 9

One August.................................................................. 10

Party Day..................................................................... 11

Summer Rains.............................................................. 12

Today........................................................................... 13


Part 2

The Way to Go............................................................. 14

The Night Before......................................................... 15

The Storm..................................................................... 16

That Day....................................................................... 17

Hillside Lot Number One............................................. 18

He................................................................................. 19

March 1, Independence Movement Day...................... 21

The Road to Seoul........................................................ 22

This Pair of Eyes.......................................................... 23

They.............................................................................. 24

1950: Death by Firing-squad........................................ 25


Part 3

The Abandoned Mine.................................................. 27

Kyong-ch'ip: End of Hibernation................................. 28

After the Summer Rains............................................... 29

That Winter.................................................................. 30

Before and After March the First................................ 32

Hibernation................................................................... 33

Going Blind.................................................................. 34

The Road Back Home.................................................. 35

Mountain Town Diary.................................................. 36

The Backwoods............................................................ 37


Part 4

Mountain Town Visit, a Story...................................... 38

Country Bus Terminal.................................................. 39

A Friend....................................................................... 40

Commemorations......................................................... 41



Part 5

A Reed......................................................................... 42

Graveside Epitaph........................................................ 43

Deep Night................................................................... 44

A Baby......................................................................... 45

On the Top of an Extinct Volcano............................... 47


Part 6

Night Bird.................................................................... 48

Moonlight..................................................................... 49

The River...................................................................... 50

That Summer................................................................ 51

A Legend..................................................................... 52

Exile............................................................................. 53

What We Have to be Ashamed of............................... 54

Friend! In your Fist . . ................................................. 55

Someone....................................................................... 56


Part 7

In the Dark................................................................... 57

Mountain Station.......................................................... 59

Year's-End Fair............................................................ 60

A Chance Encounter.................................................... 61

Travelling Companions................................................. 62

Diary Entry for Ch'oso Day......................................... 63

An Alley....................................................................... 64

We Meet Again............................................................ 65





                                                                           Brother Anthony



Shin Kyong-nim was born in 1935 in Ch'ongju, North Ch'ungch'ong Province, in what is now South Korea. He grew up in the midst of Korea's old rural culture and in later years went travelling about the countryside, collecting the traditional songs of the rural villages. His literary career as a poet officially dates from the publication in 1956 in the review Munhak Yesul of three poems, including "The Reed," but for years after that he published nothing, immersing himself instead in the world of the working classes, the Minjung, and working as a farmer, a miner, and a merchant. The experience of those years underlies much of his finest work as a poet. He only graduated from the English Department of Dongkuk University (Seoul) in 1967, when he was over thirty.

His fame as a poet dates mainly from the publication of the collection Nong-mu (Farmers' Dance) in 1973, some of the poems from which were first published in the avant-garde review Ch'angjak-kwa Pip'yong in 1970, heralding his return to the literary scene. It would be difficult to exaggerate the historical significance of this volume in the development of modern Korean poetry. In 1974 Nongmu earned Shin the first Manhae Literary Award, bringing his work unexpected publicity and critical attention. Shin thus helped open the way for public acceptance of a poetry rooted in harsh social realities, a militant literature that was to grow into the workers' poetry of the 1980s.

Many of the poems in this collection are spoken by an undefined plural voice, a "we" encompassing the collective identity of what is sometimes called the Minjung, the poor people, farmers, laborers, miners, among whom the poet had lived. He makes himself their spokesman on the basis of no mere sympathy; he has truly been one of them, sharing their poverty and pains, their simple joys and often disappointed hopes. Shin is one of the first non-intellectual poets in modern Korea and the awareness that he knows the bitterness he is evoking from the inside gives his poems added power.

Echoing throughout Nong-mu are memories of the political violence that has characterized Korea's history since its Liberation from Japanese rule in 1945. The divisions and conflicts of the first years of independence culminated in the Korean War (1950-3). Later, throughout the 1960s and 70s, the government's policy of industrialization led to a further brutal uprooting of rural populations that had already undergone severe dislocation in the course of the war, and violence continued. In those years, all forms of political opposition or social organization were forbidden and fiercely suppressed under the increasingly severe dictatorship of President Park Chung-Hee. In particular, any advocacy of workers' rights was considered to be an expression of communism, a sign of support for North Korea, and was punished as a crime against national security.

In a literary culture accustomed to the individualistic "I" speaker of the western romantic tradition, or the fairly unspecified voice of modern Korean lyrics, the collective "we" employed in Nong-mu was felt to be deeply shocking. The leading recognized Korean poets in the 1960s and 1970s were writing in a highly esthetic style inspired by certain aspects of French Symbolism. Poets and critics alike insisted that literature should have no direct concern with political or social issues. This had already been challenged in the earlier 1960s by a number of younger writers and critics  including Shin's mentor, the poet and essayist Kim Su-yong, who was killed in a car crash in 1968. In particular, Kim's advocacy of a poetic style reflecting ordinary, everyday spoken language, with its colloquialisms and pithiness, is reflected in Shin's poems.

Nong-mu took Kim's rejection of conventionally accepted literary style to new heights and gave rise to an intense critical debate. A major literary scission occurred and the more activist, 'engaged' writers established their own movement, advocating social involvement. Shin Kyong-nim has continued to play a leading role in this movement. He has served as president of the Association of Writers for National Literature, and of the Federated Union of Korean Nationalist Artists. Members of these groups were repeatedly arrested and harrassed throughout the 1970s and 80s.

 The poems of Nong-mu often express with intense sensitivity the pain and hurt of Korea's poor, those of remote villages in the earlier sections, but the final poems focus in part on the urban poor, those marginalized in industrial society. The first edition of Nongmu published in 1973 contained just over forty poems, mainly written years earlier and full of echoes of rural life. A second edition (1975) added two extra sections containing nearly twenty poems written between 1973 and 1975, in a more urban context. Some critics regret this expansion, feeling that these poems are less powerful, but the fuller version represents the poet's final option and is here translated in its entirety

Later volumes of Shin's poetry include  Saejae (1979), Talnomse (1985), Kananhan sarangnorae (1988), Kil (1990), and Harmoni wa omoni ui silhouette (1998). Shin uses easily accessible, rhythmic language to compose lyrical narratives that are at times close to shamanistic incantation, or at others recall the popular songs still sung in rural villages if not in Seoul. Much of his work composes a loosely framed epic tale of Korean suffering, as experienced by the farmers living along the shores of the South Han River, the poet's home region, in the late 19th century, during the Japanese colonial period, and during the turmoil of the last fifty years.

No poet has so well expressed, and so humbly, the characteristic voice of Korea's masses, both rural and urban. Shin never sentimentalizes his subjects but rather takes the reader beyond the physical and cultural exterior to reveal them as intensely sensitive, suffering human beings.




These poems, as poems, are not very difficult to understand, they can mostly speak for themselves to the attentive reader. Yet at the same time, they are deeply rooted in the cultural particularities of the Korean countryside. They assume a readership familiar with the life that was and, to some extent at least, still is lived there. Few non-Koreans have had a chance to see and experience that life, and for them a few explanations may prove helpful. Rather than provide notes to individual poems, we have brought together the information that a reader may need in this introduction.

The translators have had to deal with a series of words that have no equivalent in other cultures or in the English language. We have chosen to keep certain words in Korean and to offer here a brief indication of their meaning. The words are not mere isolated translation problems, they are expressions of the culture in which they are used. Korean culture has no exact parallels elsewhere, it should not be confused with the cultures of China or Japan.

