Even the Knots on Quince Trees Tell Tales


Poems by Ku Sang  Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé





A bridled,


drooling cow.


At the age of three, my first revelation of really existing

found in a face like that printed by blood and sweat on a cloth

held out by a Jerusalem woman to a man on his way to execution,

the face of a cow.


The yellow, twilit path slid up over a mountainside,

calligraphic in black and white;

and as I sat there perched on the leading cart,

in the face of the cow following behind

with an ancient chest roped to its back,

my first buds of knowledge unfolded and I wept.



* Inspired by memories of how, when I was three, we left Seoul. My father had been given a teaching post by the German Benedictines who were in charge of missionary activities in the north-eastern region of Wŏnsan. I grew up there, in the outlying locality called Tokwŏn.






Descending from the gravel-strewn platform

built on an embankment amidst the fields,

if you take the road in front of the station

lined on both sides with vegetable plots,

intersected by a highway,

as you make your way between orchards and nurseries

you can see the towns old Confucian academy

while, in valley of the distant Masingryŏng hills,

a temple can be seen

and if you cross the railway line

fields of millet and sorghum spread wide

with a newly built road piercing the hills,

passing among the fields like a strip of unbleached cloth


then once past the pool beside the bean field

if you stand on the bridge over the Jŏkjŏn River

in all directions your eyes are filled with plains

with to the north, amidst verdant woodlands,

the tower of the Catholic monastery

and nearby the lapping East Sea,

then to the west, beyond Ogu

from where a hill with a spirit shrine can be seen,

beneath the hillside site where offerings are made

lies the village with the family in charge of the funeral bier;

in a tiny thatched cottage under the poet Lee Tae-Baeks moon

an aged couple just like mountain sages

raised their one son, precious

as the rarest ginseng growing deep in the mountains.







Could it have been on account of long familiarity

with my cousin's embroidery frame?


As I gazed up,

my little breast tortured with longings,


over the wimple and creamy face

of the catechism-class sister,

whistling like a train leaving for the Manchurian border,

a river seemed to be spreading wide, flowing.


I saw

the desolate back of the sun

that day, too.






In Minor Seminary,

early one New Year's Day,

I cut out from the newspaper

a picture of Her Imperial Majesty dressed in white,

then rushed straight to the toilets.


After doing like the serpent in Genesis, that squirmed his whole body

to expell like pus a blasphemous passion,

I turned my back on that monastery in which I had spent three years.


I became a follower of isms.



* When I was fourteen, I entered minor seminary with the idea of becoming a priest, but gave up after three years.







I began by running away.


On the night ferry to Japan,

tossing on a single tatami space,


the cabin with its owl's eye

was a miniature tunnel with no way out,

and the roar of the engines tortured my heart.


So this young man, fettered in chains of history,

throwing aside his coat and sitting up,

turns into a nameless beast

and grinds his teeth.


Galilee with no Master!


Riding the waves of darkness,

I hear Praise of Death ringing out.

Yun Shim-Dŏk with hair untressed

gestures to me.



* Aged eighteen, I left Korea to study in Tokyo. Yun Shim-Dŏk was a hero of the Korean anti-Japanese resistance movement





In this enemy town, on a spring day so harmonious

it brings tears to my eyes,

I wander aimlessly all day long with a missal

and a book called Poverty

wedged under my arm.


Crossing the Aragawa,

which flows towards its irreversible history,

I enter a bar in Kitashenshu

and sit squeezed between Korean laborers

to swallow down toburoko.


Kwejina chingching naneh!

Who will light, who will light

this lamp, who will light?

In the midst of this dark night

who will light our lamp?

Kwejina chingching naneh!


Aged twenty, after my first taste of drink

sky and streets and people

all recall Van Gogh's Night with Stars.



* Poverty is the title of a book by the Japanese socialist economist Kawakami Hajimu. The Aragawa River flows into Tokyo Bay. Kitashenshu was a slum area beside Tokyo Bay. Toburoko is a cheap rice beer.






At that time

the encounter with La Rochefoucauld

aroused a typhoon within me.

The early buds of eager desire to do good

vanished brutally, in a flash,

and, darkness-wrapped within,

I saw two-headed monsters come to life,

that tore at each other, roaring.


