Even the Knots on Quince Trees Tell Tales



Poems by Ku Sang


Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé



Even the Knots on Quince Trees Tell Tales, a cycle of poems by Ku Sang


100 poems evoking the poet¡¯s life in the context of Korea¡¯s history






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 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 town¡¯s 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 T¡¯ae-Baek¡¯s 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.



Had the century¡¯s executioners all gone mad?

They were wielding their swords to east and west.


In Korea, ruled by idiot-faced puppets

like modern gods,

babies were mowed down mercilessly

like the Massacre of the Innocents by Herod in Bethlehem

while all thirty million inhabitants

ran red with blood like a budding sorghum field.


¡°Trample the Chinese bastards to death!¡±

¡°Beat the British and American devils to death!¡±


The days were crowded, day and night,

with victory flag parades and lantern processions

while I reiterated the fury that longs

to locate the world¡¯s head and smash it in


sunk deep in the illusion that trumpets heralding

a new dawn were sounding somewhere.



* The violent slogans are spoken by Japanese voices, mobilizing peple during the Pacific War.



For a while, frequenting Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu,

I enjoyed playing with words:


Empty, empty,

you must empty,

if you do empty yourself away,

you¡¯ll be emptied away.

Play, play,

you must play,

if you play no tricks on me,

I'll play tricks on you.


Then somehow, frequenting folklore gods,

I went crazy exorcizing:


Belt and shoes,

tiger, tailor,

frogs, clogs,

spinning spindle,

loom and treadle.



I spent some time as a stone pillar before a tomb

but in the end I could endure it no longer.


Determining to earn a living

and fascinated by the idea of wielding the pen,

I became a journalist for a government-sponsored colonial newspaper.

Removing my gall-bladder like the rabbit before the Dragon King,

I wrote in praise of the war, supported requisitions of grain and materials for the military.

There was no other choice apart from forced labor or being pro-Japanese

but since I still have not succeeded in removing the mask of antinomy

I cannot weep over what I was then.


Clamence! Devious friend,

pretend not to know me, alike as we are.



* In a traditional Korean tale, a rabbit is kidnapped and taken to the palace of the Dragon King beneath the sea. There he learns that he is to be killed so that his gall-bladder can be used as medicine for the sick king. He explains with feigned regret that he has removed his liver and left it at home. Allowed to go back to fetch it, he escapes. Jean-Baptiste Clamence is the central character in Albert Camus¡¯ La Chute. A lawyer haunted by guilt, he waylays customers in an Amsterdam bar and by confessing his own failings drives them to admit their own sins.




Perhaps because of thoughts of a heavenly home ahead,

our love was old

from the very beginning.


We already knew that the jeweled branches of Salzburg

were mere illusions,

reckoned the blaze and sweetness

of Romeo and Juliet of no account

hoped only to be to each other

as fresh water to a fish.


Wearing traditional wedding costumes

before the cross on the altar

while Gregorian chants echoed around

we pledged to be unshakeable Arhans.


Forty years of repeated ripples

in that wish for serene love!

That pledge still retains its halo.



* In his De l¡¯amour, Stendhal employs the image of branches left in the salt-mines of Salzburg for a time, that emerge festooned with glittering crystals of salt, to represent his theory of the ¡°crystallization¡± of feelings of love.



Like a deer

driven toward the hunter

my time flows,

slows, panting.

In my hammering, fluttering


there is a new life

moving slightly

fearful even of tickling,

preventing miscarriage.

My love!

Collapsing after racing along

a path like a patch of mugwort

snug like a grave

blankly gazing upward.



* This poem celebrates the imminent defeat of Japan.




How can I communicate our delight on this day

to those who have not felt bitterness or sorrow at their nation¡¯s fall?


An ecstasy

as if the bluebird, hitherto driven out of hiding only in dreams

had suddenly flown into my arms . . .


I grab everyone I see,

and together we whoop.

I embrace everyone I meet

and we weep.


What has become of the gloom we knew prior to today?

What has become of the despair we felt prior to today?

Inexhaustible love overflows from my heart.

My whole being is seething with vital energy.


Caught in a dream that swells like a balloon about to float away,

I find myself forced to join my hands

in thanksgiving before the god of history.



* This poem celebrates the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945. By the terms of the surrender, Japan was to lose all its continental territories including Korea. Therefore this day is celebrated as Korea¡¯s National Liberation Day. The ¡°Bluebird¡± is a symbol for happiness figuring in the allegorical fantasy of that name by the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck.



It was August 16,

the day after our Liberation.


On one side, in the market gardens

Japanese women

in gorgeous, flower-patterned overalls

were weeding with hoes

as if unaware of the news of their nation¡¯s defeat.


On the other side, in the vegetable fields

Chinese men

gaunt as spiders and covered in dirt

were scooping up night-soil and manuring the fields

as if unaware of the news of their country¡¯s victory.


That was the scene I witnessed in North Korean fields

while I, in a frenzy of excitement,

went weaving barefoot through the streets of my lost home, Wŏnsan,

at the head of a procession with the Korean flag.



In a flash, August¡¯s Bluebird

turned into Pandora¡¯s box.


The heralds of liberation that had appeared before us

turned into the century¡¯s lowest dregs

and divided our land into two parts.


My hometown was submerged by the sound of Soviet submachine guns and ¡°Dawai,¡±

upstart ¡°comrades¡± went on frenzied rampages,

busily binding our limbs with red ropes

leaving bruises that would not fade.


At the start of this mysterious life

I was repeatedly forced to undergo testing like that undergone

in the desert by the Man from Nazareth at the hands of the Evil One.


Finally, my poems having been branded for seven different failings,

abandoning my seventy-year-old mother and my newly wedded wife

I fled from a land that ideology had made an ¡°Isle of Death¡±

like Papillon escaping from prison.


Taking one step over the 38th Parallel

I prayed before the rising sun

to become an Orpheus.



* This poem evokes the rapid spread of Communist control in North Korea under Soviet supervision. My first collection of poems, entitled Ŭnghyang, was found to be ideologically defective in at least seven different ways by the Communist censor and I fled south to avoid arrest. Papillon, the main character in Henri Charrière¡¯s book of that name, escaped from Devil¡¯s Island (or ¡°the Isle of Death¡±). ¡°Dawai¡± is a Russian word meaning, ¡°Give me all you have.¡± The poverty-stricken Soviet soldiers often said this to Koreans.



The Seoul I arrived at

was mushy like porridge,



Everyone sang the praises of freedom

like mad but

I felt as though a giant crane

was holding me by the nape of the neck.


Once the foolish dream of rushing toward the Forbidden City was smashed,

I became journalist for a right-wing paper

pretending to have been a volunteer

serving under Franco during the Spanish Civil War.


But amazed by the gradual loss day after day

of the self¡¯s phosphorescence,

every time I rowed my boat over the sea of existence

as if probing for someone drowned with an oar

I drew up the dead bodies of my dreams

and as I did so I sang songs of requiem

while yearning for a resurrection like that

of Lazarus waking inside his coffin.



* The Forbidden City: The former imperial palace at the center of Beijing. After fleeing south, I at once prepared to go to study in China but I was forced to abandon my plans when the Communists took power there.



Out amidst the stormy waves of history,

buffeted by the storms of the age,

listing to one side, was a boat.


Along the side of the boat facing this present world,

beside politicians, there are journalists,

educators, businessmen, artists,

scientists, philosophers, men of religion, and others

this world¡¯s boatmen all without exception,

who were shouting, surrounded by crowds of people, while


along the side of the boat facing the world beyond,

one elderly poet with a closely shaven head, all alone,

was sitting bolt upright before a few young people,

smoking a self-rolled cigarette


and as I approached him he greeted me:

¡°I am glad and grateful and happy,¡±

shaking my hand

over and over again.



*  This poem records my first meeting with the poet Kongch¡¯o (O Sang-sun).




One group was weaving baskets

in a bamboo grove

busily composing poems

and pretending to be wise;


another group was racing about

like a pack of wolves in pursuit,

barking fiercely at everyone

and claiming to be revolutionaries.


I took Kongch¡¯o as my Erasmus

and, encamped every evening at the bar Eternal Garden,

assembled the gods of Folly

for banquets of Colloquia.


Those unskilled performances of mine

bear the blame for several innocent young men

being snatched away by untimely death in the wartime years.



* Among those young poets, Chŏn Bong-rae committed suicide while a refugee in Pusan, while Yun Bok-gu and Kim Ul-yun were taken north by the Communists. Folly: an echo of Erasmus¡¯s ¡°Praise of Folly.¡± Colloquia: ¡°Dialogues,¡± the title of the volume of Erasmus¡¯s dramatic dialogues.




  ¡°Hwaja says that it¡¯s a shame to see picked flowers wither and that if you simply crush a piece of camphor in your hand and sprinkle it in the water, they recover their freshness for several days.¡±

Those words were spoken with a laugh by my wife as she was injecting calcium into my arm. I immediately responded with a vigorous laugh of my own.


The next day I said to my wife as she was preparing the injection:

--I reckon withered flowers recover if they receive injections too,

I abruptly stuck out my arm as I spoke.

Then when the injection was over I muttered privately to my wife,

--But the effects only last a few days,

and laughed bitterly.


Hwaja is a nurse in the hospital where my wife works. I feel a secret regret that it is camphor that Hwaja sprinkles on her flowers, and not calcium.



*  Barely a year after I fled south, I came down with tuberculosis and received treatment at a clinic in Masan, from my wife, a doctor, who had followed me south.








A new life

squirming, uttering

a newborn squalling.


Shy caresses for such an innocent being,

shared vows of fervent self-sacrifice, here crystallized,

before this new star that we two have brought rising

above the earth.


My wife, barely thirty and now a mother,

feeds the baby at her breast with a smile like a full moon

while she croons a lullaby

that I heard from my mother when I was little.


As I left her bedside,

wilting like a wild chrysanthemum,

the birth of this first child

was to me like a tonic full of new vigor.




At the far end of a continent caught in a situation

like a quarrel between a hippo and a bear, lies

a peninsula shaped like a hare pounding grain in a pestle

and in its southern portion,

the Republic of Korea has come into being

by a decision of the United Nations.

Its flag with the yin-yang symbol has been raised.


On that day, the only thing that roused our enthusiasm

were the gongs, drums and flutes of traditional musicians.

On that day, all we held in our calloused hands

were hoes, spades and picks.


Yet as I prayed, I believed.


The roots of our nation¡¯s history, long, deep and broad,

will draw vital nourishment from

all the rivers that flow underground;

it will grow up slowly at first, very slowly,

but it is certain to put out branches, leaves will bud,

and it will yield the rarest flowers.


And as I prayed, I perceived


that the bitterness we would suffer

would be more bitter than gall

and the sorrow from every day¡¯s frustrations

would prevent us from seeing the way ahead

but still, such sufferings

would spur us on to ever more frantic efforts.


And as I prayed I pledged:


This land¡¯s pain shall be my pain!



In those days, it was the poet P¡¯asŏng, Sŏl Ch¡¯ang-su, who spoke out and took the lead in the restoration of our nation¡¯s cultural heritage.


On the third day of the tenth lunar month of 1949, the leaders of the various tendencies in the arts, with their youthful followers, gathered in Chinju, which had recently been promoted to the status of a new city.