Some of the untranslateable words are names of musical instruments: ching, kkwengkwari, pokku, nallari. In Korea's rural communities, music, like every aspect of life, has a religious dimension. The fundamental religious spirit may be termed Shamanistic, the belief that there are spirits which help and spirits which cause harm. The annual rythm of seed-time and harvest is punctuated by bursts of noisy percussion music played by the men out in the fields or in the streets and yards of the village, designed to encourage the good spirits and discourage the harmful ones. The rhythms of this music easily provoke an irresistible desire to dance, and this can put people into a kind of trance. The Korean farmers' dance is done mainly with the hands and arms twisting in the air, with the rocking of the shoulders playing a vital role. The feet move little, the dancer turns while remaining on the spot. Dancers do not touch one another.

The team of musicians leading the dance usually have a small set of instruments. Some are made of metal: the basic rhythm is set by the ching, a deep-voiced, resonant gong 18 inches or more in diameter that is beaten at the start of each musical phrase; over this, the main musical flow is the work of two or more kkwenggwari, small rattly gongs held in the hand and beaten with hard sticks in a great variety of rhythmical patterns, at times engaging in dialogue or competition with one another.

Other instruments used include various kinds of drum, not named in these poems, with the exception of the pokku, the smallest kind. In addition, there is the nallari, a kind of oboe or clarinet in that it uses a double reed, but far more strident, designed to pierce through the clamor of percussion instruments in a series of sustained notes at the climax of the dance. There is no clear distinction between musicians, dancers, and spectators, the dance is communal and although the players are usually men, the older women will also join in, while younger women mostly stand watching.

The rural areas, especially in the south-west, are rich in popular songs of which only one, the yukjabegi is mentioned explicitly. This exists in many versions, it expresses the pain and endurance of the poor in vibrant tones. Shin Kyong-nim has always been particularly interested in such songs and their rhythms echo in his poetry, as well as their themes, for many traditional songs are evocations of the sufferings of the poor and unfortunate.

Another major source of potential difficulty involves food and drink. The Korean staple diet is rice, which is eaten with kimch'i, a preparation of uncooked long-leafed cabbage or other vegetables salted lightly, then seasoned by the addition of powdered red pepper husks, ginger, shrimp paste, and other ingredients, then allowed to ferment for a time.

When someone is too poor to buy rice, or is too tired to cook, there is always ramyon, cheap packs of industrially produced dried noodles sold in every village store, that need only to be boiled in water for a couple of minutes, with the contents of a little packet of powdered stock added to give taste. Ramyon is very popular but has little nutritive value.

Another kind of noodle mentioned in the poems is kuksu, a thicker kind of soft noodle, often served at parties or as a snack, where the soup in which the noodles are served may include a little meat and fresh vegetables. Noodles are made from wheat or other kinds of flour.


Drinking plays a big role in these poems, and in Korean life; it is always communal, almost never solitary. The most popular drink used to be makkolli, made of rice and drunk in pauses during work to give energy, as well as after work for pleasure. The main drink mentioned in the poems is soju, a cheap colorless distillate considerably stronger than makkolli, drunk from small glasses. It is still the main drink of men drinking of an evening. Beer was not part of rural Korean culture. Its absence from these poems is significant.

Koreans never drink alcohol without eating something: pork, dried squid or octopus. Another dish mentioned in this connection several times is muk, a brown jelly made by boiling up flour made from acorns and served cold, sliced, seasoned with soy sauce. The acorns grow wild, and can be gathered freely, so that muk is recognised as a food of the poor. It was especially valued toward the end of winter, when stores of grain were running low and no fresh plants were available.

Drinking is done in various places. In the village store, bottles can be bought to be drunk on a space arranged just outside, or to be taken away. Roadside bars also offer a minimal space for drinking, just something to sit on and a place for the glasses. Then come the larger establishments with rooms indoors. Finally there are the more expensive houses, where the drink is served by young girls who are also expected to entertain the customers by singing and dancing, and in other ways too, so that the term "whore-houses" has once or twice been introduced.


The Korean year begins with the Lunar New Year, known in the West as the Chinese New Year. This usually falls in February. It is the day when offerings are made to ancestors, and everyone adds one year to their age, since babies are born into their first year and so are "one year old" at birth. The full moon of the eighth month is celebrated as the Harvest Moon, Ch'usok, when offerings are made to the ancestors in thanks for their care for the family. Offerings are also made on the anniversary of deaths. They involve the all-night preparation by the women of a table of food, which is then offered in the early morning when the men (not usually the women) make a series of prostrations and take turns in presenting cups of rice-wine. The food is then eaten by all those present. The menfolk have often spent the whole night drinking, playing cards, and talking in the loud, hearty voices that characterize Korean male social discourse.

The graves of the dead (often termed "tombs" in English translation) are scattered across the Korean landscape, mostly on south-facing hillsides. Traditionally there were no communal graveyards, although members of a family are often buried together on a hill bought for that purpose. The circular earthen tumulus above a burial varies in size from a small mound for the humble to a large hillock for royalty. The graves of children and people of the lowest classes were left unmarked. Visits to the grave prolong the celebration of offerings at home; food is laid out, prostrations are made, and wine is offered.

Although the traditional calendar was lunar, there is also a set of twenty-four days with names indicating the stages of the solar climate, that does not follow the variations of the lunar calendar. Such dates mentioned in Shin Kyong-rim's poems include Kyong-chip when frogs are thought to mark the end of winter by emerging from hibernation late in February, and Ch'oso which heralds the end of the extreme summer heat late in August.


The landscape evoked in the poems is very unlike that found in Europe or America. The Korean landscape has very few open plains. Most of the territory is covered with range upon range of steep rocky hills, wooded at least in the lower reaches. There are many valleys carved out by streams that become rushing torrents after rain. The roughness of the terrain makes travel difficult, there were no highways in pre-20th century Korea. Because of their steepness, it has become customary to call the Korean hills "mountains" in English, although few are more than a thousand meters high.

The villages usually stand at points where the land levels out enough for paddy-fields to be practicable, although there are also isolated settlements in the hills. The poems often evoke the larger towns where markets are held. The seven-day week was not a familiar measure of time, and markets still often take place on a five-day rhythm. The market areas remain empty on the other days, the peddlers and merchants moving on to nearby towns where markets are held on other dates. Around the market are little alleys lined with small rooms where people eat and drink.

The traditional Korean house has certain characteristic features that are mentioned in the poems. These houses are rapidly disappearing. Until the 1970s most houses were roofed with a thick layer of rice-straw. The walls were made with wattle and daub, or a more solid mixture of clay and straw. There were no inside corridors, each room gave directly on to the yard, with a fairly narrow wooden step or platform sheltered by the eaves running around the house in front of the doors. Shoes were left on the ground below the step, which was quite a high one, high enough for an adult to sit with legs hanging down.

The rooms were raised above ground level by the ondol system of underfloor heating. The heat and smoke from the fire in the kitchen at one end of the house passed under the stone floors, heating them before emerging through a chimney at the other end. In larger houses there would also often be a maru, an open space with a wooden floor, covered by the roof, where people could sit in the summer. Each room was closed by a sliding door of open fretwork to which white paper was pasted. The windows were similarly covered with paper; window glass was unknown.


The climate evoked in the poems is extreme. The summer temperatures can rise beyond 35 degrees, while the winters are bitter, sometimes reaching minus 30 degrees Celsius. Winter brings a certain amount of snow, more in the mountains. In late June and early July there is a rainy season when heavy downpours are common. As a result the summer is not only hot but extremely humid and therefore unpleasant. The long autumn, lasting from September until mid or late November, is Korea's most beautiful season, with bright sunlight and deep blue skies.


