Kim Young‑Moo was born in 1944 in Paju, near Seoul. After graduating from Seoul National University, he received his Ph.D. from SUNY at Stony Brook and became a Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Seoul National University. He published a number of translations from English, a volume of personal essays, and a volume of literary criticism which received the prize for criticism in the 1991 Republic of Korea Literary Awards. He and Brother Anthony collaborated in translating Korean poetry into English. He began to write poems while he was living in Canada in 1991 and published three volumes of poetry, in 1993, 1998 and 2001. His last collection, Virtual Reality, mostly written during a year spent in Australia, received the 2001 Paeksŏk Award. He died on November 26, 2001.
By Brother Anthony
On Friday, November 30, 2001, many literary figures gathered high up in the Seoul Press Center for the annual ceremony at which the Manhae Prize for Literature, the Paeksŏk Prize and other literary awards are made, under the auspices of the literary journal Ch’angjak gwa pipyŏng. That year the room was more crowded than usual, and the atmosphere was perhaps slightly different because everyone knew that the recipient of the Paeksŏk Prize, Kim Young-Moo, had died only a few days before. Many of his friends and colleagues were glad to have this more festive occasion to remember him after the gravity of his funeral Mass two days previously.
Kim Young‑Moo was born in 1944 in Paju, near Seoul. After earning his B.A. and M.A. from the English Department of Seoul National University, he received his Ph.D. from the English Department of SUNY at Stony Brook with a dissertation on George Eliot. He became a Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Seoul National University in 1982. He died on November 26, 2001.
His first article on Korean poetry, dedicated to the poet Yi Yuksa, published in 1975, signified his recognition as a literary critic. He published a number of translations from English, including a volume of translations of poems by William Blake, and several works on religious themes. He was a devout Catholic. He published a volume of personal essays in 1988 and a volume of literary criticism on ‘The Language of Poetry and the Language of Life’ in 1990, which received the prize for criticism in the 1991 Republic of Korea Literary Awards.
In 1991, during a 2-year stay as visiting professor in Toronto (Canada), he began to publish poems in a local Korean-language newspaper. In 1992, he and five others published in Toronto a collection of their poems. He published a number of poems in a journal in Korea early in 1993 and his first volume was published in Seoul in May 1993. A second volume was published while he was still in hospital recovering from an operation for lung cancer in August 1998. Learning that he could not expect to live much longer no matter what the doctors did, he decided not to submit to any treatment that would do further violence to his body. Instead, he adopted a gentle regime involving treatment by magnets, a natural diet, and therapeutic walking.
Surviving far beyond the anticipated few months, he took his family to spend a year together in Perth, Australia in 1999-2000. The poems he composed there include a series of poems about the great sacred rock Uluru, that he was able to visit. His third volume, that included poems inspired by his experience of sickness and those composed in Australia, was published in April 2001, when he was already bedridden. It earned him the 3rd Paeksok Literary Award, which his widow received in his place, a few days after his death, on November 30.
In the acceptance speech he had prepared for the Paeksŏk award ceremony in the last days of his life, he described how he had begun to find poems arising in him after seeing, in the church of a monastery outside Toronto, a crucifix on which was hung an image, not of the human body of Jesus but of the green globe of the natural creation, crowned with thorns and bleeding. This image, combining his own ecological concerns and his Catholic faith, deeply impressed him and the sight of it served as a moment of epiphany. It is surely no coincidence that so much of his poetry was rooted in and inspired by the great natural wildernesses of Canada and Australia.
From early in 2001, he was bedridden by the spreading cancer. Thanks to his family’s devoted care, he was able to remain at home, writing, translating, and meeting friends. It was during this period that he made the selection of his poems that he wished to see translated, now published in this volume.
At last the pain became intolerable. He was taken to hospital on November 20 and died at 7:30pm on November 26, 2001. Three days before he died, he wrote a final poem. We who knew and loved him are agreed that in this poem he gave us the very best possible memorial.
In this land one poet
blossomed – a wild flower,
played in the wind, then went away.
He enjoyed the songs of crickets and birds,
enjoyed even more
the sturdy fin-strokes
of minnows, neighborly, kin-like.
The world of wild greenery
where cool drops of dew hang, many-hued jewels
— it’s so full of tenderness.
Written in Pyongchon, November 23, 2001
색동 단풍숲을 노래하라
I still remember, mother,
how bitter your milk was.
Some said it was because of the juice you put on your nipples.
I wouldn't believe that —I thought it was all the fault
of the great scar you had below your left breast.
I sucked the bitter milk till I was nearly seven,
I don’t know why,
and as I sucked at that bitter taste with eyes tightly closed,
far beyond it came a faint trace of true milk’s taste..
When you were ten, that breast was startled –
by the shouts of the Independence Uprising;
that breast buried your husband –
after he came home sick from a Japanese labor camp;
then the Northerners came south armed to destroy,
took away your first son, made him wear an armband,
then the Southerners returned
and dragged up into the hills your rock-like first son.
He was heard of no more,
buried deep in that breast.
