Virtual Reality
Poems by Kim Young-Moo

 

 

Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé

 and Jongsook Lee

 


Kim Young-Moo

 

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.


 


Contents

 

Introduction.. 5

Sing the many-colored maple groves. 7

A fulling-block.. 8

Empty winter plains – with groves. 10

Scarborough landscape. 11

Scorching sun.. 12

The morning after freezing rain.. 13

Forest at daybreak.. 14

The poetics of salt. 15

Why, the hills do not even hoard birdsong. 16

Autumn Evening. 17

The plains of Kyŏngju in autumn.. 18

Kanghwa Island.. 19

Winter trees. 20

Winter bird.. 21

To that island.. 22

Morning glory.. 23

Autumn-red salmon.. 24

Hummingbird.. 25

Ah, May.. 26

Mother. 27

A lotus. 28

Lotus leaves. 29

Moving away.. 30

Song of a dragon-fly.. 31

Birth.. 32

Blue Bird.. 33

Virtual Reality. 34

The operation.. 35

Post-operational 37

The sick rose. 38

Signs of recovery.. 39

Awkward lateborn.. 40

Waning moon.. 41

Virtual reality.. 42

Clouds after clear skies. 43

Meteor. 44

Thin-shelled snails. 45

Fireworks. 46

Magnificat   1. 47

Magnificat 3. 48

A jail-breaker’s prayer. 49

A look.. 50

Today’s prophets. 51

Perth, New Year’s Day 2000. 52

Formalities of thanks. 54

Early morning river. 55

Perth: riverside with swans. 56

January midday.. 57

Perth, high noon.. 58

One morning in Perth.. 59

Heavenly ring. 60

Clam-shell river. 61

Wave Rock.. 62

Dreaming about Uluru.. 63

Uluru  1. 64

Uluru  2. 65

Uluru  3. 66

Uluru  4. 67

Uluru 5. 68

Uluru  6. 69

Springtime maiden.. 70

A windy day.. 71

History and the Poet. 72

The Translators. 73

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Introduction

 

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.

 

 

 Rainbow

 

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

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

1993

 

 

색동 단풍숲을 노래하라

 

Sing the many-colored maple groves

 


 

A fulling-block

 

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.


 

Empty winter plains – with groves

 

Under the sky

empty plains –

 

the road before me

stretching endless—

 

snow

falls –

 

a few trees

close together

shoulder to shoulder

linger and loiter

 

a few birds flying in the sky

feet cold

bare feet cold –

 

under the sky

empty plains –

what’s wrong?

They look down.

Dazzling bright,

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.

Snow falls.

 


 

Scarborough landscape

 

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

blows horizontally

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

sway

lightly

like tiny white flowers

in dim distant plains.

The last day of April.

 


 

Scorching sun

 

The sun is always scorching on days we visit the graves.

Graves lie huddled low, sleeping,

babies again.

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.

 


 

The morning after freezing rain

 

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,

breathing scarlet—sprouts—

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.

Clink, clink

 


 

Forest at daybreak

 

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

whispering:

Hurry up and grow,

Hurry up and grow.

 

Hurry up and grow,

before the sun comes up.

 


 

The poetics of salt

 

‘Be the salt of the world . . .’

Be salt?

 

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 . . .’

Be light?

 

Light? Breaking at a single blow

the darkness of the times—a history of darkness?

Become dazzling light,

bursting forth in scorching blaze—

blinding eyes?

 

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.

 


 

 

 

1998

 

산은 새소리마저 쌓아두지 않는구나

 

Why, the hills do not even hoard birdsong

 


 

Autumn Evening

 

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.

 


 

The plains of Kyŏngju in autumn

 

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

 

Kanghwa Island is like a lotus blossom.

 

Erect no memorial stone.

 

The flower is sinking.

 

A power station! Here?

 


 

Winter trees

 

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.

 


 

Winter bird

 

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.

 


 

To that island

 

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.

 


 

Morning-glory

 

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.