Compared to the humble human setting, the main events of Korean history are not mentioned in the poems, but they play a major unspoken role. Certain dates are important. From 1909 until 1945, Korea was under Japanese rule, annexed and colonized in a particularly ruthless manner. This provoked an Independence Movement which was launched across Korea on March 1, 1919 and continued despite fierce repression. March 1 is the day when this movement is commemorated.

The Allied Forces never landed in Korea during World War II but demanded that Japan should withdraw from it on surrendering. The date of the Japanese surrender, August 15, 1945 is therefore hailed as the day of National Liberation. The allies agreed that the USSR and the USA should share responsibility for the land's transition to full nationhood, the USSR in the north, the USA in the south. In the south a Republic was set up in 1948 under the leadership of Syngman Rhee but without the participation of the northern areas, where a Communist regime was taking power, led by Kim Il Sung.

On June 25, 1950, the armed forces of the regime installed in the northern part invaded the south, opening the Korean War which still continues, no peace treaty having been signed. Before the 1953 Armistice froze the division on the country along or near the 38th Parallel, some three million people had died.

Syngman Rhee continued as president of the Republic of Korea until 1960, when he was due to reach the end of his constitutional mandate. His regime had become notoriously corrupt, so when he indicated his intention of taking a new term in power, popular indignation was expressed by popular demonstrations including  high school and college students, in Seoul and elsewhere. The armed forces opened fire on the unarmed students on April 19, 1960, killing many. Syngman Rhee was obliged to step down and it seemed that a new dawn of democracy was at hand.

On May 16, 1961, the military led by Park Chung-Hee staged a coup and he took power, continuing as president-dictator until his assassination on October 26, 1979. During his rule, the process of urbanization and industrialization begun under the Japanese was intensified. Korea was one of the poorest countries of the world in 1960, with few mineral resources available in the south. Economists talk of a "Korean Miracle" but these poems show the same events from a very different perspective.

Urbanization led to the depopulation of the villages. Since poverty was general, the price of basic foodstuffs was naturally low. Farmers were poor; many had no land of their own but depended on work in the fields belonging to others. People would illegally clear a small patch of land in the hills in which to plant some vegetables of their own. When industrialization began, wages had to be kept at minimum levels and this meant that social peace could only be preserved if the price of food in the cities were kept equally low. This in turn meant that the farmers in the villages could still earn almost nothing.

Young people were thus encouraged to leave the villages to look for work in the new industrial sector, as poorly paid construction workers or unskilled laborers. The new wealthy class in Seoul wanted housemaids, and village girls were lured to Seoul by this prospect. Very often they ended up in bars and on the streets of the red-light areas of which Yongsan was only one.

The sufferings caused by poverty are one of the main social themes of these poems, with the feeling that there is no escape, nowhere to go where life might be better. At the same time the poems suggest that the simple people evoked in them are intensely human, a humanity expressed by their ability to share life together in simple friendliness, in joys, in sorrows, and even in fist-fights.

It was a revolutionary step, only partly inspired by socialist currents of thought, to find in the lives of Korea's despised poor a worthy subject for lyric poetry. The influence of these poems has been correspondingly immense and in their celebration of Korea's nameless masses they deserve a worldwide audience.


Part 1


On a Winter's Night


We're met in the backroom of the co-op mill

playing cards for a dish of muk;

tomorrow's market-day. Boisterous merchants

shake off the snow in the inn's front yard.

Fields and hills shine newly white, the falling snow

comes swirling thickly down.

People are talking about the price of rice and fertilizers,

and about the local magistrate's daughter, a teacher.

Hey, it seem's Puni, up in Seoul working as a maid,

is going to have a baby. Well, what shall we do?

Shall we get drunk? The bar-girl smells

of cheap powder, but still, shall we have a sniff?

We're the only ones who know our sorrows.

Shall we try raising fowls this year?

Winter nights are long, we eat muk,

down drinks, argue over the water rates,

sing to the bar-girl's chop-stick beat,

and as we cross the barley-field to give a hard time

to the newly-wed man at the barber's shop,

look at that : the world's all white. Come on snow, drift high,

high as the roof, bury us deep.

Shall we send a love-letter

to those girls behind the siren tower hiding

wrapped in their skirts? We're

the only ones who know our troubles.

Shall we try fattening pigs this year?                    



Country Relatives


Nowadays I hate our uncle's place down in the country.

Once uncle's at market he's slow coming home,

rooks flock fit to darken the sky, cawing

in the persimmon tree that's dropped all its fruit.

My cousin, a college graduate, says he hates

the whole world. When he suddenly goes rushing out

after browsing through letters from friends, I know

he's off to an all-night game of mahjong again.

The chicken coop looks bleak,

with just a few feathers left drifting from the chickens

sold off last spring. I wonder if my aunt

misses her eldest son? Clearing out what used to be

his study-room on the other side of the yard, she cries

at the sight of the mottoes he wrote on the wall:

We may be poor, we're not lonely; We're

powerless but not weak, only I don't understand

what the words mean. I wonder

if he's living in some other country now?

The pigs have gone to pay off co-op debts.

In front of their sty chrysanthemums bloom bright.

My oldest cousin planted them. Now his wife

wants to pull them up and sow pretty

cosmos in their place and I hate

my grandmother too: she used to be so kind, now

she keeps gazing at the ridges in the sold-off fields

and sighing away with watery eyes.

Nowadays I hate our uncle's place down in the country.



Lands Far Apart


Old Park's from Kuju. Kim's a fellow

grew up in some Cholla coastal place.

The October sunshine still stings our backs.

Stones fly, dynamite blasts, cranes whine.

Let's go to the bar there under its awning,

hand in our chits, drink some makkolli.

All we've got left now is our pent-up fury,

nothing more. Just oaths and naked fists.

We hear tales of outside from the council clerks

who dump their bikes beneath the big tree.

Oh, this place is too remote, we miss

the city's din here in this god-forsaken construction site.

Tonight let's get out to the bars down the road,

play cards for money,

belt out songs at the tops of our voices.

The siren wails; one final slap

at the fat behind of the woman who cooks in the chop-house,

and off we go, dragging our carts along,

covered in dust, counting the days

till pay day. Outside the drying room a dog

is barking; down the sides of the yard

where red peppers lie drying, the village kids

play at ch'egi using their feet. The girls,

keeping the sunlight off their heads with a towel,

giggle away the weight of the stones in their panniers;

the foreman yells at the top of his voice. In this remote

far-off construction site the autumn sun is slow to set.





The bustling market's done. The market-place wind

blows chill up overall sleeves.

The visiting merchants have packed up their goods

and are waiting in front of the mill for the truck,

or crowd the back rows round the wrestling ring

with folded arms and anxious murmurs.


The last bout, the deciding match, pits

the toughness of one scrawny native lad

against a visiting wrestler. The kids

bang tin cans and scream,

stamp in disappointment, but in the end

it's the native lad who gets overthrown.

The last day of Paekjung, the late summer festival.


The old men round the ring spit in disgust:

why, they lost every year.

In great glee the visiting team try to lead

the ox they won round the market place


but once outside the school yard

there's only the unlit highway.

Tired of the smell of ch'amoi and watermelons,

the men parade back to the village,

the weary looser leading the way,

their starch all knocked out, like mourners at a magistrate's house.



After Market's Done


We plain folk are happy just to see each other.

