Hong Yun-suk was born in Chongju, Pyonganbuk-do in 1925. Her first
poems were published in 1947 and since then she has published many volumes
of poetry and of essays, as well as a collection of poetic dramas. She
has received many of Korea's top literary awards for her work. For much
of her life she worked as a reporter for various newspapers and magazines.
Hong Yun-suk's poetry is often read alongside that of Kim Nam-jo, the two being considered the leading women writers of their generation; in addition, both are Catholic writers. Her vision of life is deeply affected by the suffering brought by the Korean War and the lasting division of Korea. Her poetic universe is often dark and inclined to pessimism. Perhaps the fact that she is unable to visit her native region in the North helps to explain the many images of life as an unending journey found in her work.
The themes of individual solitude and of the emptiness of modern life are expressed in many poems. When she tackles more public themes, the longing for the reunification of Korea dominates her concerns.
Ways of Living 1
I am learning
how to sleep, and how to open my eyes,
how to walk along,
how to look heavenward a dozen times a day,
how to use a wad of cotton-wool after a tooth extraction,
how to be ill, loosing weight by the pound.
I am learning how to soak my tongue in the salt of tears,
and how to say goodbye, waving hands
with needles stuck under the nails of all ten fingers.
I am learning how to smile with my eyes while biting my lips,
choking back the pent-up feelings rising in my throat.
Wrapped in a thousand-league river of bandages
though I am ready to burst,
I am learning how to die a dozen times a day.
Ways of Living 2
Pluck off those wings that cannot fly.
Cast aside the cross that cannot be borne.
Empty completely the heavy cart
laden with a conscience unaware of its own littleness,
that goes lurching sideways at every turning,
and live like Pilate who washed his hands, turning away.
Lock the darkroom of wounds with the key of silence
and write no will since you cannot die.
With no other thought, grow daily older
for the sake of one bowlful of life.
Brother, now with wounded feet bandaged
on this winter march over very thin ice
make yourself small as you can, barely breathe.
Lie low as the grass when the winds are blowing.
With only your soul waking, only your soul waking,
make this wintery river crossing.
Ways of Living 3
A tree, searing its flesh in steely sunlight,
achieving its end with hardened fruit,
turning back at last into a mass of darkness:
why was that tree, cursed to be rooted in the ground,
standing stricken with a punishment higher than itself?
Grant, I pray:
garments fit for our age
which sees the night out on windy plains,
straw sandals stoutly bound, poison in my breast,
a way to be transformed into weeds, wild flowers,
that put down roots and build their houses anywhere,
a way to crawl through the night,
hidden in shades, in hollows,
a 1980s way to see winter through.
Grant, I humbly beg:
branding pain with pain
nourishing torment with torment
the soul growing and made ill by the wind,
beautifully mad, a way to turn into a bird.
Ways of Living 4
You have to wait.
At the crossroads' red traffic light,
you have to stop going along, pause for breath,
look up for once at the forgotten sky,
hoist up and fasten the slipping pack.
A scrap of pink cloud on a remote mountainside,
inky darkness on the corner you turn,
on the road left ahead cold rain pouring down
we are all being soaked as we pass through this age
for see, this is destiny's winter
and no one can escape from this rain.
Frozen, we rub one another's flesh,
we sparingly share and kindle the remaining fire.
In the darkness our roots twine together.
Ways of Living 5
to put down roots in warm repose;
when spring comes even messy signs of battle
are covered with leaves.
Little soldiers of a nursery tale land
where snow falls and sunlight shines
burying victory and defeat underground;
when you briefly take the battlefront's snowdrift paths
forget the storm that swept through mountain trees
one gorgeous spring day.
Cover fallen petals with soil,
gently stroke the broken branches.
Unable to withstand one another's weight,
summon the hearts that linger about
the store-yards of memory in unlit streets
and set out again from the beautiful spot
where hope and lost labour embrace cheek to cheek.