In the garden behind Ch¡¯oksŏk Pavilion, inside Chinju Castle, our benefactor P¡¯asŏng, dressed in white, performed an opening ritual; then there were a variety of artistic performances at different places within the walls of the castle, and in the evening we floated lanterns bright as the spirit of Nongae on the Nam River.


Meanwhile the merry band of visitors, led by Kongch¡¯o, spent the night partying in the red-light district of Okbong; there was resentment mingled with their mirth, so that it degenerated into pandemonium, but that was the only vent available for their shackled daily lives.


From the start for the next ten years I was never absent as one of the younger members who needed to be forgiven countless misdeeds and picturesque episodes, among which the time I untied the hair ribbon of Sunae, a reputed hostess, and went parading about with it tied round my hat, and the loutish act of dropping my pants and pissing in front of the statue of Buddha in Oegok Temple still remain as things I get jeered at for by older friends.


Now those early times of the New Creation Cultural Festival are as remote as ancient history and if I say that its excesses and incidents are notorious everywhere, could that be just me doting about the Good Old Days?



* Oegok Temple: a temple in the hills above Chinju. In those days, the calligrapher O Jae-bong was head monk and it served as lodgings for participants in the early festivals. Nongae: a female entertainer (kisaeng) and Korean heroine who during the Japanese invasion of the late 16th century killed the leading Japanese general by leaping from the battlements of Chinju Fortress while pretending to embrace him.




Thinking of it now,

I looked more ridiculous when I became a government agent

than if I had put on a bra and dressed as a woman.


I composed my propaganda pieces

as if they were written in my own precious blood.


What I hated most in those days

were cloying lyricism,

a fascination with nature and devotion to it.


Although our ways differed,

I took Malraux and Hemingway

as my models.


A life that brings together poetry and authenticity!


And I aspired to a destiny

such as a bullet.




I reckon that anyone who experienced the shock and despair of June 25, 1950

would be less at a loss if confronted with the end of the world.


Accompanying the Korean army, transformed into a defeated remnant

in the space of a day, in its so-called retreat, it was only in Suwŏn,

on hearing reports that a UN force had entered the war,

that I felt able to breathe freely again, as if I had boarded Noah¡¯s Ark.


Assigned at Taejŏn to the political section of military intelligence,

returning from witnessing an execution of Communists by firing squad

I was drinking soju at a small roadside store while Staff-sergeant Kim,

who had been involved in the execution, poured out his thoughts:


¡°Before Liberation I was living in Japan, in Hiroshima,

and in those days, if you met a fellow countryman along the road

you felt so happy, and now those same fellow countrymen

get shot dead, mark you, with my own hand

and a whole heap of them, too . . .

this Ism of people condemned to die . . . what the hell is it,

this spooky Ism? . . .

And those fellows¡¯ Ism is the enemy . . .¡±

and he began to weep noisily.


While experiencing warfare, and today too, thirty years later,

I have heard no more striking view of what happened on June 25

than that outburst of Staff-sergeant Kim:


¡°This Ism of people condemned to die . . . what the hell is it,

this spooky Ism? . . .

And those fellows¡¯ Ism is the enemy . . .



*June 25, 1950: the day when the North Korean forces launched a surprise attack on the South, beginning the Korean War.



From Taejŏn we skirted Kŭmsan,

and then, as we left the Yŏngdong highway

we came under attack from a Communist guerilla unit.


Hastily abandoning the jeep I was in,

I crouched behind the bank of a field beside the road

and pointed the M1 rifle I had never once fired

in the direction of the enemy.


Just then I noticed the seeds from a dried dandelion

right before my eyes being carried away in a gust of wind.


The question:

¡°Now once my flesh is scattered like that,

where will the seeds of my life go

to give birth to new flowers?¡±


and the realization that

¡°I am eternally wrapped in a profound mystery.¡±


came to my mind in a flash,

making all fear and apprehension vanish

and drawing me into a rapture I cannot name.



I am left behind in Taegu as part of the last defensive regiment.


Like a pursued animal that will crawl into any kind of hole,

hearing the enemy bombardments, now they have come very near,

I crouch in our darkened barracks in the blackout.


We may have been overrun by the Communists by morning,

we can¡¯t tell if the leftist brigands may not soon control everything,

and is really the only task I can fulfill as I die

simply to help make up for the small number of soldiers?


¡°I must become an avenging spirit, a ghost

with a knife held in his bloody lips

I must get rid of the reds with my own two hands.¡±


In all my life, only then

did I feel a lust for revenge.




It was as if I were caught between waking and sleeping!

No sooner had one fellow with a yellow armband marked ¡°$¡± climbed on top of me and started to tie me up than another fellow, with a red armband inscribed ¡°Liberation,¡± appeared and set about strangling me.


As I was expiring, pawing the air, I did my best to guess what those fellows really were but although their faces were of the usual kind I could not tell what they truly were or why they were trying to kill me, until at last I swooned away.


That moment! Perhaps it was the moment dividing darkness from light. The heavens were full of flames like the tongued fire of Pentecost while I and the whole earth went round in circles.


I¡¯m dizzy, dizzy, so dizzy; I call, shout, weep for mother, wife, anyone, but no answer comes and I can¡¯t even recall their faces; my distress and upset are a blazing furnace.


Suddenly, the rosary in my pocket yields blossoms of exorcism, and as consciousness dimly returns a voiceless cry arises: ¡°Holy mother . . . me.¡±


Then here I am in a pavilion within a flower garden, glimpsed in some film or in an illustration for Paradise Lost, dressed in a fine summer jacket enjoying excitement and relaxation like someone just out of prison, when

Bang, bang!

As I open my eyes at the sound of exploding shells, I find myself sitting as usual on a metal chair in the barracks in the light of an oil lamp.



¡°Do you have any idea of what our little Oki has been saying since you left?¡±


¡°That the Communists should leave Taegu alone, sail down to the sea off Pusan and fire their guns there; that¡¯s what she says.¡±


¡°Because then our Mr. Ku would come right back to Taegu.¡±

¡°What¡¯s that? Even if it means the collapse of the country?¡±

¡°That girl so wants to see you, she says she doesn¡¯t care if the country collapses or not.¡±


Returning after carrying official messages to Pusan, I called in at my usual bar and was greeted by the hostess with those words before I had even had time to sit down. At that, Oki blushed deeply and started scolding her to make her shut up.


I had been a virgin when I married and had never known any woman other than my wife but that evening I removed the Holy Medal I usually wore on my breast and laid it under the pillow before embracing that same girl, who was chattering like a fool. Even I was taken aback by my desire.



As a member of the advance forces that would recapture Seoul on 28 September, I boarded an American transport plane on September 21. It was the first plane I had ever been in, so I was trembling like a leaf, while the hills and villages glimpsed as I peered through the window looked so insignificant, they quite made me forget the horrors of war.


Landing in the thickly overgrown plain of Kimp¡¯o, we headed straight for Inch¡¯ŏn, where the streets were still everywhere thick with gun smoke.


Using a printing shop that had survived the flames, I printed out the flyers we would scatter on entering the city and was on my way back to barracks late in the evening when I encountered a very drunk black soldier in a narrow street. With the fingers of his left hand he formed a well, and with his right thumb imitated the pounding of grain in a mortar, all the while muttering, ¡°Where? Where?¡± and following along close beside me.


After repeating over and over, ¡°I don¡¯t know,¡± I finally managed to shake him off, but toward that black guy it was not anger that I felt, but for the very first time a fellow-feeling toward someone of another race and color. Is that what they call being ¡°brothers in arms¡±?




If we could contemplate Seoul reduced to a heap of cinders with the delight of slash-and-burn farmers, it was only on account of that one poem.


It was because of that one poem that after Seoul was recaptured, for more than two weeks when people returned, burned as black as the natives of southern lands, and were reunited with families who had not known if they were still alive, they greeted one another by saying: ¡°Now our troubles are over. Let¡¯s go back home, talk and live as we used to.¡±


¡°On September 30, 1950, General Douglas Macarthur, commander-in-chief of the U.N. forces, issued an ultimatum calling on Kim Il-Sung to surrender; receiving no answer, on October 1 the drive north began with the Korean army¡¯s third division on the East Coast as the vanguard, and within two days the entire allied forces had crossed the 38th parallel.

On the eastern front, the first corps comprising the third division and the metropolitan division captured Wŏnsan on October 10th then advanced further, passing through Sŏngjin on October 28th and meeting at Kilju on the 31st while the metropolitan division, supported by sea-borne aviation, entered Ch¡¯ŏngjin on November 25.

Of the regiments comprising the second corps responsible for the central sector, the seventh division had advanced as far as Sunch¡¯ŏn by October 21, the eighth division made a detour through Yangdŏk and entered Dŏkch¡¯ŏn on the 17th, the sixth division moved north through Hwach¡¯ŏn to Yangdŏk and on the 26th the seventh regiment of the same division entered Ch¡¯osan at 5:50pm, thus reaching the Chinese frontier marked by the Yalu River.

To the west, the units under UN control moved north from Seoul and along the coast, occupying P¡¯yŏngyang at 5pm on October 19 with the first Korean division at their head, while on the 20th some four thousand members of the American eleventh airborne division, 187th regiment, landed between Sukch¡¯ŏn and Sunch¡¯ŏn, joined forces with some 800 men who landed on the 21st and reached Sŏnch¡¯ŏn on the 31st.

Meanwhile the American tenth corps, renowned for their bravery before the Inch¡¯ŏn landing, came ashore at Wŏnsan on October 26, with its main force advancing on Lake Changjin, then passing by way of Kapsan before reaching the frontier at Hyesanjin on November 21.¡±


 The above is not a record of historical fact for it was cruelly brought to nothing by the illegal invasion of the Chinese People¡¯s Army but I inscribe it here as an immortal poem written on our land in blood more crimson than roses by our free citizens



Retreating south in January 1951, in a truck without chains,

as it struggled up, then slid back down,

struggled up, then slid back down that ridge,

and sitting there beside the driver,

trying to free my mind of fear,

there was a field I glimpsed in the valley far below,

sheltered, free of snow, like a black wrapping-cloth.


On the way back north with the family,

in the midst of blooming mountain azaleas,

there was a field like a mangy patch on a child¡¯s head,

all white with new-sprung shoots.


Emerging from jail,

on the way to my rural home, glimpsed askew,

there was a field with a mass, a host

of shepherd's-purse spikes.


In a valley at the foot of Shindong hill between Kimch¡¯ŏn and Taegu,

there was a field all stained

with the bloody pus and tears of lepers.


My native land, the last thing I glimpsed

as I lay on the operating table in a foreign hospital—


those mountain fields!



* In 1965 I underwent two lung operations in Japan.




Scene 1.


Down the street, urchins troop round a strangely-dressed girl. Some throw stones, other wave sticks dipped in cow pats or horse dung.

¡°Whore! Whoooore! Whore!¡±

They are set to deal with sullied motherhood according to their law.

¡°I'm not your mother am I? Suppose I am a whore? What of it!¡±

She spits out the words from foaming lips, as a passing American jeep stops, then zooms away like the wind. Only the sound of the shouts remains.


Scene 2.


A heavily made-up woman passes, in western clothes. Kids wink at one another.

One creeps up behind and skillfully fixes a sign on her back: ¡°3000 won a trick¡±.