(There is never a Korean mother without a scar
on her breast. Every mother’s milk tastes bitter in this land.)
“Every year the day for memorial rites comes around but alas,
there’s only this spider-like last son of mine to make offerings.
The full moon in the sky is like the big hole in my heart.
Later, when I'm dead, burn my body
and scatter my ashes on the waves of the Imjin river.
It’s better to share those spoonfuls of rice among the living.”
One day, in a fit of anger or from sudden illumination,
you did away with all the ancestral offerings.
Instead, you insisted that travelling vendors stay,
women carrying baskets on their head, and for them
you boiled tasty soup of cabbage and soypaste,
stuffed their empty stomachs
with hot rice cakes big as your hand.
Now, the fulling block you used sits in my bedroom,
grayish, one corner chipped away—whenever I see it I feel
I am touching the scar on your breast.
Why was that scar so shiny, so smooth?
Whenever I see bright flesh closing a healing wound
I see you, mother, entering the full moon,
a round hole pierced in the night sky.
Once I follow you into that hole
from which moonlight comes endlessly gushing out,
there’s a sea of light—dazzling loneliness—and, beyond,
surging billows of milk, maybe, breaking in waves.
Yes, I see you, mother, marching briskly onward before me
in a thin hemp jacket, moist with sweat,
carrying on your head a large wooden bowl
full of rice cakes.
That silver pin holding your hair in a bun pierces my heart.
Note: A fulling-block is a flat block of stone on which, in older days, Korean women would beat newly washed clothes to smoothness using two short sticks. The sound came to symbolize woman’s unceasing pain, endured for the sake of their family.
Under the sky
empty plains –
the road before me
a few trees
shoulder to shoulder
linger and loiter
a few birds flying in the sky
bare feet cold –
under the sky
empty plains –
They look down.
trees close round, protesting.
But they don’t give a damn.
They simply fly down
build nests, raise their young –
under the sky
empty plains –
trees grow into groves
here and there.
Nearby, the lake
is tossing, silver hued.
The daylight is fading now, pink,
and far off beyond the wintery woods cars
are speeding like so many lights.
The trees by the lakeside
stand in a restless circle,
perhaps afraid of the water,
unable to immerse so much as a toe,
and grow tall – just by looking at the water.
Spring has still barely come.
Today as usual the smoke from the hospital chimney
while the Canadian red-throated duck,
whose call, the saddest in the world,
is said to travel a thousand leagues,
seems only ever to swim in a one-dollar coin.
A mother and daughter
in their twelfth year of immigrant life
like tiny white flowers
in dim distant plains.
The last day of April.
The sun is always scorching on days we visit the graves.
Graves lie huddled low, sleeping,
The graves have no trees standing nearby.
These graves have nothing but grass that burns off sweat,
clumps of golden grass where those babies play.
In the azure sky above the graves
a few dragonflies, their beauty a light patterning
on the tips of their wings, nothing more,
invite us to play with them
simply as shadows of wind
so that no shade falls across the graves.
In the shade of pepper plants’ abundant leaves
red fingers hanging upside down point toward the ground.
The sun is always scorching on days we visit the graves.
For Choi Ho-Bong
They were certainly raindrops in the sky
but they turned into a layer of hard shiny ice
the moment they touched the ground.
A day when lives shatter as wheels skid,
when staggering steps slip, head over heels
it's only too easy to break a limb.
A brief moment when life meets death – that kind of day.
The morning after the freezing rain.
A glorious morning.
Has some magic wand touched
the small pines in the backyard,
the taller trees in the forest— oaks, chestnuts, silver birches,
and even the dry grasses in the fields?
In the midst of winter death
all are blossoming and glistening with flowers of crystal;
crystal chandeliers clink on this side and that.
The ears resound—
at every branch-tip covered with a thin coat of ice.
There are those winter germs—melting the ice,
small eddies—of life.
Who says that spring flowerbeds are breathtaking?
Sometimes even misfortune is blessing
and being alive in this world
makes my heart race.
The wind rests,
the darkness rests,
the sun's first rays rest
as dew falls and rests
in the forest.
A red-breasted robin
awake since daybreak
flits from one small tree to another
Hurry up and grow,
Hurry up and grow.
Hurry up and grow,
before the sun comes up.
‘Be the salt of the world . . .’
In a world of damp alleys filled with rotting things,
to prevent rotting things from rotting
salt down your heart and my soul,
your desires and my pride
and pickle them?
‘Be light for the world . . .’
Light? Breaking at a single blow
the darkness of the times—a history of darkness?
Become dazzling light,
bursting forth in scorching blaze—
Sprinkle salt thickly to the very core of each plant
until the fresh green leaves
wilt and droop as if frost-bitten?
That cannot be what was meant—
without salt, bean sprouts and spinach are merely insipid,
unable to yield their proper taste;
the light in the sky – filling it though seeming absent –
allows red trees to be red – green leaves green –
and trees to grow up round.
Becoming light and salt
that penetrate every heart quite undetected,
my poems must bring out
the proper taste – the proper color,
the original green – the brilliance of things –
seen and unseen;
therefore, my poems – go and be light,
be salt for the world.
