Si-Young was born in Kurye, South Cholla Province, in 1949. He graduated
from Sorabul Art College and also studied Korean Literature in the Graduate
School of Korea University, Seoul. He was the award-winner in the Poetry
Division of the Spring Literary Awards of the Chungang Ilbo in 1969. He
has published eight volumes of poetry, including his first volume Manwol
(Full moon) in 1976, Kirun molda chinguyo (It's a long road, my
friend, 1988), Isul maech'in norae (Song moist with dew, 1991),
and Muni (Pattern) in 1994. He has been on the editing board of
Ch'angjak kwa pip'yongreview
since 1980. He teaches in Chungang University.
At first Lee wrote anecdotal, narratorial poems focussed on the pain of the poor and marginalized. Recently, his poems have moved towards a more suggestive, epigrammatic style.From the beginnning, his poems have combined a strong note of social concern with a refined verbal art that transforms the suffering experienced by so many in daily life into a poetic memorial transcending the limits of realism. Little-known, even in Korea, his work seems particularly attractive to a world readership in search of specifically Korean treatments of specifically Korean experience.
Tell me, wind, who is in your land?
Are there vast shadows
that come down at sunset and rattle the door latch?
Are there aged mothers who open the back door and cough?
Is there a glow of fireflies bobbing all night in bamboo groves
then fleeing away to the ends of the earth?
Are there fathers there?
Tell me, wind, are there no faces in your land?
Are there not even footprints poised motionless?
Are there no silent eyes piercing the undergrowth?
Is there no future land a trembling heart can reach?
Tell me, wind, is there no one, no one in your land?
Late evening, in front of Yongsan station.
I rather think that the girl who tugged at my arm just now,
then abruptly let go and vanished, was Chong-im,
who used to come first in the relay race and win a rice-pot
at every sports festival.
Long hair covering the scar on her brow, swift feet,
couldn't attend school but when sports-day came
she was excited, more excited than I was.
She used to take the lunch from Manduk the laborer's chige,
put it on her head, and come running to me with it.
As she weeded the sorghum field or chased away the birds,
if she caught sight of me
she would dash up with muddy hands and firmly tie
the blue cloth bundle holding my books.
Shelling peas, she would say: Aren't they good? Aren't they good?
Her throat shone white as she looked heavenward and laughed.
She had no father, no mother, but said she wasn't sad,
as she let the grasshoppers she had caught fly free.
One year in spring when she climbed high into the hills
to grub up fresh shoots,
she got bitten on the thigh by a snake. The neighborhood girls
brought her down on their backs,
but she wanted my hand about her pillow, gave me wild berries.
I wonder why she went away?
She'd pick cotton, spin it into thread on the wheel,
spin flax on summer nights to her heart's content,
then in the long winter evenings hunch over her loom
and weave fine cotton cloth with a crash and a thud.
I wonder why she vanished like the wind?
I used to feel that I had only to open the empty kitchen door
and she would come hurrying out with her kindly eyes;
I wonder why she left and never returned?
A rumor went round she was a housemaid somewhere,
report went about she had job in a textile factory,
someone said they'd seen her in a Yongdungpo whorehouse,
but mother never uttered a word in reply.
That girl who grabbed my arm in front of Yongsan station
at eleven thirty last night, as I hurried to avoid the curfew,
then vanished down a dark alley with rapid steps: that girl. . .
The eleven thirty night train, Pigeon class, from Yosu to Seoul.
The name's nice, Pigeon class, the third class train.
Looking up from the floor of the jam-packed aisle,
a young woman questioned me: 'Where can I find Myongil-dong?'
She had a newly-born infant strapped to her back
and on the blanket spread on the floor a boy aged five or six
was sitting with a flushed expression.
'I'm off to find these kids' dad.
He missed last year's farming season, so he left home;
someone told me they'd seen him in Myongil-dong.'
I know that place, Seoul's Myongil-dong;
it used to be as dark as a mining village even at midday,
with public address speakers bawling full blast,
drunks lying sprawled full length,
a place where, when night came, from beneath each low roof
young women's short cries of pain used to emerge.
On that woman's throat too, burned dark by the sun,
where sweet dew from the fields used to flow,
the veins will soon stand out from shouting.
The kid's clean white rubber shoes, washed in the pure stream
in front of their house, will soon be filthy with coal-dust.
But I know something more: the Myongil-dong
that she is pinning all her hopes on finding no longer exists.
The alleys that used to be full of scrap-merchants, pawn-shops,
day-laborers, are all demolished and gone,
and in the grounds of Green Mansions that's replaced the old huts
spotless children are prattling away
as they go scampering across green lawns.
The eleven thirty night train, Pigeon class, from Yosu to Seoul.
The young woman opens her bundle, offers me a boiled egg,
and keeps asking me anxiously:
'Where can I find Myongil-dong?'
Birds go flying up
in winter's bitter wind;
red beaks gleaming,
body and soul, the birds go flying up
until there is no great grief left in the village
where blood-tinged smoke lies sleeping;
spurning their souls too firmly fixed to the ground,
they rise above the far-reaching sky,
up into anger.
There are moments when I wake and get up in the night,
suddenly turned into an obedient cow.
Those are the truest moments of all!
Moments when I am reborn as a deeper version of myself
with big dangling ears.
From the remotest depths of the cosmos
rings the crash of a rock being smashed.
Now dawn gently opens over the fragrant land
and the waves I long for, long for,
tint the distant shoreline with a sash of green
I don't know why I cannot forget that spot,
old Nonsil's paddy across from our field
with its boundary hedge of small thorny orange trees.
Later, when I was in middle school, I would pass that spot
wet to the knees with dew from the soy-bean fields.
Was it autumn, when the sorghum seeds ripen?
A bright summer day with sunlight smashing down
pure and white on sesame flowers?
At the spot where the stream lower down
had eroded its banks, exposing the reddish ocher soil,
Nonsil's stout wife and her lovely daughters,
Yongja, Yongsuk and Sunim, were bellowing with laughter
as they stood then squatted between the fields.
I untied the cow's halter beside the stream, and then what?
Did I put bait in a bowl for fish? Chase after crawfish?
I heard a sound as if a voice was calling me,
a swish-swash as if something was disturbing the stream.
Looking up, ah, I saw the dazzling blue sky,
seized with sudden panic, I went rushing up the hillside,
through the pungent fragrance surrounding the flowers,
Nonsil's murmuring voice and the bright laughter
of Yongja, Yongsuk and Sunim
spreading clear beyond the edges of the field.
I sat there for a long time with the smell of autumn fields
ripening bright and right under the blue sky,
listening to the sound of hoes scraping against stones.
I don't know why I cannot forget that spot.
After driving the cow to pasture
or coming back from somewhere, on my return
I used to stand at that spot for hours.
Something seemed to be calling me.