¡°Waha! Wahaha! Wahahaha!¡±

Realizing that their resistance is pointless, the children indulge in loud laughter where scorn is overlaid with self-torment.

The woman checks her heels, corrects her poise.

But until she vanishes

¡°Waha! Wahaha! Wahahaha!¡¯ does not abate.


Scene 3.


Gradually such pranks become rarer, and down dark alleyways between rough wooden shacks, children stand here and there waiting for someone.

If a drunken soldier, black or white, heaves into view, frond-like hands grab at hardened arms and tug.

¡°Hello! Ok? Madam, nice! Nice! Ok?¡±

Having had a taste of money, the children have found their own way of exploiting this wretched reality.




On the frozen ground of my heart

a bitter Siberian wind bites the flesh.


In a field of dry tangled weeds

a garbage dump

of gaping cans, smashed ration-boxes,

pages from Stars and Stripes, broken-necked bottles,

and in one corner the cadaver of a hairy dog, shot dead;

along the ridges bitten into the fields by tanks

the dry stiff carcass of a cat;


in front of a tent like a plastic hot-house

behind a barbed-wire fence hung with blood-stained slacks,

a GI is coming and going;

whenever he whistles, peep-peep,

wretched urchins pop up their heads, like frogs,

from holes in the ground like those where kimch¡¯i is kept,

wrapped in colored scarves,

yellow, red and blue.


The sky suddenly

begins to spew black mist

and a cluster of crows flaps off

over the sullen hills--


this itch in my back that drives me mad,

this rising bile that dilates my breast,

who can it be directed at?



I suppose that anyone would laugh if they saw someone gently caressing a squid all black with its ink, holding it cuddled in their lap.

But as I sat there opposite her, my eyes were hard.

¡°Chŏng-sik, do be still; when we find your Dad, he¡¯ll buy you sweets.¡±

A Korean woman, too pale by far, was sitting there, almost begging her little black boy to be quiet.

After midnight, on the night train, beneath the pallid lamps the expressions of the passengers were not at all amused; on the head of the little sobbing black boy and the brow of his distracted mother drops of sweat sparkled strangely.

I observe this mis-matched black-and-white picture of mother and child, then search my pockets for a bag of toffees a half-drunken friend forced on me as he saw me off, and offer one to the child.

No doubt about it, the effect is instant. Blinking eyes blacker than jet, he grabs the sweet, conveys it to his mouth and becomes unexpectedly serious.

A second, a third, a fourth, and he comes scrambling up into my lap, grinning happily and showing bright white teeth.

I have no choice but to play the game. I take charge of the child from the woman, whose eyes are tearful behind an apologetic smile and, feeling like someone playing with the monkeys at the zoo, I mobilize caramels and all possible talents for the task.

Things soon take an unexpected turn. More than relieved at such unlooked-for help, surely exhausted in mind and body, the woman quietly falls asleep. And the child, a moment before playing wildly, no doubt feeling that the time is right, begins to snore in my arms.

Thus transformed, with no effort on my part, into being the father of a black child, in an indescribable state of mind, I close my eyes too.

Inwardly I picture the few banknotes that must be the secret of this child's birth.

I think of the hillside where the father may have perished or of the medal shining on his proud homeward-bound breast, if he survived.

I sense in the face of this harassed, overwhelmed woman what it means to be Korean today.

Holding the now quietly breathing little innocent, I shudder at the thought of the flimsy destiny awaiting him and humanity.

Meanwhile the train races on, piercing the night, the travelers all dozing exhausted; I have now become a black-and-white picture of father and son, and on my brow rise drops of sweat.





 The poet comes in bravely, shoulders thrown back, dragging a friend in with him.

 The whore seems caught between pleasure and confusion.

 Glaring around the room, he sees a white plaster image of the Infant Jesus with hands joined below an embroidery of pine trees and cranes.

The poet smiles bitterly:

¡°Is that a picture of your kid then?¡± he asks casually,

¡°And are you hoping to become Mary Magdalene?¡± he mutters to himself.

They come in, laying a bottle of soju and a dried squid on the table.

After rapidly downing a couple of glasses of soju, it¡¯s time to do the remaining bargaining.

¡°Take this friend to another girl.¡±

¡°To a really kind-hearted married wife!¡±

¡°Quickly, quickly, we¡¯re sleepy!¡±

Unable to resist their shouting, the girl goes out; a few seconds later, she opens the door a chink and signals to the poet with her eyes to come outside.

¡°That . . . that friend of yours . . . he only has one leg.¡±

¡°Sure, what¡¯s the problem? He¡¯s a wounded hero.¡±

¡°I don¡¯t think any of the other girls will take him. So if it¡¯s alright with you, I¡¯ll go with him.¡±


The poet is taken aback by such extreme kind-heartedness:

¡°Ok then, and I¡¯ll take another wife too,¡± he agrees.

Out in the garden of the whore-house, full of a darkness as black as sin, the poet pisses and as he does so reflects warmly that even if there is not exactly splendor in such a den, at least a star and a poem are lodged there.



In a trench on a hill near the battle front during a pause in the fighting, our off-duty soldiers with a few black GIs were enjoying a makkŏlli party.

They were quite far gone in drink, and it was a riot of jumbled half-words: ¡°drink¡± ¡°ok¡± ¡°thank-you¡± while one of the black soldiers had his arm around one of ours and was quietly chattering away to him about something eagerly, until at last he grabbed another of his companions by the scruff of the neck and pulled him near:

--Hey, student, come here and translate what this kkamtungi fellow is trying to tell me. He obviously wants to say something good.

--Why, he¡¯s drunk too; he¡¯s just making noises; it¡¯s not worth bothering about.

But turning to the black soldier, he said:

--You say once more.

--You know, we differ in nationality, race, homeland, parents, and skin and everything. You know, we differ in many respects.

--Go ahead.

--But we are one, because we are the same—privates destined to die on the same day. We¡¯re the same; we¡¯re closest friends, you know. We¡¯re number one friends. Sure true brothers.

--You are right. I know what you mean.

He stood up and clapped his hands.

--Hey, everyone! Shut up for a while. This kkamtungi fellow here has just said something wonderful.

One soldier shouted: ¡°You idiot! Who cares what a kkamtungi says. Why don¡¯t you sing something? Or dance?¡±

--Shut up and listen! He said: ¡°You and I, we¡¯re different in every way but in one respect we¡¯re the same—we¡¯re all privates and destined to die the same day.¡±

Everyone agreed: ¡°He¡¯s right, he¡¯s right. That¡¯s better than ¡®all one against the Communists¡¯.¡±

--He means that although we¡¯re different, how could we be more closely related, because we¡¯ll die together.

Again, general agreement: ¡°That¡¯s even better than what the Bible says.¡±

--That means we¡¯re brother for life, destined to die together! Closer to one another than to parents, brothers, lovers! Right, let¡¯s drink to this tremendous fact!¡±

¡°You¡¯re better than the star Kim Dong-won playing Hamlet!¡±

At which our privates laughed all together, the black soldiers laughed in imitation, the party grew rowdy again, and soon the trench was echoing to a joint chorus of ¡°Happy Birthday to You.¡±




The allied forces go crawling upward.

There are black private soldiers among them.

Penetrating the hail of shells and bullets

one of our private soldiers reaches the top

and hurls a grenade.

A black soldier follows him up

and hurls a grenade.

Red heat, explosion after explosion, hand-to-hand . . .

As day breaks, at the summit

the South Korean flag is waving ghostlike.

The corpses of allies and foes lie side by side.

The name-tag fallen from the neck of one black soldier

glistens exceptionally bright in the morning sunlight.




In that darkness, black as the inside of a potter¡¯s kiln,

there was a group that kept the lamp of existence alight

simply by the character that each one was born with.


Artillery Colonel was dismissed from the army after

shooting at an American advisor who ordered indiscriminate bombardment

of a group of refugees that communist soldiers had infiltrated,

after which he sold cabbages in a market;

Old Pilot used to bark ¡®Chugil Nom! I¡¯ll kill you!¡¯ on every kind of occasion,

to which he would add: ¡°I will sing a song,¡±

soothing our anger and grim feelings;


amidst the brutality of that slaughterhouse-like world,

Master Ya-in would praise God in rapture

as he recited St. Francis¡¯s ¡°Canticle of the Sun;¡±


Master Mildew, with his stake-like walking stick,

used to earn his drink by reciting poems,

inspired by the ancient Greek poet Anacreon;


Master Kongch¡¯o used to welcome customers

to his dugout hut¡¯s ¡°Rubber Band Room¡±

with ¡°I am glad and grateful and happy,¡±

all the time chain-smoking;


I kept company with those men, day and night,

roaming Chagal-madang¡¯s

Jujube-tree Bar, Persimmon Tree Bar, Horse-head Bar,

downing gallons of drink and performing weird acts of every kind.


In those suffocating times,

they were my breathing tube,

my sole source of nourishment.



* The poem contains a number of nicknames. Artillery Colonel was Lee Ki-Ryŏn; Old Pilot was air force colonel Lee Kye-Hwan; Master Ya-in was Kim Ik-Jin, a devout Catholic; Master Mildew was the composer of sacred music Kwŏn Tae-Ho who liked to sing ¡°Mildew Memories.¡± The poem refers especially to the days when the city of Taegu was full of refugees from Seoul. The ¡°Rubber Band Room¡± was a bar run in a temporary dugout by Kongch¡¯o (see poem 20), so called because of its ability to hold larger or smaller numbers of customers. Chagal-madang was at that time the main red-light district in Taegu.




Dear native land, you are as pitiful as poor Simch¡¯ŏng.

Whenever a poet invokes your name, his voice chokes with tears.

Why is Heaven so silent still, while

the century¡¯s dregs are preparing to carve you up,

like meat on a slab?


Dear native land, along your roads your poor inhabitants

can only go crazy, incapable of either hope or despair

while your enemies and their supporters

are poised again to divide you in two--

the very thought makes you wilt like a reed.


Dear native land, home of tormented souls,

it was only chance that defended you until today,

and once again you seem to be breathing your last

while a band of young, poorly dressed brothers in arms

march north, with never a song for the souls gone ahead.


Dear native land!

Land as pitiful as poor Simch¡¯ŏng!



* In a famous traditional tale, Simch¡¯ŏng sold herself to be thrown into the sea as a sacrifice in the hope that this would enable her blind father to regain his sight.



Bridge of No Return


øßÚ¦ gun port

õÈÏ¢ muzzle

Ðý  flag

ì¡üå meeting

öñ table


* The 20 gun ports represent my simple notion of the 20 divisions aligned along the DMZ. The ¡°Bridge of No Return¡± was the name given to the bridge which prisoners of war who were repatriated at the end of the war crossed, since they could not later return north or south.




Only Pascal's reed was standing there

with white hair and whiskers

waving in the wind.

The Armistice Line!



One butcher¡¯s shop lined up after another,

lumps of meat and ribs hanging from iron hooks,

dripping fresh blood;

a fire engine can be heard, its siren screaming,

followed by an ambulance.


It¡¯s a dark kiln.

It¡¯s an endless tunnel.

A metallic roar of cog smashing against cog

pierces my breast.


The rows of fresh graves in the cemetery

are covered with black flocks of rooks.

In a sky frothing dark foam

an eagle flies in circles.