산은 새소리마저 쌓아두지 않는구나
I quite forgot!
I must bring in the red pepper pods I spread out to dry.
These days, even the starlight on autumn evenings
is not a patch on what it used to be.
Scorpion-like pepper pods, gorged with venom,
tails lifted and hardened in the blazing sunlight!
Right, suppose we set about slitting your bellies, little rascals,
and sprinkle your golden seeds, sperm of the sun,
up there in Scorpio, where the stars glimmer dim?
The moon is going down now
like a slice of stale, left-over pickled radish.
History stretches far aross the plains of Kyŏngju.
The city’s a woman who went to her rest long ages ago,
yet her breasts are still buxom.
Deeply she sleeps, yet the milky founts have not run dry
and the fine rootlets piercing down into her royal tomb,
sucking up the dew pearling on her golden crown
bring grain to golden ripeness.
Sparrows fly up chirping
amidst rumors that the French TGV
will soon pierce like an arrow
between the bright burial-mounds
floating there on her breast like islands.
The eyes of the scarecrow
watching the flocks of golden
birds are still a vivid golden hue.
Kanghwa Island is like a lotus blossom.
Erect no memorial stone.
The flower is sinking.
A power station! Here?
In winter, when people put more clothes on,
why do the trees take all their clothes off?
Why do the birch trees on the violet hills expose
their rounded shoulders, their armpits,
even the tiny veins at the ends of their branches?
Would they rather stand upright and freeze to death
if they can’t move their bodies in dance with the snowflakes
flying flowerlike late at night?
The sky is about to break,
the wind bristles with ice
and the daytime moon sharpens its sickle—a hopeless midday.
What if they were intent
on tempting the fearful, bashful spring sunshine?
Those winter trees on Mudung Mountain
have no choice but to be naked brides.
A winter bird builds its nest
in a cliff behind a waterfall that stays unfrozen all winter long,
and cherishes one limpid egg.
Snow lies deep in the groins of trees,
their branches bent under burdens of snow.
As she hugs the egg close to her breast
a large ball of snow falls on her head
burying her deep.
As she shakes her head, the tip of her beak
is covered with powdery snow.
A few drops of water, losing their way,
go sprinting up the cliff
and in the driving snow
collide with other drops falling at full speed.
The winter bird’s black eyes are rimmed
with a double golden line,
slipping a golden ring on the waterfall’s rapidity.
I could not raise the anchor after all.
Merely tapping with a fingertip on your shoreline
where, they say,
a young grave lies tightly holding its breath
below a hill where sap was rising in the birch trees,
I could not go so far.
Now, snow is falling.
A chance glance
met without peals of thunder
ripens golden apples
within your groves.
I took the road toward you with eyes closed,
dividing the bluest waves with sails taut,
and returned open-eyed.
Now, snow is falling.
Descending, leaving the sky behind,
snow is piled high in the magpies’ nests
at the top of the bare winter trees today
and this world is as bright as the sky.
My sail is eager to leave harbor,
billowing in the wind.
They say when the evening falls and the snow stops,
someone emerges from the grave to bathe
in the crimson rays of the setting sun.
Now at the grave the sunset blazes
redder than any crayfish.
Will the evening come, a stealthy traveler in the dark?
Unable to go,
not having gone,
beyond the familiar waves
so bright, your shoreline.
Waking earlier than the sky
with the same sky-blue hue,
it’s the skin of a new-born babe
which even a breeze might bruise.
By the time the morning sunlight flexes its muscles,
it already has the puckered lips
of an old woman.
spreading out an azure sky
ahead of tomorrow’s dawn,
is there anything with so short a life
anywhere on earth?
Leaving the ocean, heading upstream
following valleys, leaping cascades,
let’s go to lay our eggs
in remote mountain streams.
The path we take is a perilous path
alas; with upper lips curled
the muscles clenched along the backbone
our whole body takes on autumn-red tints.
Pushing with naked bodies at the pebbles
at the bottom of shallow brooks deep in the mountains,
let’s lay our eggs between the stones
and all together quit this world.
Our journey’s path
is a path of annihilation
where countless red leaves go drifting on the waves.
Do not grieve at nature’s so-called prodigality.
Wild birds, mountain birds all pick our bones
and having eaten our death sing dazzling songs.
Little newborn babes that spent the winter
between the ice-coated stones,
the black speck set in the fertilized eggs
are your sparkling eyes.
Now spring sunlight has come.
Go swarming back down the path
your mothers came by, to the deep blue sea,
playing with the minnows along the way.
If your scarlet nakedness
does not again blaze bright far up the stream
above the cascades
how will the mountain blaze bright with autumn-red hues?
You are every flower’s dream,
quitting the stem and floating through the air.
Flower-pinwheel freely flying
wherever you will – up, down, forward, backward –
perhaps a flying crimson bean flower
since the eggs you lay are the size of a bean.
You cause the whole forest to swell green,
inserting your needle-like beak into the empty air
your minnow-like eyes twinkling,
in an afternoon in the forest
when all the seeds fly together into the air on parachutes.
