Kim Yeong-Nang (1903-1950) spent most of his life in Gangjin (South Jeolla) but moved to Seoul after 1945 and was killed in the early months of the Korean War, not yet 50, having written most of his poems during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1919-1945). In Korea he is celebrated for the lyrical musicality of his style but this bilingual edition of his complete poetic work makes plain his commitment to Korean independence from Japan as well as his anguish at the fratricidal violence that Korea experienced between 1945 and 1950.

Until Peonies Bloom

Until peonies bloom
I just go on waiting for my spring to come.
On the days when peonies drop, drop their petals,
I finally languish in sorrow at the loss of spring.
One day in May, one sultry day
when the fallen petals have all withered away
and there is no trace of peonies in all the world,
my soaring fulfillment crumbles into irrepressible sor-row.
Once the peonies have finished blooming, my year is done;
for three hundred and sixty gloomy days I sadly lament.
Until peonies bloom
I just go on waiting
for a spring of glorious sorrow.

The Cuckoo
(杜鵑 Tukyŏn)

Little bird, weary of a lifetime in rancor and sorrow,
you cough blood while singing, then swallow it again;
you came to this world to carve it deep with sorrow by your blood,
your tears have constantly clouded a myriad ages.

This southern region is secluded, you can hide in exile;
The moonlight is so dazzling, shrouding this dawn in desolation,
your song at such a dawn startles fish a thousand leagues under the sea,
makes infant stars at the sky's edge shudder.

Tears pooling and pooling late at night for so many years
that I could never wash away, they simply pooled and flowed,
and I—sorrowful, lonesome, pining away—
finally grew weary of the wine-glass you kept filling;
songs from the beyond that echo near in this fearsome dawn,
death's boastful voice circling the foot of the city walls!
That pale lantern, overshadowing the moonlight’s heart, withdraws sobbing.
This long-since emaciated, gaunt heart likewise longs to go.

As your song of anguish makes every red heart wither then bloom,
how could Ch’unhyang avoid death in prison in highest spring?
In ancient times a deposed child king, expelled from the palace,
wept all alone in a mountain valley, then followed you;
on the south coast opposite Gogeum Island, on a bitter homeward path
the sound of a pony that had come a thousand leagues halted, wearied,
and a scholar's haggard face floated in blue waters.
There your regret-filled voice conjured death for him.

Even without your song, this world is so sorrowful, so wracked;
early in spring the groves put on green, bathe in grass’s fragrance.
While a crescent moon, hung on slender bamboo fronds, sheds pathetic bright darkness,
you tremble, hoarse with weeping, overwhelmed with pity;
without that sobbing, you would surely have died, oh, soul of anguish!
When you call late at night, thick-clustered azalea flowers fall,
vague mountain ranges draw back lightly,
and little villages collapse, overwhelmed.

Note: The name of the bird evoked in this poem is usually translated “cuckoo” although “nightingale” might be more suitable as it is heard by night. Its plaintive song is said to be the lament of the spirit of a former ruler of China’s Shu Han kingdom who died in exile and longs to return to his lost kingdom. Gogeum Island lies just off the coast close to Gangjin, the poet’s home. In times past it often served as a place of banishment for scholars exiled from Seoul for political reasons. Ch’unhyang is the heroine of a tale of faithful love; the scholar she loves has gone to Seoul to pursue his career but she promises to wait for him; a cruel magistrate has her imprisoned when she refuses to submit to his desire. In most versions, there is a happy ending but in another poem, Kim Yŏng-Nang suggests that she died in prison.


Sing and I will take up my drum.

Using all the rhythms our music offers, slow at first,
then ever faster, I'll beat my drum.

Attaining in this way unity of breathing
is rare in life; it is difficult, exhilarating.

Detached from your singing, my drum is mere leather.
If the beat goes wrong, even the best singer's breathing has to change.

It is not enough to say it beats out rhythms;
more than an accompaniment that supports the singer,
the drum serves rather as conductor.

I am a famous beating drum. Forget all about the little song.
Tack-boom. Quietness in motion, that’s me, since there is silence in the midst of uproar,
human life matures like an autumn harvest.

Sing and I will beat my drum.

See: Until Peonies Bloom: The Complete Poems of Kim Yeong-Nang. Portland: MerwinAsia. 2010