On the hill behind the village with its rotting thatch roofs

stand pine trees stripped of bark reduced to skeletons,

rice fields lie scorched pale as by ringworm,

and fields yielding nothing but dust, like dandruff,

while on a river bank, gaunt as can be,

a green frog, seemingly newly emerged,

unsure where to put its feet,

simply swells up its breast.



I was lying there, absently

listening to a pitch black stream running down a drain

under the creaking planks.


If a ¡°Homeland of Freedom¡± is an illusion,

What did I undergo the war for?

Why did I leave my home?

The sharper my questions grew,

the further away the answer fled.


--I reckon you¡¯ve been thwarted in love?


 . . .


--Has your wife left you?


 . . .


--I don¡¯t much like doing it, and this is already the twelfth time!


 . . .


Having no replies to the street girl¡¯s questions

I became the hero of ¡°Wings.¡±

Out in the streets the Tadpole Gang and the Skeleton Gang roamed

and a secret service agent came rushing into my hiding place

firing his revolver.



*  ¡°Wings¡± is the most famous novel by the Korean surrealist writer Yi Sang (1910-1937). It portrays a man completely dominated by his wife, who works from their home as a prostitute. Soon after the end of the war, in response to the undemocratic measures known as the First Political Upheaval, I published some editorial articles entitled ¡°Democratic Accusations¡± which provoked a repressive response from the government of Syngman Rhee and for a time I hid in a shack in a red light district in Taegu.




The sea

with only the rise and fall of waves

a solitary seagull moistens its feathers

in the tossing waves

traces a line like a bow in the sky


in quest of the distant land

where mate and chicks are dwelling

like a legendary lover roaming the sky




On and on the empty sky and sea stretch far

not an island on which to lower its wings

no sign of a branch on which to rest

in the empty sky and sea stretching on and on


At last the gull, having soared in the void

emits a pathetic cry




and drops into the sea that gapes like a tomb




There is a roar of propellers.

On the knees of a man in one of the seats

lies a box wrapped in white cloth.

The stewardess serving refreshments enquires

--Shall I put that in the overhead rack?

--No, it¡¯s alright.

--Is it an antique? Something very precious . . .

--It¡¯s hard for me to say . . .

The man speaks hesitantly, dragging out the words.

The girl lets down the table and serves him coffee.

The man looks out of the window as he drinks the coffee

and sometimes rests his eyes on the wrapped box.




In the deep azure air, neither sky nor sea,





the seagull¡¯s ghost flies on.


Flies on again.




In the coffee shop at Japan¡¯s Haneda airport

the man is sitting opposite a woman in mourning dress.

--There¡¯s no call for any special ceremony, I think?

he says, handing her the white wrapped box; rising grief prevents the woman from saying anything in reply.

--When he died he was cremated and part of his ashes were laid in his tomb, while I kept part aside, reckoning that the day would come when I could give them to you, and now I¡¯ve brought them. This is a photo of his tomb.

In the photo, which the woman received with a flood of tears, was a stone with a picture of ¡°The Kiss¡± and the words, ¡°Here lies the artist Lee Chong-Sŏp.¡±



* Lee Chong-Sŏp died in 1956 and I brought his ashes to his widow Mi Mang-In the following year, when I went to Tokyo for a PEN conference. I conceived this memorial in the form of a cine-poem.



If ever I

sold our land

became an agent for such an act

or was involved in it at all,

Chief Justice!

Do not sentence me to prison

but to death.


Once labeled a traitor to our land,

death is far more desirable

than fifteen years, or even a single day

of wretched ongoing life.


Look there, beyond the window

and see how a violent wind is making leaves fall

before they have time to change color.


Chief Justice!

I beg of you, either innocent

or death.


                --October 21, 1959



* In 1959 I paid the price for my constant opposition to the despotism of the Syngman Rhee regime. A Korean residing abroad, a friend of mine, purchased two American-made vacuum tubes in Namdaemun Market and sent them to his son in law, a marine biologist at Tokyo University. This was turned into the so-called ¡°Radar Affair¡± and I, who had known nothing of that, was arrested and charged under the anti-Communism Law of ¡°assisting the enemy¡± simply because we were close friends. The prosecution demanded a 15-year sentence and this poem echoes what I said in my final statement during the trial.



As sunbeams, sweet as Grace itself, glide into my cell, I seem to become a heliotropic plant.

Is my heart a sightless butterfly? Over the brick walls it flutters away and all day long wanders in search of recollection's petals, then comes back weary of itself.


If from here I review my past life, to tell the truth I have failed to distinguish even the most essential things. Abruptly the chilling thought of crisis after crisis overcome by luck arises and I blush for shame.


Now my lot is a solitary cell, like sitting facing the wall in Zen meditation; the only problem is that I have not grasped the world of sentiments and passions. That book on ¡°The Problem of Dharma¡± you sent me acts like a sharp blow from a Master's staff, so many thanks.


I suppose that these days the outside world is in the midst of spring flower-festivals and in uproar over food supplies? Here of course there are no flowers to go into raptures over, but there is also no spring shortfall of food, so perhaps this should be counted an ¡°Isle of Good Fortune¡±?


Nothing more for now.



* This poem was originally written as a letter addressed to the poet Ko Un, who came to visit me in prison. At that time he was still a Buddhist monk; I was not allowed to send it so after my release I revised it as a poem entitled ¡°Springtime Letter from Prison.¡±



Friend! My western friend!

You say that you composed the outline of the plot

of your philosophical play about life, Le Malentendu,

on three pages of old newspaper pushed down into the gap

between your hard wooden prison bed and the wall

while I likewise read and reread and pondered it

sitting on the hard wooden floor of a prison cell.


You strive to affirm the sophistical claim that

for Martha and her mother

life without knowing any other person,

even killing one¡¯s own brother and son

in order to reach the sea with its blazing sands

that burns the very soul,

is the true situation in which each one is set,

that only then is everything as it should be

as if it were natural,

and that only if we become someone devoid of feeling, like a stone,

with the warm touch of another¡¯s hand repulsive,

love and such like disgusting and empty,

refusing to pay heed to any lamentation,

can we attain a happiness like that of a god


but one of the most significant things is lacking

from humanity as you present it.

I mean man¡¯s natural sense of shame is missing.

Remember that

if Adam and Eve hid in the shadow of the trees after their fall,

concealing their genitalia with leaves,

that was not done out of a fear of death or insecurity regarding life,

but from the shamefulness arising from a realization

of human finitude.


That is where you are guilty of a Misunderstanding.

You seem to see the ladder leading to existential freedom

as a matter of spitting at God to the bitter end

but why can you not see that shame is the very beginning of man,

with the potential of bringing man deliverance?

Friend! My western friend!



*  While I was in prison in the last years of the Syngman Rhee regime, I read Albert Camus¡¯ play ¡°Le Malentendu.¡± This poem expresses my opposition to the existential philosophy of life, the image of the ¡°defiant man¡± embodied there. I realized that what was lacking in the existential authenticity of the main character was shame. I came to a conviction that ¡° shame is the very beginning of man, his original nature, the potential for his deliverance, the origin of every norm.¡± This became my own existentialistic theory.



My friend, my Western friend!

Do you really take the Mediterranean, that sea of burning sands,

for life's ultimate shore?


No, surely not!

It is not just a matter of scorching sun and blue sea,

of white waves and sparkling strands,

for the liberation we desire is not there.


Only imagine for a moment!

Before the dejection, the desert void

surging to and fro in all directions

in the very center of the Pacific Ocean,


or in the Arabian deserts, beneath a scorching sun

amidst suffocating tortures of thirst,

tell me, how could we ever celebrate life?


It is a terrifying thing, you know,

but in life's primordial village home I have to have

a pine grove! a grove like that in my lost home

at Sŏngdowŏn in Wŏnsan


and there are times when I must remain and rest

beneath that cool parasol-like shade,

my friend, my Western friend!




¡°Where are you going on your own like that?¡±

At the entrance, closed off by a straw rope, a sinister-looking youth blocked my path.

¡°To vote!¡±

¡°Come back as a gang of three!¡±

¡°I¡¯ll do it alone!¡±

¡°What? I tell you you can¡¯t! Go and ask the boss over there.

The man he indicated was wearing an armband marked ¡°Liberal Party.¡±

¡°I¡¯m an independent . . .¡±

¡°No more talk; get a gang of three together and come back!¡±

With him pushing, I simply walked away and as I did so burst out, not in tears of indignation but in raucous laughter like someone insane.

That same evening, in Masan, the first torches of the April Revolution shone out.









An outcry fills the roads.

An outcry pierces the streets.


Outcry summons outcry

to force out the fire in every heart

to suppress all fear of the dark.


Outcry of bloody fury.

Outcry of joy and tears.


That outcry

demolishes row upon row of barricades.

That outcry

silences muzzles and gun ports.

That outcry

turns the eunuchs into dogs with lolling tongues.

That outcry

pierces the eardrums

of the tyrant deaf with age,

marking the close of ten years of despotism.


In that outcry

there¡¯s a clarity like springing water.

In that outcry

there¡¯s the freshness of tender verdure.

In that outcry

there¡¯s a dream variegated like the rainbow.

In that outcry

there¡¯s a dove-like peace.

In that outcry

there¡¯s the wisdom of Apollo

the intoxication of Dionysus.


Outcry rising from our people¡¯s roots

Outcry emerging from our people¡¯s history

Outcry that will for ever be unquenched

Outcry heard even without any sound

Ah, April¡¯s outcry!



* Celebrating the popular uprisings of April 1960 that toppled Syngman Rhee.



Depart in peace, brotherly souls,

without bloody complaints,

like clouds floating carelessly hand in hand

through the springtime sky.


Over fields of mugwort where gales rage,

waves of anger wringing every heart,

along the narrow way these brother have opened,

funeral corteges of freedom follow one another.


Seeds of life scattered by you our brothers!

It is not our task to cultivate and bring them to bloom

so let go of that hope, thicker than fate,

and quickly spread wings of eternal repose.




Leaving behind April¡¯s banqueting tables, where

the lean meats were abandoned as each snarled at the other,

I withdrew into a solitary room of existence

embracing wounded phantoms.


The Republic¡¯s new life I had dreamed of

had vanished without trace like a child¡¯s balloon

and my contribution to the events

was the racket of a host of rooks squawking

flocking around a fresh corpse.


Strangled by one¡¯s own descent into despair

falling into a faint like that of funeral mourners

I forced my eyes open to the obvious fact

that ideals and reality are bound to run parallel.


I shook the dust and spiders-webs from my mind,

sat down at my desk and seized my pen

then like a frog just emerging from hibernation

expanded my breast, not knowing where to turn.




Fleeing the proximity of reality as it viewed my metamorphosis with a perplexed gaze, I set out for Cheju Island with the monk Ilch¡¯o.


What I chose as my daily task was the pursuit of Jesus of Nazareth in Israel two thousand years previously, for in him – who had served God from the moment he was conceived – I had discovered someone who had lived a human lived within the limitations of time and space.


Occasionally I gazed up at Mount Halla, that was yawning the yawns of a saint who has peacefully extinguished all inner fire, while the jade-hued sea viewed from the quayside displayed a beautiful woman¡¯s charm.