Moment by moment the cords of self-hatred

tightened around my throat;

the silence of heaven changed into horror,

all other people became hell

and human existence a world of utter evil...


Stretched out on my boarding-house tatami floor,

I celebrated daily

funerals of God

and sitting beside a pond in Kitsijoji Park,

I imagined the rapture of a Zarathustra

climbing up to the stronghold of the Superman.



* La Rochefoucauld: A French moral philosopher (1613 – 1680)

The silence of heaven: an expression from Pascal

Hell is other people: a phrase from Sartre

Kitsijoji Park is in the suburbs of Tokyo






In the coffee-shop Etranger

was Yumi,

a eurasian girl

with White Russian blood.


At first I pestered her

to become my little sister,

but with no success.


One evening, near midnight,

after several glasses of vodka,

when I suddenly fell on her cherry lips,

just that once she exclaimed,

No acting like that, brother!


The course of my love:

constantly such falsehoods,

no unity!

And a miserable conclusion.


Thirty years later, even now,

in the Shangri-la of dreams

I always feel anxious

about my encounter with Yumi.


Impotence of affection in me!







On my thickly growing branches

the Duino Elegies and the Lotus Sutra

brought out buds of pantheism.


My human life: a morning dewfall on grass.

All things existing,

that had hitherto been mere appearance,

were bringing forth light from within

and, day by day, dying.


One day, as the tears

of impermanence were brimming full,

a fountain of song

began to rise within me.


Until the day when my flesh becomes leaves,

my bones stalks,

and when from my scarlet blood

a bouquet of flowers shall rise,

ah, life!


That was the first phrase of my first poem.







Invoking Golgotha's Mother and Son,

praying so hard it parched his tongue,

still invoking, he died.


Such a death

in which this world and the world beyond

are linked by chains of pain!


With candles burning and prayers for the dead rising,

molded over my life, such pain

before that corpse.

And born of what seeds?

Not knowing was the worst torment.


But the torrent of that destiny

continued to flow in my veins!


Abruptly thinking to cut off that inheritance,

as I turned my face away

from my hideously stiff father,

I broke into a wail.



* My father died in 1940.



The Poets Epilogue, by Ku Sang


A Kind of Last Wish


Let us live Eternity from today onward.


First, let me introduce one of my poems:




Today again I confront a day that is source of mystery.


In this day the past, present and future are one,

just as each drop of water in that river

is linked to a tiny spring in some mountain valley

and linked to the distant, azure sea.


In that way, in this today of mine, being linked to eternity,

at this very moment I am living that eternity.


That means that it is not after I have died

but from today on that I must live eternity,

must live a life worthy of eternity.


I must live in poverty of heart.

I must live with an empty heart.


There is nothing more to be explained, really, but although we usually reckon that so-called Eternity only begins once we have entered the other world, that is in fact a gross error. In a word, even materialistic natural scientists all tell us that everything, the essential being of all that exists, endures indestructible for ever. All know that the essential being even of the natural landscape with its display of a constant process of birth and death is indestructible.

             Therefore the fact of our living today is one process of being within eternity. We usually speak of living in eternity once were in the other world but it is not like that, for to us today is simply one expression, one portion, one process of being in eternity.

             But speaking frankly, we know nothing of what transformations each human being undergoes after death. Of course, every religious system has what might be termed a metaphor or an assumption. Christianity talks of Heaven, Purgatory, Hell; in Buddhism, there are the six paths by which all sentient beings are reincarnated until they reach the Western Paradise. That is to say, a state of perfection transceding space and time. Employing this as a metaphor, as previously indicated, some one like Jesus of Nazareth, nailed to the cross, could say in his dying breath: Father (God), I commend my spirit to you. Precisely so. And for us, once our bodily life is done, to the question as to the processes and transformations by which the perfect state of our being, body and soul, will be attained, and what our perfect state will look like, I will only say that the answer lies veiled in mystery. Still, there can be no doubt that it will involve a form of rewards and retribution. Therefore I write this phrase, Let us live Eternity from today onward among my family and beyond, in collections of sayings and in autograph albums, as a kind of dying wish.