Green whirlwind, sixty miles per hour,
hiding in your nest the size of a walnut.
The lights have turned green
and as May comes tripping
in a flowery miniskirt and sunglasses, tapping
a brisk rhythm on the black and white keys of the crossing,
ah, swelling round on every side,
the golden songs, the green waves,
the downpoour sound of silkworms eating mulberry leaves.
The carp leap in another home village stream.
On a morning near the spring equinox
the offering-stone before her grave is white with snow.
Why, Mother, you’ve spread the tablecloth yourself.
That’s what you always used to do, of course
but now you should sleep late of a morning.
Can’t you let me spread the tablecloth?
* An offering-stone is the low slab of stone in front of a grave, on which offerings of food and drink are placed when the family comes to pay its respects to the dead.
– Mystery of separation
Where is that hand
that has brought the lotus blossom swelling
then left without a trace?
Fingerprints are clear
in the still moist clay on the budding nipple
and tomorrow, when the flower opens wide,
he may gaze up
from under the water,
hands washed translucent.
The blossom will show only its back in the wind.
the shadow of the flower
will be dark on the water.
Be bright by yourself.
You’re another’s body now.
—Mystery of meeting
Meeting lotus leaves,
wandering raindrops have turned into pearls.
Where can I find my own lotus leaf?
Whose lotus leaf can I be?
Once the furniture’s gone
each time I speak
the empty room
rings with a trembling echo.
When cherished children
leave the nest one by one,
the empty floor of my heart
where a few feathers lie scattered
will ring with a trembling echo.
On the day crickets and goldfinches
and the blue waters of Daedong and Danube,
rotting, turn black,
when only people are left in the world
while carp and catfish follow migrant birds
away beyond the white clouds,
how could the earth cry trembling,
when there’s no echo left?
The wing tips
dipping low as if about to touch the water,
it perches gazing absently at the clouds in the sky
then a hand comes rippling toward its waist.
it was the waves of the lake overflowing with thirst.
You touched me!
Once my infant days
under water were past,
on the first day when I met these freshly unfolded wings
in your clear eyes
you said, gazing in amazement,
“Your wings are like the patterns in
church stained-glass windows.”
The sunset is glowing,
no hint of breeze
your eyes flow in waves.
I have never known thirst
but seeing you flowing like this today
my wings tremble
with a desire to go near your shore
because you have touched me.
When can I settle at your edge
and dip the tip of my tail in the water—
The day the baby entered my wife’s womb
death followed it and settled there too.
When death had grown as big as a white hen’s egg
my baby was the size of a duck’s egg.
One day on the shore of the dark ocean inside
my wife’s womb caught by ultrasound
there was the hen’s egg, ah, setting like the moon
and out of the duck’s egg the baby
was emerging like an extraterrestrial.
Beyond the evening glow of issuing blood
my son was swimming on through the night
toward distant daybreak.
The vast expanse of empty space
is a sea of darkness rough with waves.
Radioactive, ultraviolet and infrared rays
arise and surge in fierce waves, and there
floats one blue planet like a small sailing ship.
A single dove flying up from that planet
finds nowhere to settle but those dark blue waves.
It seems the clear spring hidden somewhere on that planet
will be buried in no time under the hot sand
when a sudden whirlwind rises
but as that blue planet of life passes, piercing
the fearful silence of the cosmic abyss like a little bird,
time and space shake off scales of water.
Who are we, who pierce
that little bird's crimson breast with poisoned darts?
At 6:45 in the morning I leave the ward,
my naked body shrouded in a hospital gown.
Lying flat, I am pushed into an elevator like a white coffin;
we fall to the basement, follow the light from lamps
in the ceiling that quickly brush past just above my brow;
the corridor turns,
turns, and finally arrives in a place like a freezer,
a far away place. The operating room is cool.
I am moved to the operating table, installed there;
in a flash my soul sets off
on a journey to an unfamiliar land.
Where am I?
On careful inspection, a party
seems to be in full swing in the yard of someone’s house
people in green robes with green masks,
someone can be heard saying that they’ve run out of wine
while in the deserted backyard
where a silvery fluorescent sunlight is falling
half-a-dozen water jars have been put ready.
I am on the verge of panic at the silence in the back garden,
alone here in this far-away country,
when I hear voices murmuring:
Child, this family has run out of wine.
Woman, that has nothing to do with me.
The people wearing green robes and green masks
have slid back rib-bolts and entered through blood-red gates.
Now they are coming and going busily,
filling the jars with water.
Pain is its own luminosity, shining oh so bright.
Following it comes a starlight that no morphine can dim.
I return to the ward by another route than when I went.
Back after eight hours; returning home always brings new pain,
I wonder if the water in those jars has changed into wine?
One whole section of a lung removed,
I squint sideways at a patch of sunset sky
like a carp
stranded in a stagnant pool in a harvested paddy-field.
The blacker the clouds are
the brighter the twilight glows – cheery.
--After William Blake
Losing its way one stormy night
glimpsed light from a hovel
and burrowed into your breast.