At nightfall Ilch¡¯o, who had the sensitivity of water boiling, and I frequented the Fisher Girl Bar, snickering together and also experiencing some of the sorrows of the exiles banished here in times gone by



* Ilch¡¯o was the name adopted by the poet Ko Un during his years as a monk in the 1950s. At the time I was editing a translation of François-Michel William¡¯s book La vie de Jésus, dans le pays et le peuple d'Israël for the Benedictine Press. In previous centuries, Cheju Island was one of the places to which important figures were sent in political exile.






On the way back home, I met General Park Chung-Hee in Taegu; he already had bloodshot eyes.


Under the influence of the retreat, I kept trying to steer the conversation toward peaceful feelings but he kept repeating between drinks, ¡°There has to be end to it,¡± while at the same time repeatedly singing a Japanese ballad: ¡°With the sounds of horsewhips hushed cross the river in the evening and at dawn behold the ranks of soldiers gathered around their general¡¯s flag.¡±


 Returning to Seoul after forty days, we found it in uproar. The youths of the April Revolution, armed with clubs, when asked if they were occupying the hustings, shouted that they were going to cross the DMZ empty-handed in their bare feet to liberate the North.



* On the way back from Cheju Island, I visited General Park Chung-Hee in Taegu. He had been demoted from being deputy chief-of-staff for operations at the military headquarters to being deputy commander of the Second Army. We drank a lot and emptied our hearts to one another.




I spent that winter and spring as a truly dreadful organizer of funerals.




  I¡¯ve forgotten who went first or followed after, but the one who first comes to mind is the sculptor Ch¡¯a Kŭn-Ho. Hearing that he had taken poison, I went quickly and found the wooden floor of his atelier strewn with the wrappings of about forty packets of medicine and, lying on the table, together with an empty soju bottle, a scrap of paper with the message:

  ¡°Even considering the rightness of the April Revolution, it is still better for a hapless fellow like me to give up living in this world.¡±


  He was to that degree hammer, chisel, and knife as far as his own life and existence were concerned.




  Next comes artillery colonel Lee Ki-ryŏn. He disappeared after parting from me one day at dusk, only to be discovered a week later as a corpse wrapped in a mat at the wayfarers¡¯ cemetery in Susaek.


  In his record it said how, at the Uijŏngbu front during the January 4 1951 Retreat, when disguised enemy soldiers got in among the crowds of refugees and began to infiltrate our lines, an American military advisor ordered an indiscriminate bombardment; unable to agree with that, he first wrangled with him then instead of bombarding the refugees he was being ordered to shoot, he pulled out his revolver and shot the advisor, for which he was discharged from the military.


 Shall we say that he was exceptional even in death? Or that it was a fitting end?




 Another was the anarchist Wu Han-Ryŏng. He and I were in prison together under the Syngman Rhee dictatorship. He fainted and died just after participating in the Socialist Party¡¯s unification meeting


 and he cherished dreams more variegated than any poet¡¯s, knew more bitter vicissitudes than any hero


 yet how lightly he managed to escape the bitter drudgery of the liberation of the proletariat and of humanity he had let himself in for!





It was not uneasiness.

It was not weariness.

It was not revulsion.

It was not alienation.


It was an itch

as if my whole body were full of scabies.

An itch

capable of driving one mad.


In order to forget this itching

if only briefly

I hurled myself into debauchery.


That feeling of falsehood

after intimacy

was the only medicine.



I saw the dawn of May 16, 1961, in the house of a dancer.

She was listening to the announcements broadcast on the radio as she applied her morning make-up, and kept asking:

¡°Well, what is the world coming to? Will this affect you in any way, I wonder?¡±

I let her words flow past without paying attention, as I imitated that friend¡¯s way of reciting a Japanese poem and recalled the Han River at dawn:

¡°With the sounds of horsewhips hushed cross the river in the evening and at dawn behold the ranks of soldiers gathered around their general¡¯s flag.¡±



* The military coup d¡¯état led by General Park Chung-hee began on May 16. ¡°That friend¡± refers to General Park (see poem 56).




  On the evening of May 19th we sat down together, in a room in an empty hotel with an armored vehicle topped by a machine gun outside in the yard.

He and I both emptied our glasses in total silence.

Finally he made a preposterous-seeming remark:

¡°Why shouldn¡¯t you go to America for a while?¡±

¡°I¡¯d need to know English, surely?¡±

¡°English? You¡¯d just need to have someone interpret.¡±

¡°I don¡¯t so much as know proper western table manners.¡±

¡°Still, you must do your share in some section or other.¡±

¡°Just let me stay a poor scholar living on the slopes of Nam-san!¡±

Exchanging what might seem like mere jokes

we kept emptying our glasses.



* ¡°He¡± is General Park Chung-Hee, attempting unsuccessfully to persuade me to accept an official position in his regime. Traditionally, members of the ruling yangban class who were poor lived in seclusion in a valley of Nan-san hill in Seoul.




Belatedly I have come to see that poetry

is my only function in life.


I realize that the hero must advance by poetry

through life and that in total dedication

it is the most hope-giving task there is.


I see that my ardent life

will find harmony in no other way.

I have likewise come to know that my heart¡¯s

highest sincerity lies in poetry.


--When someone falls into the water, it¡¯s not a question of whether he can swim well or not. It does not matter how he swims, so long as he survives.


With that perception, that determination,

I vowed what remained of my life to poetry

and began to compose the hundred poems of Diary of the Fields.




After due consideration, I shouldered the sign of a newspaper¡¯s branch office

and set off for Tokyo as though I was going to study abroad.


--I¡¯d already prepared you an office right next to mine, and now you¡¯re off. Are you planning to enjoy yourself with Japanese girls when things are in this state?

--Seen realistically, a poet is always a villain, you know. Didn¡¯t Plato banish poets from his ideal Republic?


As I gazed through the plane window at the layer of clouds,

sensing how isolated I was from that reality,

our last conversation before I left

kept delving deep into my mind.



* In 1961 I went to take charge of the Tokyo bureau of a newspaper, the Kyŏnghyang Shinmun, that was in those days run by the Catholic Church. General Park Chung-Hee tried to discourage me from this, directly and indirectly, since he wanted me to accept an official position.




The country¡¯s material wealth was astounding

but what I envied most were its spiritual resources.


Like someone famished, I roamed the streets of Kanda,

that had once been my spiritual cradle.


I had not the least idea what I should read

among all the serried ranks of books.


The first thing I bought, attracted by its title,

was Today¡¯s Leading Philosopher, Gabriel Marcel,

and I stayed up all that night reading that ¡°grace-giving book.¡±




Dear Gabriel Marcel!


You opened for me the gateway to new affirmations of life

at a time when I was sunk deep in the sloughs of nihility

by repeated experiences of despair about history.


You enabled my soul, which had become detached from my body,

to live in union with it again.


You taught me that each person stands alone but

also stands in company with others.


You made me realize that a consciousness of being limited

is bound to bring humility.


You enabled me to see that mystery

is not emptiness but fullness.


You showed me that living shortened by one inch

means living that one inch higher.


You taught me that the life of the world to come

needs to be lived from now on.


Oh, mystery of meeting!



* This Japanese book was published in 1957, when Gabriel Marcel visited Japan, as a simple introduction to his thought. It provided my first contact with Marcel¡¯s philosophy, that has meant so much to me.



My return from Japan seemed timed

to coincide with Master Kongch¡¯o¡¯s death in June 1963.


A giant who, alone, when everyone else in our country

was inclining toward this present world of reality,

defended the other world of the spirit,


a man of religion without dogmas

for whom a café served as a temple, church, practice hall,


a philosopher of transcendental ethics

for whom a café served as a pulpit, a classroom,


a poet who embodied poetry,

for whom heaven, earth, and streets all served as a home,


and as he was leaving this life

he bequeathed to me a breathtaking last word:

¡°Freedom has constrained me.¡±




Bathed in the bright gentle light of a late spring midday

the funeral procession advanced down the center of the road

like a huge, silent wave.


In the portrait, where he recalled a mountain deity,

smoke was seen rising from the cigarette

he had always so much enjoyed in his lifetime.


A whole class of girl students, not the usual male funeral attendants

led the way, carrying brightly colored mourning banners,


There was no chief mourner and the ropes

attached to the hearse were held by several poets,


some fifty or sixty Buddhist monks in ceremonial robes

followed behind chanting sutras


while artists and folk active in cultural circles

as well as ordinary citizens formed an unending cortege.


After Liberation, his was

the one and only citizen¡¯s funeral

devoid of the slightest tragic note.




Being made to experience the Church¡¯s dark side

after getting caught up in a conflict of interests

was a deadly wound to my soul.


Buddhists say: ¡°See the moon, forget the finger pointing at it,¡±

but no matter how many times and how many ways I repeated it

I could not tolerate seeing the eucharistic mystery

in the hands of those foul priests

and the church buildings rising on all sides

seemed like whitewashed sepulchers of God.


If my hand refrained from fixing a ¡°Scarlet Letter¡±

on their breasts and backs, it was because

the kind, sorrowful face of my elder brother, a priest

kidnapped and killed by the Communists in the North

came to my mind and prevented it.


But although I knew how that top apostle Peter,

the rock on whom the Church was founded,

had denied his Master, Jesus,

before a mere serving maid,

it was only then that I truly understood the fact

that if the Church, transmitted through such a line of sinners,

has not collapsed but preserved its holiness,

it is uniquely on account of it being the work of the Holy Spirit.



* I was indirectly blamed for the financial difficulties of the Church-run Kyŏnghyang Shinmun.



¡°What happened to your work with that newspaper?¡±

¡°It looks as if writing poetry is the only kind of work I can do.¡±

¡°I¡¯ve received reports, I know all about it. That so-called church, wearing a mask of holiness and acting in such a way – you should use the law to shake them up. Do you mean to stay silent and simply put up with it?¡±

¡°Why not? Didn¡¯t Jesus teach that if someone slapped you on one cheek, you should offer them the other cheek?¡±

¡°In that case, how can the world be set right?¡±

¡°That¡¯s precisely the difficulty with Catholic teaching!¡±

¡°Catholic teaching?¡±

Repeating those words, he offered no further criticism, while his expression showed that he felt very sorry for me. Maybe that was when he abandoned all thought of trying to draw me into reality.



* ¡°He¡± is Park Chung-Hee.



Dear Ja-Myŏng,


Finally the operation is for tomorrow, July 6. Today I have already been moved to the surgical ward, where I am writing. They¡¯ve prepared all sorts of things—pajamas, underwear, oiled paper, belt, feeding bottle . . . Jin-Suk¡¯s father has been to donate his blood for transfusions. My eyelids are still tingling. I firmly believe that Heaven will ensure that this operation will be successful, thanks to so much kindness and your prayers. I feel very calm. Reading the papers, I worry about the present drought over in my homeland. I shan¡¯t be able to write for some time, you know. Peace.



* Ja-Myŏng is my daughter. I wrote this letter home from a hospital on the outskirts of Tokyo on July 5, 1966.





After the springtime harvest was over,

while the second planting of sorghum plants

were still no higher than one of my socks

and the autumn vegetables were so young

they still looked naked,

I entered the operating theater.