Peeling ch'amoi melons in front of the barber's,

gulping down makkolli sitting at the bar,

all our faces invariably like those of friends,

talking of drought down south, or of co-op debts,

keeping time with our feet to the herb peddlar's guitar.

Why are we all the time longing for Seoul?

Shall we go somewhere and gamble at cards?

Shall we empty our purses and go to the whore-house?

We gather in the school-yard, munch strips of squid with soju.

In no time at all the long summer day's done

and off we go down the bright moonlit cart-track

carrying a pair of rubber shoes or a single croaker,

staggering home after market's done.



The Night We Make Offerings


I don't know what dad's dead cousin's name was.

The night we make the offerings for him,

winter rain is gloomily pattering down

and the younger relations, having nothing else to do,

gather in a side room where the floor's been heated

to gamble at cards or play chess.

From the lamplit verandah rises the sound

of a hand-mill churning out a slurry of green beans.

When our uncles arrive from their distant home,

their greatcoats full of the stink of grass,

we go out with lanterns and delve

into the roof-thatch after nestling sparrows.

Tonight's dad's cousin's offerings; winter rain

patters down in my heavy heart.

Dad's cousin spent a miserable short life

and I don't even know what his name was.



Farmers' Dance


The ching booms out, the curtain falls.

Above the rough stage, lights dangle from a paulownia tree,

the playground's empty, everyone's gone home.

We rush to the soju bar in front of the school

and drink, our faces still daubed with powder.

Life's mortifying when you're oppressed and wretched.

Then off down the market alleys behind the kkwenggwari

with only some kids running bellowing behind us

while girls lean pressed against the oil shop wall

giggling childish giggles.

The full moon rises and one of us

begins to wail like the bandit king Kokjong; another

laughs himself sly like Sorim the schemer; after all

what's the use of fretting and struggling, shut up in these hills

with farming not paying the fertilizer bills?

Leaving it all in the hands of the women,

we pass by the cattle-fair,

then dancing in front of the slaughterhouse

we start to get into the swing of things.

Shall we dance on one leg, blow the nallari hard?

Shall we shake our heads, make our shoulders rock?



Shadows of Flowers


Apricot blossom shadows fall

across the old wooden planks of the co-op porch

where a bottle of soju and some dried squid lie.


The breeze lifting our coat-collars

is still pretty chilly and I only wish

that the laughter of us poor folks,


laughing to read "Plant rice in dry fields"

and "One percent off the farmland tax"

as we browse through the newspapers,

would grow as bright as those flowers up there.


One apricot petal

falls into the glass.

The union cart's on its way to market.



Snowy Road


I walk through the night, off to buy opium.

Down a long mountain trail in driving sleet,

sleeping by day hidden in the back rooms of inns.

When I'm weary, I call the woman in to play cards.

When I make her laugh with my suggestive jokes

under the faded photo of the landlord

who was falsely accused and stupidly killed,

the wind entangles itself in the branches of trees

on the hill behind and weeps

like the sorrowful ghosts of lads that starved

and now all I have left is two powerless fists.

As I fill my stomach with a bowl of dumpling soup

the woman goes on and on bewailing her lot

and we keep laughing out loud like two mad fools.



One August


Someone was playing the harmonium in the empty classroom.

Minnows wouldn't enter the fish-trap we'd set up

in the stream dammed by a laundry-stone, so

we kept dashing into the water,

that didn't come up to our belly-buttons,

and peeling ch'amoi melons in the warm afternoon.

When the sun declined the beauty-parlor girls

came out to watch us fishing

and ended up frolicking about with us

but we felt ashamed of the dew on the early evening grass

and of the full moon too.

When we took a byway back to the market square

the harmonium had stopped playing in the empty classroom

and the lane by the brewery stank of manure

as if all the whole world was rotting away.



Party Day


Dad's cousin's been drunk and rowdy since daybreak.

Cheerless leaves are falling on the awning.

Women clustered in the back yard are making a fuss,

the excited bride's boasting about her new husband.

Have you forgotten? Dad's cousin's drunk and rowdy.

Have you forgotten the day your father died?

No point in listening to his stupid voice.

Finally a proper party comes alive beneath the marquee,

the excited bride's boasting about her in-laws.

Even though the truck's arrived, drawn up in front:

Have you forgotten? Dad's cousin's drunk and rowdy.

Have you forgotten how your father died?



Summer Rains


The whole house is full of a thick stench of pig.

The clerks have slaughtered a piglet and are killing time

in the visitors' room at the village captain's house,

so we carriers from Hansan are free to stay in the store

where we dip our share of pig's lard in shrimp sauce.

After talk of eating out in prosperous gold-mining days

a dirty joke raises a boisterous laugh but

it's been pouring with rain for nearly a week,

our pockets have run out of fags and vouchers

a mouldy stench has soaked into work-clothes and bones.

Drinking till we're tipsy, we play cards on the straw mats

to see who will pay for the kuksu noodles.

Later, covering our heads with plastic umbrellas,

we climb up to the vacant construction site.

The women out to view the water avoid us,

hiding behind the rusty tractor

while the old woman at the canteen who lost her son in June

sits there heedless, drenched in the monsoon rains.

Old So is worrying about his flighty wife

and Pak is spinning tales of stockings he never bought,

so fine that his daughter's flesh would have shown right through.





Stomachs full with half a bowl of kuksu noodles

washed down with makkolli,

banners planted with slogans proclaiming

Agriculture is the Nation's Foundation

we're dancing round the village head's front yard

with the county magistrate leading the way,

our gratitude to the nation deep in our bones

as the magistrate dances the hunchback's dance

to tinkling kkwenggwari and booming ching

and the instructor bangs away on a bokku

for our 13.4% increase in grain production

an expressway less than twenty miles off

and local kids dressed in tattered rags

swipe dried octopus

upend crocks of wine

the drama broadcast through the village speakers

is much better fun than the news

that the old man down at Dragon Rock has died

the womenfolk are drunk

as they sing on and on in the inner yard

while the younger girls out at the back

practice new songs

until they're hoarse

and ah, I wonder, who knows

what day today is

with the entire village out dancing, drunk

under fluttering banners?


Part 2



The Way to Go


We gathered, carrying rusty spades and picks.

In the bright moonlit grove behind the straw sack storehouse,

first we repented and swore anew,

joined shoulder to shoulder; at last we knew which way to go.

We threw away our rusty spades and picks.

Along the graveled path leading to the town

we gathered with only our empty fists and fiery breath.

We gathered with nothing but shouts and songs



The Night Before


Hearing their cries.

Hearing screams.

Hearing the sound of bloody nails

clawing at walls.

Who wants to take the side

of the poor and downtrodden?

Nobody wants to talk

of those things. Hearing the sound

of footsteps racing away.

Hearing the sound of people collapsing,

falling. The sound of helpless

men's sighs covering those deaths,

hearing above them the sound

of furious whiplashes raining down.

Hearing the sound of songs.



The Storm


The bicycle store and the sundae soup shop closed down.

All the inhabitants came pouring out into the marketplace

shaking their fists and stamping their feet.

The younger ones went pounding on jing and kkwenggwari

while the lasses came following behind them singing.

Lighting torches made of cotton wadding soaked in oil

they set up an out-of-season wrestling match in the school yard.

But then suddenly winter arrived

dark clouds gathered and dropped damp sleet.

The young men scattered and hid indoors

only the old and the women still tottered about, coughing.

All winter long we shook for dread.

And in the end the bicycle store and the sundae soup shop

failed to re-open.