Leave the window open
and let it sleep a good night’s sleep
on your crimson bed.
Do not be afraid, rose.
Day will soon break.
Infant raindrops fall
plump and round.
I long to tickle their cheeks
and nibble at their arms.
Infant raindrops fall
I long to spank them lightly
through the yellow-green screen of weeping willows
woven with rays of spring sunshine.
A day of spring rain—
a winter has passed since I was pronounced incurable.
In the vague sleep of dawn I feel someone touching my face.
My wife’s hand fumbles at my chin
rubs my eyebrows, brushes across the dark spot
under my right eye.
I keep my eyes shut and hold my breath.
Is the touch of my wife’s hand
telling me something about the twenty-five years
of the outing through life we have shared
or the desolation of the abyss blossoming
behind the dark spot?
Having kept my eyes shut pretending to sleep,
I open them slightly
and find that my wife’s eyes are shut too.
What my wife’s hand touches and caresses
is the new-born death that came
burrowing absurdly and now sleeps quietly
under our bedclothes
after I was laid naked
for eight hours
under cold fluorescent lights.
Perhaps she fears
her late-born infant will wake and cry.
Wife dear, don’t be troubled.
If you feed it at your dry breast
and carry it gently on your back
who knows, the infant may grow up a dutiful child.
Although there is a poplar tree nearby,
a magpie has perched its nest
on a high-voltage pylon.
It’s early evening
and all the poplar’s branches are shaking
in the bitter winter wind.
The waning moon glances sideways
into the nest.
How cold it must be
in that basket with its many holes.
Dreading the long winter journey ahead
I crane my neck
and look up furtively.
What might the waning moon’s
white porcelain bowl contain?
Inscrutable, the waning moon’s star-patterned night,
high voltage flowing,
ah, curiosity itself has closed its eyes—pitch black darkness.
No! Eggplant-hued night’s seduction—dazzling
will be white flesh within,
once the brittle shell cracks open.
From the moment you receive a cancer verdict
(cancer is always a verdict, not a diagnosis)
your world brightens up.
Memories fly about
like the windows revolving on a screen saver.
The subconscious of a primitive age wakes up
and comes strutting by, while meteors
flash down from your future up in space.
Darkness banished, light and shade, patterns removed,
thickness, depth and weight abolished,
differences between living on the street with starvation
and a snug bed at home with warm meals obliterated,
all demarcations destroyed,
world of clear bright light.
With the roots of time and the stone hinges of space
eliminated, your reality becomes
a world of cancerous cells,
without distinction between inside and out,
oh, the very height of digital technology,
caught in the trap of a restructuring
designed to weed out the uncompetitive
at the very instant when,
incapable of surviving amidst toxic conditions,
unlike pokeweed, bullfrogs, threadworms, leeches,
they have little by little lost their vitality,
declined into weakness, your life,
a world of pure white light, virtual reality.
Not a cloud in sight,
then suddenly the sky clouds over.
The river asleep below a eutcalyptus tree
undulates, moves on again.
After drying out its soaked wings in the sun
then shaking them thoroughly, folding them up
like laundered clothes,
a cormorant disappears into the water.
After a long submersion,
a silver fish squirms in dazzling nakedness
at the tip of its uplifted beak.
The river flows, mimicking starlight and
the leaves shimmer in the breeze,
mimicking the waves.
I have been living for a month beside Swan River
in Western Australia, a place like the world on the Fifth Day,
like the first man
who opened his eyes on the Sixth Day of Creation.
But its seems that after a month, even Paradise
grows as familiar and staid as an aging, long-time wife .
After gazing blankly at the ancient river, I set off again,
listening to the boisterous chatter of youthful waves.
I see from behind
Life and Death walking hand in hand, affectionately,
red hair-ribbons streaming in the breeze,
a ravishing sight.
Death brings a burst of tears
and birth a burst of tears.
A departure that makes others cry is death,
birth is a coming at which we ourselves cry;
at the end and beginning of life
there are always tears.
Meteor tears fall
flashing across the black sky,
the pitch-black darkness.
Oh, a sudden illumination touches my heart.
Has someone died?
Has someone been born?
Every day a red-bellied frog living in the rapids
thin-shelled snails thinking they’re good to eat
then quickly spits them out
with a grimace
having found they taste awful.
I’m clinging like a drop of dew to a leaf
at the edge of a cliff where the river rushes by.
I wish I were that snail just vomitted up
from the frog’s gullet.
The snail is very slow today, as ever,
heedless of the passage of time,
and its taste is nothing special, too .
What are these sudden
Some happy event must have occurred
in the middle of my body.
A petard went soaring up early in the evening,
dazzling bright in my left side;
circling my waist another petard
shot up in my right side, then here and there, everywhere
fireworks started going off.
Fireworks of pain, non-stop
for three days, a week, day and night, tireless,
a new world of suffering
wrenched open in the center of my body,
an iron-fisted rule of pain.
Oh, I wish I were in a land of no pain.
Are they for a triumphal feast
celebrating cancerous cells’ capture of my body?