My back was cut open with an electric scalpel,

a lung pulled out, a cavity incised,

flushed with antibiotics,

four ribs cut, then pushed back in,

my back sewn up;

they call all this ¡°cavity section

and restorative surgery.¡±


One week! After days of extreme pain

and anesthesia

the stitches were removed from my back,

and then, three weeks after,

I had a second ¡°restorative operation,¡±

cutting through two more ribs.


Relieved that with this it was all finished,

overcoming the pain,

after about a month

I was moved down onto the general ward.


So on the second day,

using a stick

to support my bone-aching back,

I went out to view the fields.

How surprised I was, how at a loss

on seeing those young sorghum plants,

now grown up like children

if you once come home after ten years away,

a head and shoulders taller than me!


The cabbages, each like a bride come back to visit home,

sitting there plumply pregnant and full;

and the beet field marvelously dark blue-green

like a parade ground.


After that day out in the field I got sick,

sprang a fever, took to my bed again,

and another month went by.


One day they took an X-ray

and found something called false bone,

9.7 cm on the first rib

15.5 cm on the second

16 cm on the third

19 cm on the fourth

19 cm on the fifth

14.5 cm on the sixth

between the bones

they had cut.


On the next day,

I went out to the field again,

nursing the joy of a return to life.


But the sorghum had grown no taller,

only stood bowed with heavy head,

and though cabbage and beet came running naked,

perhaps they had reached their limit, they had not grown.


As the warm sunshine of the high autumn sky

met the cool breeze

on my noticeably lighter back

I wondered if I could expect to see

any greater miracle than this.





There are mountains.


This mountain can be seen if you lift your eyes.

That mountain can be seen even with eyes closed.

This mountain appears by day.

That mountain comes calling by night.


One is the mountain seen through the window

of the hospital in Kiyosei outside Tokyo where I had my operation,

always smartly dressed

gently advancing its face.


One is the mountain rising above the red brick wall

of 101 Hyŏjŏ-dong, Sŏdaemun, Seoul,

clad in a dress that reveals its bare flesh

looking blankly down at me.


Mountains that flicker in and out of sight within me

as if in a looking-glass in a golden frame.



There are mountains.



* The Japanese mountain is Fujiyama. The Korean address is that of the notorious Sŏdaemun Prison.



In a pause between the chanting of Buddhist monks,

a group of Catholic sisters, looking like wild chrysanthemums

blooming in a mountainside radish field,

kneeling before the departed soul of the Venerable Hyobong

are reciting together the prayers for the dead.


--Lord, grant this departed soul repose.

--And may light eternal shine upon him.


What blessed spectacle is this?

What dazzling marvel?


Two faiths that reject each other as wrong teaching, false way,

stand in opposition, calling each other superstition, evil,

each seeing the other as a brood of snakes or scorpions


and here the gates of mutual succor stand open!


Humans, do not divide

the truth that is only one.


Humans, do not divide God,

who is only one.


Hearing this report on the radio

I was overjoyed, so overjoyed I sobbed.



* The Venerable Hyobong was one of the most famed monks of his generation. He died in 1965. This poem reflects my joy at the openness toward other religions contained in the documents that emerged from the Second Vatican Council (1962-5).





After vain efforts to decipher

this message, a single page

that fluttered down from somewhere, I have returned.


In the shade of palm trees at Kumong Pass,

beside the sea at Vongtau,

even sitting with aodai-clad bargirls

in Saigon,

I strove to decipher it, in vain;

I have returned.


It might be a propaganda leaflet

dropped by the Vietcong. I am not sure.


Or a trick by a Vietnamese boy

I met at Natrang orphanage. I am not sure.


Maybe it is a ploy of some secret service,

to test my way of thinking. I am not sure.


It might be a poster

of the Pope's appeal for peace. I am not sure.


Or perhaps, rather, it may be a last will and testament

left by one of our Korean heroes. I am not sure.


You see, it was

in the form of a falling tear.


You see, it was

in the form of prison fetters.


You see, it was

in the form of a hole

pierced by a falling shell.


You see, it was

in the form of a limbless skeleton.


Or rather, it was

in the shape of a bitter spirit unable to find rest.


Yet it seemed

to be something to do with Vietnam.


Yet it also seemed

to be something concerning me in particular.


Yet it also seemed

to concern my fellow-countrymen.


But it seemed mainly

to be a strong suggestion

aimed at all the peoples of the world.


And the only thing that I have felt

thanks to it

is that I as an individual,

that indeed the whole of humanity,

we are all still utterly ignorant. Only that.


So now, still unable

to really decipher the message,

since I have managed to return,

I publish it like this.


On a sheet of white paper

traced in red blood

a question-mark:


What can it mean?




Seeds from a flowering balsam

enclosed in a letter written by a girl attending

a makeshift school in a Seoul squatter area

were sown in front of the entry to a dugout

on a high peak looking across into North Korea

and inspired the soldiers to sing every evening

that summer and fall ¡°Balsam flowers at the foot of the wall¡±

to the accompaniment of the harmonica


and in late fall that year one soldier gathered the seeds

and stowed them in a corner of his rucksack

then went across the Yellow Sea, the Indo-China sea,

landed in Vietnam, boarded a raft,

arrived at a base in Danang


some seeds he sowed in a flowerbed in front of the barracks

but the shoots dried up and died in the hot sand

while the rest he shared with a nursing officer who

planted them inside the hospital in an empty medicine bottle

where they grew and budded


but I have not heard whether

they blossomed without withering

and whether they served to dye pink

the tiny finger nails of a little local girl, or not.




An old woman with a filthy towel round her neck,

the cotton stuffing sticking out from her jacket,

wearing rough slacks dyed in lye,

is carrying a worn-out wicker basket;


a woman wearing the ragged jacket from a suit

over military fatigue pants

is carrying a battered pot;


a little girl, her hair disheveled,

a charity-handout sweater over her tight thin skirt

and with striped underwear beneath,

is carrying a chipped gourd dipper,


all are roaming in quest of early spring plants

out in the plains where flocks of jackdaws fly.


The rice fields are burnt white, as if by ringworm,

the fields yield only scurf-like dust,

on the hills behind the rotting thatch roofs

stand pine trees, each with the bark peeled off.


Over the tomb-like hilltop,

a lad who had swallowed down a broth of weeds that morning

then gone without lunch at school

is tottering homewards,

his plastic book-bag rattling.




Towards the rice fields with their milky stagnant water,

fields sprouting bright with flames of green,

the hill with fruit trees standing in rows


a cultivator bearing a young couple

is speeding merrily

along a country lane smooth as a roll of linen

away from the village with its row of blue and orange roofs.


On the hill ablaze with flowers that shout victory

and the plains where skylarks shoot aloft

newly-weds and unmarried girls form an embroidered scene

as they gather fresh spring greens.

Now shortfalls of barley are a tale of the past,

man and nature have recovered their original accord.



In your honor

there is fresh clear blue.

On that day of decision that dispersed the night fog.

There is the fresh blue

that brought a new day dawning in our land,

the fresh blue sky of May.


In your honor

sweat is flowing.

As on the brows of miners piercing through rock,

as on the backs of farmers threshing barley,

more, like workmen grasping the poles of a cart,

the whole body flows with sweat.


In your honor

lies our future.

That dazzling future when

all fifty million Koreans will rejoice to meet in tears,

casting off the grim penury and the yoke of history,

as I hasten to return to the rivers and hills of my home in the North.


In your honor

is our solemn pledge.

There is the firm pledge made by us and by you

to bring about a honey-sweet order and harmony,

cutting away all that¡¯s rotten and festering, even in our very flesh,

preventing those gang-fights and factions full of fury.


In your honor

is our honor.

The honor of those who work and sweat,

the honor of those who seek youth and dreams,

the honor of those who truly love this land—

indeed, there lies your honor and ours.




Hawaii – drawn from life.

Today again my sea

is threshing hard.


Sea at Waikiki!

How can you be so beautifully

breathing at this moment?


The breeze wafting over your breast

and the typhoon overturning me root and branch

do so unaware of their true character.




Like an urchin¡¯s crayon drawing--

a red hedgehog sun

a moon smiling like a wooden bowl

a floating rocky cloud

a multicolored rainbow

and a dragonfly plane

are all together up there in the sky.


Below them all

I in turn

become an animal dreaming by day.




Brightly colored flowers, and people too,

are all blossoming.


In the sand I write

like that western friend:

¡°People must love . . .¡±

then erase it.


Then having erased it

write it again.




As I yawned

in my study I used to look out at



My companion

at home

was Diamond Head


and with Koko Crater

I¡¯ve sometimes enjoyed

a secret rendez-vous.


Even if now

we thus casually part,


within me you

are linked to my tomb.




Amidst abundant nature

and regular social life

how is it I feel so sorry for

our own ringworm-gnawed hills

thin streams

twisted pine trees

pigsty-like homes

somber faces?


In that case, unless I die

and enter Paradise, I can¡¯t forget, can¡¯t live!



* Tantalus, Diamond Head, Koko Crater are all volcanic mountains in Hawaii.




A torso like a ripe peach.


A butterfly

fallen in ecstasy on a flowery tomb.


A tongue with the perfume of melons.


A seagull plunging

into blue waves that flash white teeth.


In a gaze fixed on the distant horizon.


A roe deer

drinking at a secret spring in a virgin forest.


Abyss of Eros,

beauty of original sin




The purring cat's deceitful, mysterious



Venus' neck

spun about with hempen locks.


On velvet breasts the imprint of a hawk's claws.


An hour-glass navel.


Buttocks smooth wooden bowls,

secret flesh of tree-trunk thighs.


The narrowing rapids of a rendezvous,

a grassy bank aflame on a spring day.


In primitive darkness,


beneath an azalea-cliff blanket

a naked woman

on a foaming, lapping wave-white sheet

joins her arms

like the cords

that criminals are bound with




The cooing of doves.


Breath-taking moment, oh, mystery!




I draw in empty space.


That face,

that voice,

that smile,

those thighs,


but that love

cannot be drawn.


Things drawn in the heart

may not be given form.





With that hand

that caressed her naked body

I stroke my gray beard.


Passion faded into pale silver...


That loving, riding the bucket,

has been drawn up to the heavens.


Henceforth, all those times and places

are one with Eternity.




He had become a Shaman.


His admirable chivalric heroism

had turned into Don Quixote¡¯s delusions.


His simple nature

had been transformed into self-indulgence.


Having taken refuge in an old inn,

I gazed at that friend

who had become hardened by a misuse of power


Amidst the newspapers where every word chattered

like flocks of rooks in a cemetery


and the crowds

gone out to the Tomb of God

croaking like crows


having no Song of Protest

my heart ached more.



* This and the next poem were written on my return to Korea in August 1973 after three and a half years abroad. President Park Chung-Hee had by that time abolished all democratic institutions and made himself president for life. ¡°Song of Protest¡± indicates the title of one of Korea¡¯s earliest surviving poems, a protest at a king¡¯s having broken a promise.




You know, in those days too they made

a golden calf and worshipped it.


Trust, sincerity or love,

such basic necessities of existence,

thrown aside like old sticks or worn-out boots,

they became beasts,

fighting one another, simply wearing human masks.


The world, with Aaron's hordes in charge,

became a place of servile submissiveness.


There too the people

trusting, waiting for Moses to come down from Sinai,

felt very lonely.



Flowing with freedom¡¯s milk and honey—

Ah, far off and perilous.