That Day


One young woman all alone

follows weeping behind a bier.

A procession with no funeral banners, no hand-bell in front.

Ghost-like shadows

along the smoke-veiled evening road,

a breeze scattering falling leaves

down alleys with neither doors nor windows,

while people watch hiding

behind telegraph posts and roadside trees.

Nobody knows the dead

man's name that dark

and moonless day.



Hillside Lot Number One


Before the sun sets

the wind comes visiting hillside lot Number One

It shakes the roofing spread over every house,

tears the newspaper pasted on the fretwork doors,

sprinkles rock dust

over the wretched inhabitants' faces.

Once the sun has set, smoke from burning pine branches

spreads across hillside lot Number One.

Men unable to enjoy the nation's prosperity

deceive then strangle one another,

finally taking knives and shedding blood,

while smoke clings to the folds of the skirts

of women grown weary of poverty stomping their way

downhill to the railway station.

Before night falls in hillside lot Number One

there's a sound of keening. The parent

who's got hold of poisonous globefish roes

intending they should all die together

gets drunk and changes his mind after all

but the lass who's had a fatherless child

seeks out a cliff and hurls herself down.

Then as darkness comes to hillside lot Number One

a gale that's swept over plains

strikes against the hillside behind,

turns into every person's tears and comes pouring down.





One snowy night

he comes visiting me.

Beating at the door just outside the window.

Anxious to tell me



I see him again

in my dreams.


barefoot on the snow.

Blood flows

from his feet.


He is gazing at me

with pitying eyes.

Approaching me, he grasps

my hand.

His lips

call my name.


As I awake

the dawn bell is ringing.

I can hear his voice

within the bell's clamor.

I get up

and throw open the window.


I stare at the snow

heaped before my window.

At the stains of his blood

spread on the snow. At his furious




March 1, Independence Movement Day


When every alleyway's soggy with sewage

and by each house with its shabby shaky wooden fence

tattered rags hang flapping like flags,

our country hates us. When the first day of March

visits this remote hill town.


When unemployed youths fill the alleyways

and the plots of the poor spread ever wider

in house agents dens, barbers' shops, soju bars

our country rejects us. When March the first

once again comes to this remote hill town.


We do not believe that flowers will bloom

in this dust-laden wind. We do not believe

that Spring will come riding

this dust-laden wind. And alas, we do not believe

the news of our country borne on this dust-laden wind.


When the lasses have all become whores and left,

the lads gone crazy slashing at daylight

so that all the county is sullied with blood

our country leaves us for good. When the first day of March

goes off and abandons this remote hill town.



The Road to Seoul


His sighs have soaked

into the tumble-down stable.

Helpless regrets.


On the crumbling terrace

his wife's tears

have formed pools. Ghostly voices

of poverty cursing.


The broken persimmon tree rots

and his children's voices

have permeated the rotting floor.

Oaths of despair and wrath.


When spring breezes blow, the old

suyu tree weeps.

Looking down

the road to Seoul

stained with our blood . . .



This Pair of Eyes

--A statue sings


I was robbed of my two arms by an enemy tank

then my tongue was bitten off by an enemy's teeth

so now all I have left is this

pair of eyes.

Will someone tell me to give them away as well?

They'll never manage to wrest from me this

pair of eyes.

I will observe autumn leaves, snow,

their end,

falling on the heads of my poor compatriots.

All I have left now to watch the end

of oppressors and oppressed is

nothing but this

pair of eyes.





They walk barefoot

through the pouring rain.

Bruises have formed

on the gaunt hands they clasped.

They call for me

in angry voices.

They spit

in my terrified face.

On their white-clad shoulders

blood has clotted.

They go rushing heedlessly

through the raging storm.



1950: Death by Firing-squad




Rain pours down, wind howls, and guns

all vomit flame. Lament now,

trees and grass! Remember the murderers' faces,

earth! That autumn of 1950

a throng of two hundred innocent souls

fell here, one by one. Rage, heavens! Transform

this river into a stream of blood.

Only finally the murderers all escaped.

Come back to life now, innocent throng, and

testify to this filthy history.

Night spread, burying the corpses; rain fell,

washing away the blood. Is there not one

that came back to life? Are they all weeping,

turned into bitter spirits under the ground?





Well over ten years later, on that spot now

stands the weekend bungalow of one of

our country's honored rulers. In the lounge

wicked deals are done by night, foul plots

are laid. And the weak-chested little daughter

is dreaming. Dreams of young lads wading barefoot

through the river. She opens her eyes in the night;

in the grove out behind, a crow is cawing.

A bleak wind comes peeping sadly through

the window. Has not one come back to life?

Then is there no one to testify?

To this filthy history? Are they all weeping,

turned for ever into bitter spirits under the ground?


Part 3



The Abandoned Mine


Uncle was whisked off one day and never came back.

Dandelions might be blooming up on the swelling dumps

of ore and muck deposited by trucks,

it was the usual chilly April

as uncle's friends in their sneakers

gathered in our yard and tossed back soju.

I could not understand why they were shaking their fists.

People said at night evil spirits emerged

from the many empty hovels, so in the gloomy back room

lit dimly by a lamp I played pasteboard dump all by myself.

The wind scattered slag dust before banging at the door

then howled just like my friends' father's voice--

he died crushed when the mine caved in.

The war was over but still the village lads

vanished one by one and didn't come back.

In the empty gold pit ghosts howl even in the daytime

while the sound of the owl is more revolting

than the things uncle said and did when he was drunk.



Kyong-ch'ip: End of Hibernation


Lying there in just her mud-stained underwear

the wife trembled all over and kept on coughing.

All day long the underfloor flue had shaken

in that rice-mill backroom

rank with the stench rising from soybean malt.

The young team of miners under their ten-watt lamps

started a belated game of sotta lasting till late at night,

while I took the wife's place, prepared muk, carried wine,

fanned the fire to heat the floor.

Even the cart-boy who had come for the rice sacks

got dragged in too, the game was going fine

when suddenly the cock crowed; I collected my cut

and went to order the morning soup

for the wife, who had to go out to help carry dung.

The village square was cold though Kyong-ch'ip was past.

Old Six-toes's wife--he got shot in the war--

was there throwing wanton smiles all about her,

preparing morning soup full of cabbage leaves.



After the Summer Rains


In the summer that year we moved to the house

just in front of the gold mill. There

we opened a store selling dies and brine.

Uncle got on well with the miners from other parts

and I can't forget that tedious drought during which

he spent all the time drinking, ending up drunk every day.


Stuck in the store, Dad could think of nothing but soju,

while nightfall was the only thing I enjoyed.

Across the road in the gamblers' club

as soon as night came you could hear sounds of singing;

when the girl had had enough of being pestered by drunks

she escaped to our house and hid there, trembling.


I can't forget that summer's sultry

heat. The peasants gathered muttering by the stream

at the crossroads. On the day the shower came

they scattered and ran in all directions,

the whorehouse yard was stained with blood.


At last, though the rains had come, that kid whore

left all of a sudden for the local town;

perhaps she wasn't having much fun any more,

she never came back, just like uncle who left home too.

The stream rose and we were forced to take refuge

on the hill behind the house; we couldn't forget

that stink of blood, and there was a rumor

we'd be moving back to the market square after the rains.



That Winter


Sleet filtered down over the gold mill and

in the guest-room of the carrier's just below it

we boarded for four bushels of rice each.

Yon-sang and Tok-taek had gone home to celebrate

the holidays, the wind driving past the cliffs was grim and

all day we sat hugging the iron stove with its oak wood fire

talking about a kid whore called Yongja

we'd met at a boarding-house in front of Chech'on station.

