Poems from Eyes of Dew. Poems by Chonggi Mah, Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé. 2006. Buffalo, N.Y. White Pine Press.
Chonggi Mah was born in 1939. He grew up in war-torn Korea and studied medicine at Yonsei University, Seoul. He began to write poetry in his early youth and published his first volume while still a student. In 1966, he left Korea to work as a doctor in the United States. Throughout his medical career, he continued to compose poetry in Korean, publishing a total of ten volumes, which have earned him all the main literary awards in Korea. Retired, he divides his time between Florida and Korea.
Several of his earlier poems are inspired by a doctor¡¯s closeness to bodies, living and dead. Confronting death, the poet seeks to affirm values of life, yet cannot restore to life those bodies that have turned to corpses before his eyes. Powerless to save life in so many cases, his poems are the more remarkable for their frankness in confronting a reality that is seen by many doctors as a sign of personal failure. Beyond that, he explores in a variety of way the pains and joys of human living and loving.
The Translator: Brother Anthony was born in England. He has lived in Korea since 1980 and is professor in the English Department of Sogang University, Seoul. He is well-known for his translations of Korean poetry and fiction, including works by Ko Un, Yi Munyol, So Chong-ju and many others.
Anatomy lab 2
Why, just look at that child,
that little girl, eyes tightly shut,
smiling, her breast wrapped in flowery white.
Here we cannot cry, even silently
for this is not a grave.
After setting out on a lifetime
you finally wearied of everything.
Now, you gaze up at the white ceiling,
your flesh bleached pale.
The lads who teased you
have scattered one after another, seeming lonely;
speak, little girl, too shy to open your eyes.
Once you used to roam the hills
nibbling flowers, spitting colored saliva,
used simply to laugh
at that smell, the smell of falling sunshine.
We hold our breath,
extend our two hands.
Why, just look at that child.
Listen to her breathing fragrantly,
still smiling with dimpled cheeks,
teaching us with our cold palms
the warm art of parting.
Rapture and warmth are displayed when at last
we bare our faces¡¯ naked expressions.
Taking up a skull with one hand
I sniff the faint fragrance of my own face.
Yesterday laughing, gloom all forgotten,
my laughing face, friends¡¯ faces,
such very delicate, porcelain sculptures.
Every time I slice muscle from muscle
comes the sound of the sea one summer¡¯s evening,
a beautiful voice I still recall.
How relieved this girl must feel now
as I labor to tear away
her dirty clothing, scattered around her.
May the clothes I am now so fondly wearing
slowly, without my realizing, turn into old rags.
When the time comes, may I gladly prepare new clothes
then go flying off, lightly flapping my arms.
May I enjoy the mysterious happiness of flying
rising, flying away on a lengthy journey.
Like this girl with her eyes closed on the dissecting table,
let me be used, let me begin.
When the light goes out in the westward sickroom,
the dark shadow of winter
passes beyond the low hills
and the chill bricks of the autopsy room
ring to the sound of a skull being sawed,
it¡¯s no finale.
I first learned about
natural life in anatomy class.
That¡¯s when the cold came.
On my lonely, youthful bed
I often found myself sentenced to death.
The dazzling vertigo of the remaining hours.
Don¡¯t you see? The solitary deathbed
of the tall guy who gave up.
Don¡¯t you see? This is no finale.
At a Giacometti exhibition
You are dead
but your love remains.
Your solitude alone remains,
the most enduring aspect of love.
Exploring the back-alleys of that solitude
The blind man thinks
with unseen eyes
and you weep
with an unseen body.
Then all we who once collapsed
raise our heads again,
help one another up
in another direction. We walk out.
The reason why I like reeds
is because they live as if they were dead.
It must be the way they sway as if alive
when in fact they are dead.
Alive and dead mingled, nicely matched,
dead reeds sing in harmony with live ones
live reeds dance holding dead ones in their arms.
Spending whole lifetimes quite distracted,
readily accepting separation from their bodies,
they laugh as they wave goodbye.
Since they care for each other, they waste no words,
no touch of a hand, no shoulder embraced.
I want to embrace you, white reed blossoms drifting!
You never let anyone see the blood you shed every day.
Before, I never knew
why flowers bloom.
I never knew that the whole tree trembles slightly
when it blooms.
Before, I never knew
why flowers fall.
Whenever blossoms are falling, all around the tree
the sound of water-drenched wind
awakes from sleep.
What am I going to say, if someone asks,
¡®Have you ever been in love?¡¯
Waking suddenly in the middle of the night,
I hear my wife of the last twenty years lying beside me
talking in her sleep with little weeping sounds.
Moans too can be heard from time to time.
The world can be better seen with the lights out.
Perhaps the sound our lives make, heard from far off,
is all a moaning sound.
In any case, we can only be each one alone,
and coming to know that is of no importance
but wife, learning to weep lightly in your sleep—
in the end, that¡¯s your deepest destiny.
On opening the heavy door, I found
winter had arrived.
Welcome snowflakes were falling from every side
and the winds between the snowflakes
were embracing the bare trees like life.
Our destined meeting came about like that.
The snow-covered white trees were
drawing closer to one another.
Crowded, tenacious roads had been erased
and every sea was returning shoreward,
while the sky that had so lightly risen
slowly sank down to become the ground.
But visitors always leave,
With my two empty hands I receive
the peace you transmit.
Since I met you in sin
and now return into sin,
even without a single word the flowers
bloom in deep pain.
Might there be sinless ground in some universe?
All the wealth of the veins that dead life
shook off shuddering become forest fires
so I grow giddy and warm.
How warm, your eyes, that cannot see.
Who can have spread new buds along new branches
saying: I want to live?
Who adorned them with endless blossom?
Then once the petals had all flown off like a childbirth
bore tiny berries on bare branches?
Life spent being driven by someone
is our sorrowful private history.
Your and my hidden future
is a story of that life riding on those petals.
I went up into the mountains; autumn was layered deep
and I stood there holding an empty bowl.
After I had survived a whole night¡¯s bitter cold,
I saw clear dew had gathered in the bowl.
But there was so little dew
it could not quench my thirst.
If I collect it for a second night, will there be more?
If I spend days gazing into the eyes of the dew,
will I be able to save one pure, chill poem?
Quench a causeless thirst?
The next day before dawn, instead of dew
one dead leaf fell onto my shoulder
and by dint of shouting: Vanity, all vanity,
it brought me to my knees, shoulders burdened.
Only when morning came did the dew open clear eyes
and give value to the night¡¯s dead leaf.
--Live with both eyes open.
Look ahead, look behind, look up.
You can see everything. You come and you go,
until you have gathered all yourselves, and after that too,
live with both eyes open, like wind or sea.
Living like wind or hill or sea, I
saw the two eyes of the dew. And after that too
in the front of the wind or the back of the sea
I saw the two open eyes of the dew.