Now, sitting here on Dreyfus¡¯



I ponder the world

with the heart of the convict Jean

leaning on a palm tree

gazing into the distance after Papillon


as he sailed away

across the night sea.


I have come to realize that

keeping company with intensely dangerous

gangs of thugs in a single cell,

under the fierce stares

of the guards of ¡°The Island of Death¡±

and fulfilling my duty of raising

a herd of two hundred pigs


is neither better nor worse

than any other kind of life in this world!


I have learned that

there is no country in this world

without iron bars and chains

either visible or invisible,

and that there is only a degree of freedom that can be changed

taking our inner heart as territory

and using our various kinds of bonds as instruments!


Therefore standing here,

with no freedom or paradise

that can be attained anew,

is such a lonely thing.



* In Henri Charrière¡¯s Papillon, the main character, known as Papillon, escapes from the French penal colony on Cayenne in French Guinea, known as ¡°Devil¡¯s Island¡± or ¡°the Isle of Death,¡± on his ninth attempt after thirteen years. He is helped by the ethnic Chinese convict Jean, who refuses to go with him. In the 19th century, the French officer Alfred Dreyfus spent many years in the same prison colony after being wrongly convicted of espionage, in a case that deeply divided French society.

   This poem was written in 1977, when I finally turned down a position I had been offered at Seton Hall University near New York.



I have taken the river as a place for conversions of heart.


Just as Christopher, a ruffian in origin, a saint,

carried people on his back across a river

while he waited for the eternal strong man Jesus,

I hoped for immortal poems from the river.


In truth, I haven¡¯t the strength to carry my only daughter over a little brook,

let alone carry people on my back across a river

and far from renouncing the world entirely like that saint

I am tightly bound with ropes of worldly affairs and earthly opinion


but still I had the idea that, if only I imitated his simple devotions

my poems too might one day

see the light of salvation.



* Saint Christopher is said to have been a man of violence who, after being converted by a hermit living beside a river, accepted the task of carrying people across as his penance. At last Christ himself came asking him to carry him (his name means ¡°Christ bearer¡±).




Like a two-week-old puppy

my eyes are open to God¡¯s spirit.


All things in the universe, hitherto so faded,

now emit beams of grace

while their transience, as they pass from birth to death,

that before was a source of regret and sorrow

proves now to be simply one image of eternity.


Now Heaven is not something feeding and clothing

only birds and flowers

and I give thanks with tears

that it sustains and quickens me with its efforts.


The way the sun rises in the east when morning comes

and sets in the west when evening comes,

and when the proper time is past I feel hungry

may always be the same,


within my consciousness, previously devoid of any entrance,

limitless time and space have opened

and everything is new

everything is precious

everything is beautiful.




Henceforth I will no longer make the hours of life turgid and foul

by vain desires,

turning the source of mystery

into a stream of coal-black sewage.


Now I have opened my eyes to the divine grace

encompassing my life,

so from henceforth as I practice Eternity

I will show forth, bear witness in myself to

the reality of the Good, the Beautiful, the True.


In days gone by I clearly saw as I went my way

the transience and failure of all possession

as I turned away from ways unseen by the eyes

esteeming and serving only visible affairs.


Again, I clearly saw as I went my way

the immortality of those who are poor in heart

who respond to the deep call of Eternity,

firmly embracing faith, hope and love.


Now I give thanks for my inabilities

and my weaknesses

and all I need for my future life

is purity of heart. Nothing else.




I must walk alone.

As he walked alone

two thousand years ago under Roman rule,

to the insults of Sadducees and Pharisees,

so I too must walk alone.


Among luxuriant gardens of evil,

although the truth is troublesome and sad,

although I often taste the bitter cup of failure,

exhausted in lonely helplessness,

just as he walked alone along the Way of the Cross,

betrayed, abandoned by the disciples,

with people mocking and throwing stones,

so I too must walk alone.


Trusting that justice will triumph, eternal,

trusting that suffering accepted has value,

trusting that our love and hope are not vain,

not putting on heroic airs,

but rather disfigured and marred beyond human likeness,

just as he walked alone on the way of Resurrection,

so I too must simply walk alone.



* Disfigured and marred: Isaiah 52:14.



I turned into a crow,

squat down in the middle of a busy road

and squawked:


Caw  caw   caw   caw


The pigeons have been caught by the hawks from the hills

the magpies are confined in iron cages on high roofs,

and in this capital city

the flocks of sparrows alone chatter as they wander pursued.


Caw  caw   caw   caw


Every household has set up and worships a golden calf,

while they rear parrots or macaws in bird cages

so that people

enjoy as best they can their songs or antics.


Caw  caw   caw   caw


If they happen to hear my voice

they fail completely to examine the present and repent

instead, since those useless feathered creatures still remain

they look askance, as if I¡¯m just spoiling the mood.


Caw  caw   caw   caw


Since the daily life they are living

looks most wicked and vicious to my eyes,

and the disaster bound to result from their injustice

is so obvious and lamentable


Caw  caw   caw   caw


I squat there, prepared to be run over and killed

by the cars racing hither and thither,

and squawk.




Caw  caw   caw   caw


Do not think this black clothing of mine

is something unsightly.

It is the monastic habit corresponding to the ascetic discipline

I have sworn to observe.


Caw  caw   caw   caw


Don¡¯t go blaming and mocking

this unclear voice of mine.

My throat had become permanently hoarse

with the soul¡¯s thirsts and sorrows.


Caw  caw   caw   caw


Don¡¯t misunderstand and say

that I bring bad luck.

It¡¯s only that I, the only bird to possess inner vision,

inform you in advance of your own misfortune.


Caw  caw   caw   caw


Your ancestors only had to hear my voice

to examine their present lives and remember their mortality,

sometimes even to think of what they called Eternity.


Caw  caw   caw   caw


So you too should not start to spit;

turn your eyes to the lives you lead.



* At the end of the 1970s, the country¡¯s growing materialism drove me to compose a cycle of satiric poems.




Lying under a white sheet,

I am carried off in an ambulance.


The evening sky hangs upside-down beneath my feet,

forming a terrible quagmire of death.


I picture my corpse like this, rigid, stretched out,

a skeleton, decomposed, reduced to dust.


Behind me, a lifetime lies smothered in error,

I have not even managed to bear buds of sweat and tears,

let alone the love that can blossom in Eternity.


No point in getting flustered now...


¡°Father, into your hands

I commend my spirit.¡±


Instinctively repeating the last words of Him

whom I have only aped, not truly served,

I sever the link with all concepts.


And my breath becomes rasping.



* In early 1979, an attack of asthma nearly killed me.




As a citizen, he was the leader I revered for eighteen years

and as an individual, he was my old friend, for twenty years,

so Lord God, unworthy though I am, I pray

in the name of Jesus, mankind¡¯s redeeming Lamb:

grant his soul eternal rest in you.


Consider the vigor, the active energy, the simple humanity

that he displayed while alive in this world

and the signs of that great charity

he bequeathed to this nation and people


and Lord God, infinitely merciful Lord God,


even supposing that he offended against your will

or that he had failings he himself could not perceive,

look down on the sweat he shed in his efforts to lead,

the blood so wretchedly shed at his end,

and grant that his soul may find rest in you.



* This poem was written to mark the assassination of President Park Chung-Hee on October 26, 1979.




It¡¯s not just one person¡¯s fault.

It¡¯s not just one person¡¯s mistake.


All thirty-eight million are accomplices.


Within the assertions of mutual opposition

and the actions of mutual hatred


is lodged the absolutely essential need

for each of us to sustain and fulfill one another¡¯s life.


We must not bring about each other¡¯s downfall

by rejecting one another.


Just as bees and flowers live in mutual reciprocity,

we must advance in life¡¯s peaceful motion

filling one another¡¯s lacks with love.




Yes indeed! At any time, the world

is determined by

the people living at that time.


The age lying ahead of you as tomorrow

is being prepared by the wisdom and skills

you are learning and preparing today.


Every aspect of life, great and small,

stretching before you at this present moment

results from the previous ages¡¯ trials and errors

and is nothing more than a total failure.


All of you, for the sake of your tomorrow,

with the enthusiasm of pioneers in a wasteland

with minds as pure and bright as snow on mountain peaks,

with a love that weeps even to trample on a weed


for the sake of the Utopia you must create

with abounding confidence and exploding energy

today you must silently develop wisdom

today you must silently hone your skills.




I am experiencing my seventies

like a shell on the seashore

that has parted from its fishy-smelling flesh

and is tossed by the world¡¯s waves.


What has enabled me to survive this far

is not the strength or the merits of my nature and destiny

but the weaknesses.


Just as the quince tree ignores the reason

why it became a quince tree

I have no idea why

I became a poet.

In a word, my life thus far

borne on angel¡¯s wings

churning the pond of the seven sins

has been a succession of adventures and errors,

the traces left by body and soul

are a mass of tales like the knots of a quince tree.


The road ahead cannot be seen

and the road I have come by is always the same,

but I believe

an unseen hand is leading me on.




This is by no means barren ground.

It is rather a new seedbed for raising fresh spiritual buds

that will blossom in the garden of Eternity.


In youth the body was made to work more

but now the mind is obliged to work harder

since the sleeping soul must be awakened

and its eyes must open onto metaphysical things.


Above all, we must not be ensnared by the ghost of solitude

or experience trouble and cares by being too busy.

Solitude and anxiety are gifts of grace

demanding the birth of a new dimension,

so we should accept the body¡¯s aging and our lack of vigor

as triggers designed to detonate the mind

and advance toward life¡¯s true renewal.


As sexual pleasures diminish

the forms of others and ourselves grow more distinct

so burning more with faith, hope and love,

let us heed more closely Eternity¡¯s voice.


Now, awakening from the impermanent dream

that blossomed and withered with every season,

like the leaves of plants and trees


let us embrace the resplendent, undying dream

that will blossom beyond death on that other shore

and live out our old age, bright as pure gold.



Today is Father¡¯s Day

and a letter arrived from my honorary son

in prison.


¡°Father, this year again

I can¡¯t pin a flower on your breast

so I just want to offer you my heart,¡±

he lamented.


He¡¯s in the fifteenth year of a life term; indeed,

he was condemned to death for a charge of larceny with murder

fabricated by the cruel torture of the police but then,

when his only worry was the execution day,

an appeal launched by a Buddhist monk

succeeded in saving his life and now he¡¯s forty


Thanks to the link established by my participation in his rescue

we reached a stage where we became like father and son

though I¡¯m an incompetent, useless dad.


Still, once every month he writes

greeting me, telling me about his thoughts

and every three months or so I write back,

it¡¯s all I can do . . .


In one letter he wrote:

¡°In the limited life available here

if there are times of loneliness and anguish

I only have to think of you, father, and my other benefactors,

and courage, hope come surging back.

I¡¯ll try to live an increasingly sincere life here too,

without complaining or resentment.¡±


Again, elsewhere, he wrote:

¡°Today is the fourth anniversary

of the day life was restored to me.

Now my desire is to live a clear, bright life

without desires or attachment

but for some reason I am somehow all the time discovering

and being amazed at myself, how soiled and hard I am.

Yet I keep vowing to become a son

who will not disappoint you, my father.¡±


In yet another letter, he wrote:

¡°I blame no one

for this situation of mine.