Sometimes we went rushing off to the widow's tavern

for a bite of pork that we chipped in to buy on credit.

At about full moon, when heavier sleets always fell,

the carrier's grandson, who'd gone away to make his fortune,

came back even poorer than before and

we held a party for him to celebrate only

the party soon turned into a fight.

The village lads and the laborers from Hansan

divided into gangs and traded blows,

knocked heads together, threw dishes about.

The unseemly conduct didn't last long;

soon they were sorry and burst into tears,

began a new party, passing glasses round to the Yukjabegi beat.

When we clenched our fists and stepped outside

the valley mining village was dark as pitch; there was

not one girl left, all were off working as housemaids.

Falling down, tumbling about, we

bellowed out songs. At first light

we were not afraid though dogs barked and cocks crowed,

the sleet had now turned into a solid snowfall,

the mountain paths were treacherous, slippery with ice.



Before and After March the First


Mahjong game, dawn, wallet empty.

Step into street, face shrivelling at biting wind.

Turn into Noraengi the miser's place.

Get drunk in a flash at daybreak.


Shabby boots thick with mud at the bar.

Still early dawn, before sunrise,

but the marketeers are silent for dread,

pigs off to the slaughterhouse

shudder and scream for all they're worth.


Go staggering into the unheated room.

Lifting a face livid with poverty and fear

the wife keeps on and on pestering: Let's leave

this dreadful place before March the First.





No matter what anybody said, I could never believe them.

With the sole exception of bad days, every day the wife

went out to work on the newly cut road up to Seoul while I

staved off hunger with watery gruel and spent the year

in the cartoon shop beside the bus-stop.

From time to time my friends came flocking in to kid me.

They would drag me through the streets, force me to drink

and make me lead the way to the whorehouse

then suddenly drag me off to the stream-side and kick me.

Frequently my wife would embrace my scraggy neck and weep.

The sand-filled wind was specially cold that spring

and my wife was completely frozen, pale and shivering, but

I spent all the rest of the year in the cartoon shop

and no matter what anyone said, refused to believe them.



Going Blind


Once the sun weakened, the lads from the lower village

came calling on me, bringing bottles of soju.

The wife used to jump and cry out if even so much as

the shade of an apricot blossom touched the window;

it took only a few glasses of soju to stir us up

so that we stamped on the floor then pranced round the yard.

After that we would start to turn just a little bit crazy.

Weeping aloud, giggling too and shouting out loud,

we'd drag the wife out to dance the hunchback's dance.

At last she fled to the lower village, her endurance exhausted,

at which my voice abruptly lost its power.

The weather was still bad despite the extra third month

so that my voice calling the wife stayed pinned to the ground.

I dreamed I'd shaken off the lads

and was about to set off for some distant city.



The Road Back Home


After we've lost every trace of laughter all day long

when we try to smile in front of the alley grogshop

our faces twist and contort.

When we clasp each other's hands warmly

our hands feel cold and rough.

As we limp through night-covered poverty

freed from all the people who hate us

we rage, and repent,

curse but then part,

and when we push open our rooms' curbside doors

and call our wives' names,

our voices turn into keening laments.



Mountain Town Diary


Shall I go on living this slovenly life?

Sleep refuses to come

on a snowy night.

Young Park's in a cell, old Song's

in his sickbed, and I'm here beside my

skinny wife with her head pillowed on my arm,

separated from one another.

The only thing I can hear should surely be

the crunch of snow falling on the roof?

I recall the poet from my native region

kidnapped and taken North. I recall his

remarried wife. Why should I lead such

a slapdash life? In this mountain town

I grab the kids' pocket-money

to buy coal, drink liquor,

play sotta in the night-duty room.

I recall one unfortunate poet,

I recall his crippled

daughter. The only thing I can hear should surely be

dogs barking in a distant hamlet?

On snowy nights all I can hear should surely be

the sound of trains rolling over the rails,

while our poor friends go mad,

go mad and finally die? Shall I go on living such

a slovenly life, in this mountain town?



The Backwoods


The lightly frozen stream,

the tavern across the road,

that night the first snow fell.

The frustration

of the backwoods lay spread across the playground.


Together in the night-duty room

ordering and eating a dish of muk

even after a couple of miles' walk

all the way to the market-place,

the dark poverty-stricken night

still has a long way to go.


Talking of Seoul, its

filthy pride and corruption

in this alienated classroom without

one pencil or notebook, where thirty

percent of the kids have no lunch to eat.


Let's forget our


the despair of the backwoods

buried under the homeward path.

That night the first snow fell.


Part 4



Mountain Town Visit, a Story


Market day, yet business is slacker than normal.

Drought, so in the fields hot dust clouds rose while

roofs, stone walls, stood weary like the laborers.


The bus stopped in front of the common market

from where the wife's grave could be seen.

Beneath a roadside stall's awning I and the boy

drank a tepid beverage produced by foreign capital.


I wonder why my hometown friends, seen again at last

after long separation, have such bloodshot eyes?

No words. Just hands clasped

and shaken. That lying smile.


The narrow alley of the chicken-shop littered with stones

and sticks and hoes. Out in front of the barber's shop

that used to ring with farmers' and miners' quarrels.

The rice-store path where volunteer firemen used to run.


It's market day, yet everywhere is gloomier than normal.

Rough hands grasp mine as I walk away from the wife's grave,

grasp and won't let go.



Country Bus Terminal


Once past the end of Ulchi-ro

I start to smell smells of home.

Across the muddy bus station yard

in the freezing unheated waiting room there's

an old man with ice caught in his moustache,

on closer inspection he's a neighbor from Shinni-myon

worrying about the piles of rice-straw

he's unable to bring in from the paddy fields,

complaining about the early cold and the icy wind.

A woman chimes in with a sigh:

Well if that's all there is to complain about . . .

The woman keeping the tavern at the road junction:

Well if that's all there is to be anxious about . . .

Confusion spreads, the waiting room grows colder still

and for some reason I feel afraid of the folk from home.

Shall I stealthily sneak away,

catch a bus back to Ulchi-ro?

Only once I get to Ulchi-ro

I feel more cowardly than ever.



A Friend


Spotty always used to get praised in composition class.

His father guarded the tombs of the Hongs of Namyang.

He worked at the cooperative rice-mill and set himself up

in an earth-walled house with no maru.


Wheat bran came wafting as far as the straw mats in the yard.

That friend, meeting me again after ten years, grabbed me

bought cucumbers and sour soju

then sent his wife to boil up some kuksu noodles;

his wife stammered bashfully like a young girl.


I knew her father.

I knew him; he used to deliver liquor on a bicycle,

a sturdy fellow, always in high spirits.

I know that mound of stones too, covered with bindweed

under the zelkova; he was stoned to death and buried there.

Is that why you're ashamed of your wife, and your first kid,

in third grade, shy of strangers just like her?

Of the A-frame in front of the kitchen, the rough water jar?


Old friend. Nowadays I can make my way alone

to the pine grove up behind the warehouse.

That place where my cousin and his friends

used to make charcoal, old friend.

We get even more drunk surrounded by the wheat bran

and the noise of the mill,

go out to the market, arms round shoulders.

Old friend, is that why you're ashamed?







Cotton turumagi overcoats

stinking of makkolli

the men squatting on straw mats

were discussing the times with haggard faces.

Fearfully emaciated faces.


Still the kids were cheerful.