Ways of Living 6
those hills and rivers like charcoal fires,
the plains we have walked across barefoot:
forty years now since we first ventured forth
and still this is the darkness outside of Canaan,
still we are turning about the walls of Jericho,
but when the time is ripe, pouring oil onto pitchpine
we'll light up the way with a seam of flame
and lace on straw sandals with brows ablaze.
We'll kindle lights to glimmer in the gold buttons
on our breasts,
gird our loins with wild rose fronds,
and stand like pillars in the windswept plains
to abolish darkness for an age.
We'll embrace with both arms the vast bulk of night.
In every place our language has ever been light.
Camping last summer
was a beautiful experience.
While my white vest moist with dew
was dyed by the juices of the emerald grass
with here and there a shy touch of pink
added from wild carnations,
we crossed various hills to sunrise and sunset,
singing something as we went.
The blood from a knee grazed in a fall
was dried like a flower then stowed in my knapsack
I washed our grubby today hard,
starched it too
and on the hillsides
the slopes of this world rain fell
so that our camping
was still soaked in some corner or other.
the rosy knees, the fawn-like eyes
still the same as at birth,
swelling breast filled with azalea-hued love,
a basketful of sunlight poised on the head,
left home one day without a word.
Has no one seen this person
in the vagueness of thirty years' mist?
In any case, some time now
one such child,
may have fallen asleep, exhausted from wandering
the unfamiliar lanes of some twilight market,
empty basket laden with grey hairs and remorse.
Hoping for news. Address as follows:
Mail Box Memory, Lost Children's Sanctuary.
will cover all the rest of my life.
What I can do this autumn
What I can do
is to stay sitting in my chair;
is to return silently into myself
as if returning to a hospital's deserted corridors,
ears alert to the sound of the wind
as I peep a couple of times into the mail box.
is everyday drying the world like baby leaves,
starting big and small fires here and there,
filling every empty space
with the sun's white bleached bones
but I cannot so much as lift a finger.
I cannot make one leaf stay put.
can do this autumn
is to stay sitting in my chair
and bid farewell to the midday sun,
quietly await the afternoon,
courteously welcome winter's courtesy calls.
Life (Games 29)
Life has taught me many things.
How to pass thick woods in steep mountains' deep valleys,
the wisdom to love, wait, then finally part from one star,
I also learned that you must build a bridge to reach a village,
must get soaked in rain to see a rainbow.
I also learned how to be trodden down and trampled hard,
like a plantain spreading low, low to the ground,
flexing its slender stem,
and I heard of the freedom of owning nothing,
the earthen lump of a heavy heart reduced
to a light and faceless breeze.
Now the final message it has to give
involves walking dark mountain paths without a lamp
one day without warning reaching the end of the world.
To hear that last lesson, I
daily stretch open ears toward heaven
and wipe smoky windows.
The world's pungent smoke is still so thick
that once wiped they grow smoky,
then once smoky I wipe them again,
I spend my whole day at that one task.
Drenching my clothes with unsad tears. . .
The Right Answer
Nobody told me:
the reason why flowers blossom when spring comes
and fruits ripen in the fall;
the cause why children grow up dreaming, become adults,
live fighting as adults, and die;
'That's how it is, you need not know more,'
life told me, hitting my head.
Spring has come again to the world,
every wound sports dazzling medals of flowers
all the trees stand ready for battle
but you hide silent in the springtime light
gathering up for the highest glory
flowers that in ten days or two weeks will wilt,
in that way living and passing away,
life's right answer is only that:
every bird of the heavens, and flower in the fields,
when the time is come, goes without delay.
There was a youth, barely thirty,
nailed to a cross though free of all guilt.
Softly the whisper comes to my ear.
Camping Last Summer 2
cosmic twilight comes
and as the world was astir
with golden memories
with no house to which to return
saw the very end of the wind
roaming the open plains.
The pure gold salt-field encrusted with salt
from sweat and tears, winter's shady spot,
mornings when the way to heaven could be glimpsed
in the cup of water
you grant my late days
the light of the western sky overflows.