Muscles, fiber by fiber,
flesh, bit by bit,
cluster after cluster of fire-flowers
flutter down little by little, pile up
in every gap of my skeleton.
Falling fire-flowers are splendid but
more splendid still those newly blooming.
I struggle to say some words in prayer
gazing up at the stars in the sky
but my clenched molars won’t even let my lips open.
Pain is its own luminosity.
Every bone turns to charcoal and burns,
a brazier-full in the middle of my body
for a month and more.
How could I forge
a new life,
even tiny as a needle’s point,
in these savage flames?
Oh, could these magnificent fireworks
where drops of sweat fall, swooning pearls,
be labor pains?
May they be labor pains.
I am bidden to accept
bidden to accept
this despair, this dark compulsion.
Is this what a cancer patient’s fear is like?
Bidden to accept a death sentence?
How frightened she must have been,
as she, a virgin, was bidden to bear a bastard.
She said, ‘Fiat’
with resignation, with dignity,
with uneasy expectancy,
and those who have never known despair
call it devout obedience.
Magnificat -- the song sung
as a dream of new heavens, new earth,
born of the despair of a terminal cancer patient,
my soul, my soul
praises you in joy.
* Magnificat is the first word of the Song of Mary in Latin (Luke 1:46-55).
There is no one
beside the river late at night.
Moonlight drops down quietly
and sits on the bench under a tree.
Moonlight stealthily drops down
and reclines on the river.
The reclining moonlight and the sitting moonlight
contemplate one another.
Beside the river this sick body of mine likewise reclines.
My whole body goes flowing off somewhere,
making a sound like that of water.
With bated breath
you are brimming over.
When the river in that mountain ridge stirs and ripples
dip your hand into the stream, touch me
and take me for your own, I pray.
You, who so easily make our bodies
pregnant by soul.
Now I’ll run away
to some old penal colony below the Tropic of Cancer.
In a distant land under foreign skies,
standing there barefoot, naked
on a crimson desert under a scorching sun,
I’ll not shun the fierce fiery wind.
Rejecting the trailing skirts of anti-cancer drugs
tempting me to grow old with them,
daring to receive your Body
within my body,
a sinner who has leapt over the wall
of his tattered body,
I’ll face my first night as a jail-breaker
bearing the Southern Cross on my back.
When Scorpio with its tail raised
comes chasing me, with eyes of flashing radiation,
ah, Love, carry me on your back,
lay me down on the meadow by the river once more
and turn me into a virgin youth.
The day I leave the world
I want to be an ancient Egyptian’s face.
on a city wall or a water-jar,
a look full of certainty
gazing toward eternity
beyond the horizon.
Who might today’s prophets be?
Proclaiming that the water’s polluted;
there’s poison in the rice; genetically modified wheat
has got into the Chinese noodles, the ramen and cookies;
there are toxic chemicals hidden in the air; there are
environmental hormones concealed in walls and flooring;
unidentified chemical substances circulating in this country
come to 230 million tons of 37 thousand different kinds;
those that are toxic increase by a million tons each year;
the very heart of this land we inhabit
is rotten with pesticides, fertilisers, exhaust fumes, herbicides;
electronic radiation is gradually killing infant brain cells.
The prophets crying in the desert today
are all those who have been condemned to cancer—
of the womb, the lungs, the intestine, the blood, the liver—
cancer patients, sure not to survive unless in purest water,
like trout or salmon,
are today’s Isaiah, Jeremiah.
People draw an arbitrary line across the flow of time
and declare that the first new year
of a new millennium has dawned.
Here in Perth,
far from the Equator,
and from the Tropic of Capricorn,
it is sun-scorched, 39 degrees every day,
while back home far to the north
January is icy cold.
Early one January, walking
by a lightly frozen river
I saw a white water bird with a long beak
swallow whole a silver fish.
A few days into the ear-freezing new year
poplar trees were trembling naked on the river bank,
white bird-droppings covered
a sandbar across the river—
white-speckled memories of writhing life.
The winter days in the Korean peninsula
have lengthened by as much
as a deer’s tail
while here the nights since the solstice
by as much as a kangaroo’s ear.
Some white forms wing their way up
flapping among the gray-blue eucalyptus leaves—
are they wintering birds
from the rivers back home?
or swarms of silver fish
from memories to come?
The last sun of the twentieth century has been laid to rest
in the waves off Cape Leeuwin
where the Indian Ocean and the Antarctic Ocean
meet and divide
And this evening off Mokpo where the first snow in years has fallen
the waters of the Southern Sea and the Western Sea must be mingling,
slurping and lapping at a mound of bean sherbet ice.
Winter solstice and summer solstice
suddenly fall on the same day
and sun-scorched tomorrow
will set anew into egg-plant tinted night
beneath the stars of the Southern Cross.
Nestling in the warm silence of eggs hidden in long grass
in my moonlit childhood’s nest
loitering along a south-west Australian riverside,
which memories of winged new years are this body of mine?
do not know how to say thanks.
If you give them biscuits or some chocolate,
or a few cans of coca-cola,
you must not expect
any kind of expression of thanks.