I know everything is the result of previous karma

and I pray to Buddha for its abolition.¡±


In this way, it is not so much that I comfort

and encourage this prisoner but

on the contrary I learn, discover more, come to realize

what it is to have a human heart

and how to control it.


And so today, as I read

and reread his letter,

I can only pray, weeping,

that before the dust of the grave covers my eyes

the day will come when, not he, but I

will be able to pin a flower on his breast.





After my wife¡¯s body had been brought to the funeral parlor

I was sitting idly

in a corner of the rush mat in the reception room.


After some time an employee came in;

my daughter-in-law consulted in whispers with my daughter, aunt,

then approached me.


Shrouds came priced between five hundred thousand Won

and, the most expensive, a million two hundred thousand;

they¡¯d chosen one at six fifty thousand, but

¡°Father, what do you think?¡±


In normal times I would have replied in a flash:

¡°Do what you think is best,¡± but

catching a glimpse of my wife¡¯s portrait on the altar

I saw she was wearing, not Korean or western dress but her doctor¡¯s white coat.


I suddenly thought to myself:

I never once in her life bought her a dress.


¡°That one, a million two hundred thousand Won,

use one of those.¡±


I spat out the words like someone angry

then turned aside.


Then on further reflection I reckon

it¡¯s just as well my wife¡¯s gone to her rest because

I reckon she¡¯d be none too pleased with such ridiculous extravagance

and after all, if she were to come alive again

I don¡¯t suppose I would pay even two hundred thousand Won

so my heart was feeling very far from well.



One day I went to give a lecture at a university in Ansŏng only to find that morning classes had been cancelled for some kind of student activity. So I said to the student who was there to help me: ¡°I¡¯ll be back soon; I¡¯m going out on a date for a while.¡± I went into town to buy a few flowers, then set off to visit my wife¡¯s grave in a church cemetery that lies in a hillside valley not far from there.


About a month previously, the whole family had come for the autumn harvest festival, so the grave together with the grass around it was neat and tidy; in the stone vase set before the slab for offerings there was still a bunch of flowers left from then. Behind it:


Here lie

Husband Ku Johan Sang  

Wife Sŏ Teresa Yŏng-Ok

Born September 16, 1919  Died _______

Born February 4, 1919  Died November 5, 1993


I had the impression that the carved gravestone was only waiting for the date of my death to be inscribed.


Crossing myself, I prayed simply for my wife¡¯s soul¡¯s eternal repose, then asking forgiveness for all the wrongs I had done her in her lifetime, I pledged to live as her faithful husband for the rest of my life, as the inscription on the stone said, and spend eternity with her after we are united in the near future. Then I came away.


As I was coming down the hill, the thought struck me that now I¡¯ve reached an age when just coping with myself is hard enough, and luckily that¡¯s a fact for if I were ten years younger, I wonder if I would be able to make so freely a pledge ¡°to be a faithful husband¡± to a wife I could not deceive, just as when she was alive, and I could not help feeling scornful of myself.


Once back at the university, when the student asked: ¡°So how was your date?¡± I replied ¡°Rather bitter¡± and left it at that.



1. Above the Pacific


Here I am above the Pacific

late at night.


I¡¯m on my way to visit my daughter¡¯s family

in San Francisco.


There I¡¯ll find my grand-daughter

that I miss and cherish like Don Quixote¡¯s

princess Dulcinea del Toboso.


This old fellow, in his mid seventies

smiles happily to himself

then recalls her grandmother who for that child

opened her eyes even just before she passed away.


Why, longing flies through space and time!


Tears roll down.



2.  San Francisco


The airport has not changed a bit

since twenty years ago.


The cars in the streets make no uproar

and the roadside trees look easygoing.


They¡¯re both big cities but it feels

like the countryside after Seoul.


As I enter my daughter¡¯s apartment, her neighbors

greet this utterly unfamiliar old man.

with a ¡°Hi!¡±


Perhaps because I¡¯ve been living with uncourteous neighbors,

my response is a shudder.



3. One False Step


We visited Seattle.


After checking in at a motel, we went out

for supper, then on the way back

I tripped on the curb at a crossing

went sprawling, was grazed by a passing car,

and was taken to hospital in an ambulance.


The place I was taken and given a bed, the day

after my fracture was operated on, was a geriatric home;

in about two hundred beds partitioned off by curtains were

elderly men and women in their 80s and 90s, half or fully paralyzed.

They were of every color and race while the nurses and orderlies

caring for them were from thirty-six different countries!

It made me realize what a mixture the United States is.


As a result, at night you could hear mingling from all sides

each one¡¯s different cries:

¡°Help me¡± ¡°Taskedei¡± ¡°Zhuming¡± and such

with among them ¡°Saram salliojuoyo,¡± in Korean,

the constant appeal of one old Korean woman

that tore my nerves, on edge with pain,

my eardrums and my heart to shreds.



4. Back in the sky over the Pacific


I board the plane in a wheelchair.


Not having been able to visit that famous Golden Gate Bridge

with my princess Dulcinea del Toboso

we part with expressions of dismay.


This time it is midday

above the Pacific.


What fills my mind

is not regrets or longings

but the scene at the site of that accident

twenty days before, with me lying unconscious;

luckily that car only brushed against my leg,

otherwise I¡¯d be being transported on this plane

as a bundle of bones or a corpse . . .


But instead of joy at being alive,

everyday life, with everything cast away in a flash

comes to mind, biting its tail

and making my mind and heart spin.


My leg aches in its plaster

and my whole body fills with fever.





In the light of the setting sun breaking through rain clouds

after a typhoon has brushed past

I sit as usual on a bench

beneath a twining wisteria in the apartment gardens.


On the leaves of trees, flowers and grass lawn

raindrops are still glittering,

occasionally rolling off and falling.


An unseasonably gentle breeze blows past.

My body and heart feel deeply refreshed,

seeming to have entered a joyful dream

thanks to that brilliant greenness.


Is life¡¯s typhoon over?

These past times, life¡¯s crises and all kinds of matters—

wearisome, painful, bitter,

lamentable, shameful, and humbling,

all clear away like a storm abating

enveloped in an unthinkable peace and rest.


Now even the shadow of death,

approaching through the dusk of my life in this world

like that rosy twilight, this evening seems

not frightening, but rather, on the contrary, something awaited

like the calling voice, the form of my mother

who when I was a child used to come looking for me at sunset.




The ashen sky visible from my sickbed

is both far off and near at hand,

like the world beyond.


It only needs a moment¡¯s reflection:

in all my life, with eighty just ahead,

I have become neither unworldly nor secular

but have lived in a semi-crouching posture

like when you squat over an old-style toilet.


Nowadays I no sooner get flustered

than it¡¯s obviously pointless . . .


A lady doctor from a hospice told me:

¡°There¡¯s nothing to worry about. When a person dies,

it¡¯s like a hairy caterpillar turning into a butterfly;

you¡¯ll be unfurling your soul¡¯s wings.¡±

Her words are somewhat comforting.




That sky, the only thing

I can see from my sickroom,


is infinitely high, broad, deep,

and if I am to enter the garden of Eternity that lies

somewhere either within or beyond it,


turning into the soul¡¯s butterfly once the defilements

of the flesh have been cast off like the caterpillar,

obviously I hope not only to be granted the vision

of Him whom I have so believed in, hoped in, praised


but also I imagine meeting the mother I so missed and longed to see,

my father, brother, the two sons and wife gone before me,

as well as all those kindhearted friends and neighbors,

with delight and shared joy.


Why, saying goodbye to life here

is not only a sad thing after all!




Today again news came of a friend's death.

Well, we all have to go,

some sooner some later.


I suppose my turn will come soon.


Is it fear of the pain before we die

that makes death so threatening?

Surely there is always euthanasia?


But the dread of something after death

makes that a problem too.

The lights and darks of that other world.


While I evoke in this way

the afterlife, my life today

is so much amiss.


Surely, if I am really concerned about the afterlife,

shouldn't I already begin to live that afterlife,

or rather, Eternity,




I have spent my whole life

deceiving myself.


This is because I have dreaded

confronting myself more than anything.


Within the heart of one part of myself

is a precipitous quicksand a thousand fathoms deep


and squirming at the bottom of it

like a villain, my heart toward which

I have lived with eyes shut or averted

like someone suffering from

acrophobia or claustrophobia.


In fact, merely in my own eyes

the conscience, humanity, morality, collaboration

I have practiced outwardly and even

the Christian life practiced as a kind of insurance


all of them, a kind of dressing up for the sake of convenience

in a life devoid of sincerity or authenticity,

drank themselves into a stupor

with that chameleon-like disguised liquor.


Besides, all my life I have claimed to be writing poetry

and absorbed myself in merely concocting sweet words

so I have lived devoted entirely to sin!


But now in a not too distant future

at the gates to the beyond, in the divine mirror

I shall have to confront the true image

of my vile, disgusting self; what shall I do!


God, let it not be so!




At the end of nine years

spent facing a wall, they say,

the great monk Dharma broke through the Way


while I¡¯ve been bound up with poetry for fifty years

yet when I¡¯m facing a sheet of paper

it merely stays a blank sheet of paper

and it¡¯s all so pointless—

as people put it,

I took the wrong road.


In the old days a singer

spent three years by a waterfall

straining his vocal chords

and so became a great vocalist


while in the midst of all this commotion and discord

I¡¯ve written almost a thousand poems

but there¡¯s not one poem that pleases me

to say nothing of anyone else

and it¡¯s all so pointless—

as people put it,

it¡¯s a real shame.


But what can I do about it now?

I can¡¯t turn back, I can¡¯t stop either,

and I¡¯m not in the least repentant.


Just as someone who falls into the water

whether a good swimmer or not

can¡¯t help floundering and swimming

until the moment life¡¯s over

so I cannot help writing poems like this.




Poetry! Now I beg you,

leave me.

I have been clinging to you

for much too long.


Because of you, I became impure,

because of you, I became absurd,

so leave me now,

for I have fallen prey to false passions and vanity,

and am trembling now with fear and guilt.


Let me return now to the innocence

I was in before ever meeting you,

to that state where I won¡¯t have to apply my mind,

where no thought or feeling or divinity

will deceive or pollute me or anyone.


Let the words on my lips

be no disguise or adornment;

may they arise from sincerity,

may I remove from my eyes and my heart

your tinted glasses

and so see the true form of all that is in the world.


Oh, poetry! Leave me now.

Because of you, I have time after time

committed the sin of embellished words

so I fear I may have to enter unending torment.




Today¡¯s world is veiled in thick darkness.

From here and there within that dark night

alarm signals can be heard, appealing for help.


The whole world is full of the benefits of civilization.

Drunk with freedom, systems of thought quarrel,

create an uproar like that of cicadas or frogs

but the world, like a boat with a broken compass,

is shaken, with neither center nor direction.


Meantime, shall we say that we still enjoy peace in all that?

The crowd that makes golden calves to serve,

drunk with fraud and gambling, competition and pleasure,

are spending all this dread night in debauchery.



can I do amidst all this?

What could a new Ten Commandments mean to such people?

No, there¡¯s no need for anything new.

But how could anyone be subject to

those ten commandments?


When things are like this, suspend all judgment!

All that remains is to entrust and pray

to the almighty, infinite Mercy.

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 we¡¯re 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.