In a bonfire lit under a sheltering rock

they roasted stale rice-cake ttok and dried pollack,

went racing in circles and toppling headlong.





--Even after twenty years the home village

hasn't altered in the least. Poverty-like

smoke holds the village wrapped

and in it dogs are barking

kids are crying and they are all

shouting at me.

Speak out! Speak out! Speak out!

Alas, there is nothing I can say.


Part 5



A Reed


For some time past, a reed had been

quietly weeping inwardly.

Then finally, one evening, the reed

realized it was trembling all over.


It wasn't the wind or the moon.

The reed was utterly unaware that it was its own

quiet inward weeping that was making it tremble.

It was unaware

that being alive is a matter

of that kind of quiet inward weeping.



Graveside Epitaph


After living a lonesome life, he died.

He was buried on a quiet hill with

a stream flowing in front and a hill behind.

One warm spring day with a mild wind blowing

a white wooden marker was standing by that grave.

It stood with the same lonesome look as his life had had

exposed to every wind.

Yet that marker did not suggest a past

with nothing worth remembering. Its fragile face

that was growing darker as time went by

looked sad.

It was quietly calling attention to something

that might be heard and might be seen.



Deep Night




All those people who ended lonesomely.

That wind that once blew on the hilltops.

That moonlight.

All those things behind the bell,

now weeping in company with the bell.


Those things deprived of name and shape,

things heaping up now in my heart.





One day or other

I too will turn into something like those

and like them lonesomely go back somewhere.

That lake somewhere

where on that day I shall go and quietly weep.


Someone's sad heart.



A Baby




He is gazing at the snow piling up beyond the window, his

expression says it's lovely and mysterious. He waves a hand.

Just like the baby tree used to wave its leaves.


He has knowledge of every secret.

He knows the reason why the snow falls, and the beautiful

whispering sounds it makes,

all that he knows--a replete still life.





In a little while he's going to learn the word "Mama." That is the point at which he will lose the secret contained

in the word "Mama."

But he doesn't realize that.


Flower, tree, star,

as he learns each word with a joyful, happy heart, he will

lose one by one the secrets each of them contains.


The day he loses every last one of the secrets, he will have become a full human being.





Then one day with snow piling up like now he

will suffer torment at the thought of some girl.


Strolling beside the stream

he will weep, homesick for himself.



On the Top of an Extinct Volcano


Unendurable frustration turns into blazing fire.

One day in an explosion shaking heavens and earth

it erupts, blasting through the earth's crust.

It is aware of nothing on account of that rapture of mad frenzy.

The mountain shaking

as the flames arch high into the heavens.

All the plants and trees catch fire and burn

rocks melt and flow like water.

--Then ten thousand years pass. A hundred thousand years.



Look. Now

In the crater that once spouted fire

stands a pool of water so cold it freezes the fingertips.

A host of minute mountain plants invades the top

where you can see traces of a hikers' camp.

Now and then the lonely song of a bird rings strange in the ear.

Far away glimpses of river, sea, and empty plains.

Listen. The sound of the wind.


I will force my breast open like the crater

that once spouted fire,

fill my breast with nothing but the sound of the wind.

Even sorrow will be fine. Even if something

should torment me it will be fine.




Part 6



Night Bird


I woke from a dream

where I was pursued by a bier

round and round a zelkova tree.

Suddenly I heard a bird sing.


Wake up now, mistreated wretch.

Open your lips, downtrodden wretch.


Flying carefully through a lowering sky

with not a spare inch for so many resentful ghosts,


that night bird sobs so sadly.

One boy sobs sadly, too, pitifully

clinging to the back of the bier.





We talked of old times till late at night.

The hillside inn wasn't far from the quarry.

In the yard the moonlight was bright as broad day

and we averted our eyes, ashamed even in moonlight,

as we talked far into the night about the old days.

We made no distinction between hoaxer and hoaxed.

On the slopes, daisies shone white in the moonlight

and with shoulders drooping at having lived so meanly

all night long we talked empty talk.



The River


The raindrops sob and weep.

Weeping, they pierce the muddy ground.

The children are avoiding the raindrops.

Weeping, they roam about in the river.


Could the river forget that sound of weeping?

Could it forget the sound of guns and cries?

Could it forget those tiny fists and little bare feet?


The wind sobs and weeps.

Weeping, it goes swirling over the river.

The children go wandering after the wind.

Weeping, they wander in the falling rain.



That Summer


One person's tears

summoned tears to all the village

and one person's song

brought songs crowding into all the county.


Brought clouds crowding in,

brought wind and rain crowding in,

produced flowers and dances,

produced curses, imprecations, resentment.


One person's song

brought songs crowding into every street

and one person's death

produced death throughout the land.



A Legend


He was always drinking,

he went mad, grew rowdy,

then finally the rascal died.


Up the mountain road running past

the village where I was born and bred

is an old tree that's a spirit shrine


with red and yellow strips of rag


He became a ghost, squatting there cross-legged.


On summer nights all thick with mist

in bitterness, in bitterness

that rascal weeps.


In bitterness, in bitterness,

the old tree also weeps. That rascal

has come to life again, squatting there cross-legged.








What Ernst Oppert thought about our ancestors

was right.

What he thought about them was right, as they gathered

in a ragged mob on that riverside hill.

It was not they who hated him.

We know who those wicked people were

that tore Féron's companions apart at the cattle market

then made him live for five days

and five nights on the grass he grazed.

Yes, Oppert, we know.





Who can they be, who demand in this dark

that we consider friends as enemies? And nowadays

who can they be who insist that lies are truth?

The streets are all covered with darkness

but Oppert, it's not we who hate you.

In the compulsion to consider friends as enemies

Féron's descendants are leaving this land again

loaded on steamers.

Who can be the people who are driving them away,

who can they be?



What We Have to be Ashamed of


It's not only the stench of muddy alleys.

It's not only petty slanging matches and fist-fights.

What we have to be ashamed of

is not only this deep poverty.

It's not only the darkness that almost never lifts.


When August comes we may be elated but

sitting on our creaky office chairs

or on a narrow bench in a soju bar

we clench fists about some boring baseball match

played abroad, nothing to do with us at all,

let some crazy missionary work us into a frenzy,

get excited about tall tales told by an economist

from some underdeveloped country,

but it's not only these kinds of things

that we have to be ashamed of.


It's not only this lily-livered kind of false merriment,

it's not only our two fists shrivelled up with fear.

What we have to be ashamed of

is not only the wild way we cheat and get cheated.

It's not only the darkness that hides heaven itself.



Friend! In your Fist . . .




We'd had a hard frost, the day Ch'ang-tol's Dad died.

His body was lying wrapped in a straw mat in one corner of

the yard of the oil-press house strewn with paulownia leaves

while his wife lay swooning beside him.


Ch'ang-tol and I played with our tops.

Too frightened to go back home we just went on playing

with our tops in the rice-store yard as night fell.





I know that you've got a sharp knife concealed

in the fist that's clasping a soju glass, friend.

When we met again in the eatery and in the bar,

I saw the fire burning in your eyes.

I'm your friend. I saw your shoulders move

in disbelief, insist as I might.


Why, friend, I saw the falling paulownia leaves

heaped on top of the straw mat wrapped round the body.





Someone is observing me.

As I clench my fists, resolved not to be afraid

in the steep alley frozen icy white

behind my back someone is mocking me. That evening

I was drunk on the smell of a girl's face-powder

but I just talked on about what Blanquist did in 1871,

talked about a hometown friend who'd died wretchedly.

Someone is rebuking me.