To Australian aborigines
everything is a gift from their tribal spirits.
Once a year they gather to thank the gods
in songs and dances, and that is all.
We are all brothers and sisters of the same tribe,
everything under the heavens is yours and mine,
so no need to say thanks to anyone.
All is freely given, freely received,
and as there’s no word for thanks
there’s no ingratitude either.
Ah, how fascinating the barbarity
of the black descendants of the Rainbow Serpent!
There’s nothing new under the sun
and there’s nothing in the world that is ever old
so how disgusting
the laws of etiquette in advanced civilizations
that consider patents, copyrights and vested rights
sacred and inviolable.
Today again I walk beside the river.
In this river, close to the sea,
the water kneels at dawn in deep meditation
invoking the god of heaven and earth
Odd ripples out in the stream—
I look more closely—
two dolphins cleave the waves smoothly,
the first rays of the sun drenching their dorsal fins,
and plunge deep into my heart.
The wavelets ripple against the bed of reeds at my feet;
pelicans that have flown all night long
from some heavenly shore
fold their wings and fathom the depths of my heart
with their bare skinny bills.
Ah, how clear the reflection of those pelicans is
in the watery mirror.
I want to build a nest and spend some time here.
Becoming a water bird
I want to visit that forest of masts
across the river, moored with sails furled.
No matter how dazzlingly the lake waters
shine somewhere in the sky
I want to go flying
over the blue rippling waves
feeling the wind blowing on my breast
like a bare winter tree
on some snow-covered mountain slope.
Sweat-roots are burning
in my pores.
A sky so blue it would not tear
if prodded with the prongs of a mechanical digger.
West Australian January midday
as the screeching of parched green parrots
slashes open the raw hides of eucalyptus trees.
Don’t open your eyes.
Don’t open your eyes.
Direct rays raining down
cascades of sunlight-arrows.
Desolation of pure whiteness
ripping into the deep caverns of the ear
In this southern land
a pigeon is sitting on her eggs
in a lemon tree in our back garden
with yellow fruits ripening.
Each day here is like the Fifth Day of Creation,
a day when a layer of down was spread in the sky
to keep the world warm.
The down drifting beside the river—
what nest can it have come from?
Is it seagull’s down?
Holy Spirit’s down?
A scent of lemons drifting in the breeze . . .
The blue sky stretching wide
is like a perfectly round indigo jewel
a circle without an end.
I’d like to set that sapphire full of blue perfume
firmly in a ring
and slip it on to your finger. When evening comes,
as the Milky Way flows into the ring,
the southern sky’s stingray kite
the long-tailed Southern Cross
will fly higher and higher aloft
until, at the end of its first journey through
it sets aslant over your shoulder there.
On the morning river tinted red
a single boat passes.
The river silently inscribed by a ridge and furrow of waves
is like a clam-shell.
I am sending you this opalescent clam shell
that I picked up.
Set it on your dressing-table
and at sunset drawing the ring with its sky-gems
from your clam-meat-like finger
lay it there.
In the middle of West Australia’s scorching desert
four hundred kilometers from the nearest sea
surf breaks — a wave fifteen meters high
frozen, standing, a rock.
Majestic Wave Rock, carved by wind and rain.
Summit of surging
on the very point of breaking, eternal peak
of the dazzling stillness and tumult
between wave and wave,
high tide on a shore that has gone over the horizon,
aborigines’ dance that sank deep into the ground
then came leaping up
in the heart of the continent;
ah, what has become
of those surging muscles
snake-grasping, wave-rolling sinews—
do you stand there so submissive,
the silence of a tender night,
110 meters long, 70 meters wide?
27 billion years in wind and rain
in blazing sunlight—
how much longer must it weep in silence
before it finally breaks
I haven’t been to Uluru yet.
I haven’t scaled its curving dome
and looked across
at Kata Tjuta rising on the sunny side.
I’m simply dreaming in my Perth living room—
no different from when I was a youngster dreaming of
chasing bison with native American lads—
dreaming about Uluru abruptly rising, twisting
from the ground,
one vast pebble drenched in blood.
Ah, at this very moment,
on the shady side of Uluru
near the womb of the Earth overflowing with spring water
between two rocky knees
is imagining the Uluru of Dreamtime, tourist-free.
We each picture the same image in our dreams,
not knowing one another.
is crying from the ground.
Oh dear, perhaps I’ve protested too much?
I must arise now and go to seek you
at Australia’s heart,
drenched in moonlight, dried in starlight,
changing color with the weather
from orange to purple
to blinding crimson,
crouching in the sun like the original Great Mountain
still pulsating, dripping blood
the biggest rock in the world,
living liver, plucked out crimson
and laid on the early morning altar at the heart of the desert
by the oldest continent,
sunshine age of the white-headed eagles
that still eye you fiercely from the sky
Uluru! The white folk changed your name
and called you Ayers Rock—
348 meters high, 9 kilometers round
the great Rainbow Serpent Wanambi
still hides in your breast,
guarding the desert’s springs and asks:
will you be able to forgive the crime of the white folk,
whiter than death here and elsewhere in the world?