 

Shortlived flower,

spreading out an azure sky

ahead of tomorrow’s dawn,

 

is there anything with so short a life

anywhere on earth?

 


 

Autumn-red salmon

 

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?

 


 

Hummingbird

 

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.

 


 

Ah, May

 

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.

 


 

Mother

 

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.

 

 

 


 

A lotus

– 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.

 


 

Lotus leaves

—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?

 


 

Moving away

 

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

all vanish,

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?

 

 

 


 

Song of a dragon-fly

 

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.

 

Zooming upward

looking back—

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,

thirst overflowing,

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—

tomorrow?

yesterday?

 


 

Birth

 

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.

 


 

Blue Bird

 

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?

 


 

 

 

 

 

2001

 

가상현실

 

Virtual Reality


 

The operation

 

1

 

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.

 

 

 

 

2

 

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,

whispering voices,

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.

 

 

 

 

3

 

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?

 

 


 

Post-operational

 

One whole section of a lung removed,

 

I squint sideways at a patch of sunset sky

 

like a carp

 

lying aslant

 

stranded in a stagnant pool in a harvested paddy-field.

 

 

The blacker the clouds are

 

                          the brighter the twilight glows – cheery.

 


 

The sick rose

                          --After William Blake

 

Losing its way one stormy night

a worm

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.

 


 

Signs of recovery

 

Infant raindrops fall

plump and round.

I long to tickle their cheeks

and nibble at their arms.

 

Infant raindrops fall

murmuring.

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.

 


 

Awkward lateborn

 

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.

 


 

 

Waning moon

 

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.

                         




 

Virtual reality

 

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,

self-reproducing limitlessly

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.


 

Clouds after clear skies

 

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.

 


 

Meteor

 

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?

 


 

Thin-shelled snails

 

Every day a red-bellied frog living in the rapids

gulps down

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 .

 


 

Fireworks

 

What are these sudden

fireworks?

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.

 

 


 

Magnificat   1

 

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,

how frightened

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).

 


 

Magnificat 3

 

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

ever, everywhere,

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.

 

 


 

A jail-breaker’s prayer

 

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.


 

A look

 

 

The day I leave the world

 

I want to be an ancient Egyptian’s face.

 

Carved

 

on a city wall or a water-jar,

 

a look full of certainty

 

gazing toward eternity

 

beyond the horizon.

 


 

Today’s prophets

 

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.

 


 

Perth, New Year’s Day 2000

 

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

have lengthened

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?

 


 

Formalities of thanks

 

Native Australians

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.


 

Early morning river

 

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.

 


 

Perth: riverside with swans

 

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

 

today,

I want to go flying

 

low, low

over the blue rippling waves

 

feeling the wind blowing on my breast

like a bare winter tree

 

on some snow-covered mountain slope.

 


 

January midday

 

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.

 


 

Perth, high noon

 

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

dazzling.

Thunder.

 


 

One morning in Perth

 

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 . . .

 


 

Heavenly ring

 

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

the northern sky since the Creation of the world,

it sets aslant over your shoulder there.

 

 


 

Clam-shell river

 

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.

 


 

Wave Rock

 

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

of song?

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

billowing.

 


 

Dreaming about Uluru

 

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

one aborigine

is imagining the Uluru of Dreamtime, tourist-free.

 

We each picture the same image in our dreams,

not knowing one another.

Someone’s blood

is crying from the ground.

Oh dear, perhaps I’ve protested too much?

 


 

Uluru  1

 

                                                       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.

 


 

Uluru  2

 

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.

 


 

Uluru  3

 

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.

 


 

Uluru  4

 

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.

 


 

Uluru 5

 

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.

 


 

Uluru  6

 

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.

 


 

Springtime maiden

 

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.

 


 

A windy day

 

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,

exposing

the asshole under its tail, and all.

 


 

History and the Poet

 

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

dancing

of her living, virgin days

 

and freely drinks.

 


 

 

The Translators

 

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.