Yes, indeed,

rebuking me behind my back as I shudder

at the sound of the wind sweeping through that alley,

as I lie tossing beside the sleeping kids.

Is snow falling tonight upon that tomb?

Someone is observing me.


Part 7



In the Dark


A stench of blood arose in the falling rain.

And sobbing could be heard in the wind.

It was summer yet the streets were frozen white,

folks had shut their gates and shuddered hidden indoors.


Could all those past deaths have been in vain?

That year's bloodstains could still be seen on grass and rocks

up in the hills where I had gone, taking the kids.

Deep at night all the grieving spirits would wake

and fill the dark valley with their keening laments.


Tell me, friend, what am I so afraid of?

I was so anxious that I woke the kid to go for a piss,

and recalled vividly the last shot in Père Lachaise

Cemetery. My eye shouted: Look, look!

My ear screamed: Listen, listen,

to the very first empty stillness

but I felt ashamed to admit that I knew

the tales entangled in that mountain valley.


We buried our friend in the lee of a rock

then scrubbed and wiped our muddy hands

wondering if really all those past deaths had been in vain,

that had taught us just how strong we were?


In this summer night loud with the keening of blood

in flowers, yes, and in dewdrops, too,

tell me friend, what am I so afraid of?



Mountain Station


Flying coal dust came rattling at the paper lining

of the inn room's door.

Eyes opening to the screech of coal-trains on the railway line

retained an image of the hands of friends chained there

while the small station was astir from daybreak.


A shabby alley with fish-shops next to a little substation whose

humming passing into the power lines only brought false reports

that spring would never come to this isolated valley.


Local youths went crazy and searched travellers

while I wondered what on earth might be

more frightening than death and in my ear


friends' shouts could be heard, songs could be heard,

yelling not to be afraid

though lightning scorched my hair or thunder split my ears.

Even if that icy morning star was no longer on our side.



Year's-End Fair


I'm looking increasingly haggard,

ashamed of being alive.


Along the now dismantled rails

a little county town

a cold year's-end fair.


I shut my ears

to the sound of the biting wind

to whispers full of malice.


All day long I wandered through the market alleys

hoping to find someone I knew.



A Chance Encounter


That woman seems to have forgotten my face.

In a haejang soup place down a lonely alley

by the bus stop, strangers to one another now,

we satisfied our hunger with loach soup and makkolli.


I hear it's thirty miles to that construction site.

That woman really knows no news of the wine house

where we used to sit on the wooden bench cracking filthy jokes

while autumn showers stirred up as ever a smell of dry grass.


Her husband used to work as a mechanic in the substation;

he was older than me, from the same village.

He used to bang the pokku and go the rounds of wrestling matches

but then strange rumors spread and she became a widow

though the woman seems to have forgotten that too.


The field paths bright with buckwheat flowers,

the riverside alive with whispered oaths,

the mountain winds that used to moan with us in despair and rage,


the path we hurried along, that sound of singing:

the woman seems to have forgotten all that too, now.

Let's just be two strangers, two separate travellers,

she seems to insist.

I'll have to hurry all alone back down that muddy road

in the driving rain.



Travelling Companions


That woman talked about her nine-year-old daughter.

She talked about the white running shoes she wanted to wear

and the sweet potatoes she carried in place of a proper lunch.


It had been drizzling since early morning.

The tavern yard covered with wild spinach was white with dust

and I smiled silly wanton smiles

at that woman who was selling beauty-products.


I knew nothing then of the way her body stank.

I knew nothing of the talk being spun in the poverty

of the dried fish store.


When the clock on the wall, slow, struck three

the night crew, already awake, kept pestering her.

In the village beneath the steatite mine

it had been raining since early morning.


We suddenly became travelling companions.

We had no idea where each was going

yet neither of us asked the other.



Diary Entry for Ch'oso Day


By early summer I had no friends left to visit.

The room we rented by the gate of the grocer's behind the market

was so hot it seemed to steam by early morning and all day long

I guarded the room the wife left empty, going out to knit

and marvelled that I had not gone mad.

Sometimes I would crack a joke with the owner's big daughter

and get scolded for my pains.

If I was hungry I would visit the locals selling ch'amoi melons

in front of the beauty parlor and idly squat there.

First we would worry about the rice harvest back home,

then worry about the price of livestock all the time falling,

then decide to find a construction job before Ch'oso came

so as to get away from this wretched Seoul.

But then the wife's haggard, weary face as she came in

clutching a bag of rice squashed all such thoughts.

A rumor said an irrigation association was to be set up

near my home village but the baby asleep on the wife's back

hardly ever smiled though it was over a hundred days old.

Ch'oso went by unnoticed in late August and soon  people

were preparing to sell baked sweet potatoes in winter streets.





An Alley


Ch'oi the barber reckons Seoul's fine all the same.

The muddy evening alley's fine,

where he comes home carrying packets of rice and a mackerel

if only he goes out with his clippers in a bag.

Sitting there on his stool having a twenty-Won haircut

is like being back in the village barber's by the substation.

With his nose all red and his hands trembling from drink

his wife tottering about in a belated pregnancy,

Ch'oi reckons the alley with its stench of fish is fine.

The ceaseless squabbles and bickering are fine.

Hiding in the barber's shop browsing an old newspaper,

combing our hair and practicing songs,

the days go by and we might be bored, frustrated,

yet Ch'oi reckons our steep hillside slum's fine.

The lights dimmer than back home and the sound of radios is fine. The poverty and vexations of the slum are fine, where the women

wander about together looking for ways to get some cash.

Now what was the name of that drunkard's crippled son?

What's the name of his daughter always out collecting bills?

Barber Ch'oi claims he ran an inn in some remote southern town

yet still he reckons Seoul is fine.

He reckons the kids swarming in the alley whose hair he cuts

and their tough impatient mothers are all just fine.



We Meet Again


We first met

in the squeaky back seat of the classroom

up the cold dew-sodden stone stairs.

Mates from Kyongsang and Cholla

as well as Ch'ungch'ong provinces,

we first grasped hands in friendship

in rain and wind and dust.

In shouts and curses and fisticuffs.


Our second-floor wooden boarding house room in Ch'ungmu-ro,

the grog-house down that obscure alley in Ulchi-ro,

the ruins of Myong-dong,

dark basement cafés,

that old professor's lectures on western history

echoing in the classroom,

the silence in the library on Saturday afternoons

the distant roar of trams

if you turned a page.


In winter that year I was passing through Munkyong

so I turned into the chemists and made a phone call.

A friend came dashing out,

his great hands white with chalk,

he said one was up in some Kangwon mountain town

running a fish shop, while another was in charge

of a rice mill in a remote Ch'ungch'ong village.

We're all scattered far and wide now,

in factories, mines, even in distant countries,


we get up in the night and hold out a hand,

we look to see what's flowing in our blood,

we see things clotting in the dark:

the noise of shouting blazing up

in Cheju and Kangwon and Kyonggi provinces

in rain and wind and dust,

in nostalgia, dissatisfaction, and fruitfulness.


Shin Kyong-nim


1935: born in Ch'ongju

1956: first poems published

1973: Farmer's Dance (Nong-mu) published

1974: Nong-mu  awarded 1st Manhae Literary Award

 Other publications: Saejae (1979),

Talnomse (1985),

Kananhan sarangnorae (1988),

Kil (1990),

Halmoni wa omoni ui silhoutette (1998).

1998: Daesan Literary Award for Poetry.

 President, Association of Writers for National Literature

President, Federated Union of Korean Nationalist Artists