Have you not lost that hope that will rise from the ruins
with wings outstretched?
I must arise now and go to seek you
towering aloft at the heart of Australia
beyond the far horizon,
Uluru, palpitating for 300 million years,
fresh, bleeding liver.
After once hearing rumors about you,
in order to learn what you really were
I ransacked books,
collected photograph albums, went surfing
through the ocean of information on the Internet
but surprisingly the texts and photos about you
were not very varied or detailed.
At first I found that vexing but
then I began to think that it was only natural
and indeed fortunate that your image remained a mystery
wrapped in a fog of rumor.
My first attempts to depict your vastness
like those other texts and photos,
began with all kinds of hyperbole.
But I found every form of exaggeration wanting.
Today, having come to meet you,
I will try using understatement.
You are a scorpion
lurking in the shadow of a tough thornbush.
Attached to your tail is a pouch
the size of an apple seed and in the poisonous sting
at its tip there is nothing but a spark of fire
the size of a grass seed
and there have occasionally been times
when distant plains have been engulfed in a flash
in deadly billows of flame by that spark.
Which is the most majestic, beautiful building in the world?
St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome?
The Forbidden City in Beijing?
Or perhaps the Taj Mahal,
so beautiful one feels inclined to genuflect?
Standing at their gates, I am a mere ant.
If you were to move them
to the heart of Australia
and set them beside the aborigines’ natural shrine
the crimson rock Uluru
that soars magnificent in the midst of the desert,
they would each be a mere ant.
From the plane I look down
at the red sand stretching far, without end.
Uluru with its long-stretching shadow
looks lonely as a baby larva.
At the summit of Uluru’s huge monolith
dry pools lie hollowed out here and there where
shield-shrimps mingle as eggs with dust and sand
then after sleeping a while, if a shower falls and
water gathers in the pools, they
hurriedly awake, grow to the size of baby fingertips,
lay eggs. Sunlight pours down
the water evaporates and one hour’s worth of life
is done in a flash.
In a valley to the northwest of Uluru there is a cool cave
with a spring that never dries up even in desert drought;
strange to say, lizards and kangaroos, aborigines and bees
and birds, only at the harshest time when blazing heat
continues unceasing for three months and ten days,
make a brief visit, quench their thirst,
then quickly move away.
None of them desires permanent residence or citizenship
in that oasis.
When a fierce gale or bitter cold are hard to bear they
take shelter in the cave for a few days, then vanish again.
If someone were to settle here, build a wall, take possession,
every kind of desert life would have vanished long, long ago.
While Egypt has its pyramids
Australia has Uluru.
While pyramids can be considered history
Uluru is dream.
The permanence of history backed up by geometry
is daily desert; the natural desert daily dreams.
Herds of whales swim on their way
spouting mist and making rainbows.
What is this despair,
bluer than a blue-tongued lizard’s forked tongue?
What are this desert’s tears,
redder than grains of red sand
under a sky quite cloudless six months of the year?
You, Uluru, crimson mass of tears,
naked bright red rock,
tonight, when the sun sets and the moon rises,
you will be dry and powdery like well-cooked liver.
From every part of the girl’s body
multicolored butterflies come flying up.
The butterfly that has just left her finger
the butterfly flapping its wings on a toe
the butterfly unrolling its antennae on a nipple
the butterflies emerging from her pores
her armpits, her groin
from between the hairs of her head
fluttering pale yellow wings.
March is waking
from its winter sleep.
In the name of the streams, the clover, the bumble bee,
thanks be to you, merciful Avalokitesvara.
On a day with a wind strong enough to rip off your clothes
all the seagulls without exception are perched facing
the direction the wind’s blowing from, looking into the wind.
As I shelter from the wind behind a tree,
I meditate on their noble attitude of mind
as they refuse to avoid the gale.
There’s nothing serious to put on airs about.
As if to invite me to look and see
why it so wholeheartedly embraces the fierce wind,
or as if to say there’s no kind of abstruse reason for it at all,
one seagull that had been butting at the wind
with the plumes on its head streaming smartly
turned its back briefly
to grab a scrap of biscuit
and in a flash the feathers on sides, breast and wings
turned inside out,
the asshole under its tail, and all.
History’s a sinister pimp
selling off each of us
as a whore.
A poet is whoever meets a whore by a well
requests a scoopful of water,
the water overflowing
of her living, virgin days
and freely drinks.
Brother Anthony is a member of the Community of Taizé (France). Born in Britain in 1942, he has lived in Korea since 1980. He is a professor in the English department of Sogang University, Seoul. Kim Young-Moo and Brother Anthony together translated The Sound of my Waves and Beyond Self by Ko Un, Back to Heaven by Ch'ŏn Sang‑Pyŏng, Variations by Kim Su-Yŏng, Shin Kyŏng‑Nim, and Lee Si-Yŏng, and Farmers’ Dance by Shin Kyŏng‑Nim.
Lee Jongsook, a professor in the English language and literature department of Seoul National University, was a dear friend and colleague of Kim Young-Moo. She teaches Shakespeare and Renaissance poetry.