Ko Un


Poems from Ten-thousand Lives / Maninbo



Tae-hyŏn: a Faithful Son


They were the most dreadfully poor family in our neighborhood

and, in addition to poor, short-handed too, for Chung-gil,

the fourth generation of only sons, had only one son.

For the fifth generation, his son Tae-hyŏn was an only son too.


Tae-hyŏns father kept coughing,

a hacking cough,

spitting up blood like a nightingale,

crawling out then crawling in and lying back down

with no money to pay for medicine.

At his wits end,

fourteen-year-old Tae-hyŏn

went along to the dispensary outside the West Gate

and got a free prescription for his father.

Then he set out on a round of all the herbal druggists in Kunsan :

the druggist out in Shinpung-ri,

the druggist in Ŏŭn-ri beyond Kaesa-ri,

the druggist in Sŏnjei-ri,

twenty druggists, more than twenty,

and by appealing to their sympathy obtained

one kind of tonic herb from each,

one kind of wild root from each,

one kind of everything.

Then he prepared the various medicines

in a pipkin propped on stones in place of a trivet.

After three years of sickness, color came back into his fathers face.

Thanks to his treatment the sound of coughing vanished,

banished from Tae-hyŏns house,

the only son for the fifth generation,

even on chill spring nights while the apricots blossom.

Ha, the apricots are in bloom,

tomorrow morning theyll be dazzling,





Old Jaedongs Youngest Son


You wonder how on earth such a tiny thing can sing so well.

Even his fathers own version of Yukjabaegi

he sings more artfully than his father himself.

Soaring higher and higher, late summer dragon-flies swarm.




Note: Yukjabaegi is one of the fundamental Korean folksongs, improvised in a myriad of different ways depending on local or even family traditions.




Samdŏks Grandmother in Wŏndang-ri


If you pass behind the bier-shed, on past Wŏndang-ri village,

at the top of the young pine grove in Wŏndang-ri

stands Samdŏks family house.

With autumn work barely completed,

its the first to have a new thatch roof,

that yellow house, that shining house.

Samdŏks mothers nickname is Dusting.

If her sons father-in-law comes on a visit from his distant home,

as soon as he leaves she dusts the place where he sat

and dusts it again the next day,

muttering at the least excuse: Its dirty here, its dirty there.

Everywhere is spotless corners of rooms,

the yard outside without exception anywhere.

No point in local spiders ever thinking

of spinning their webs in that house.

No point in local dust ever thinking

of settling carelessly in that house.

In that unluckily spotless house

the spirit of smallpox skillfully gained entry

and that was that!

Samdŏks mother lay lingering in her sickness,

confined for one month, two months, more.

Even while she was confined to her bed,

she kept a wet rag and dry duster near at hand

and after visits from the doctor

from outside the West Gate

she would wipe the spot where hed been sitting.

Finally she gave up the ghost.

Her eldest son Sam-nyong drank his fill,

then when she was being laid out

he placed a few dusters in her coffin, blubbering:

Mother! Dust away up there to your hearts content.




Kim Sang-sŏn from Araettŭm


The two brothers Kim from Araettŭm, Sang-mun and Sang-sŏn,

were the pride of the neighborhood,

not only for stubbornness, but for miserliness into the bargain.

No one ever once went to their house

and succeeded in borrowing a rake.

No one was ever offered so much

as a steamed cabbage root to eat in that house.

When sweet potatoes were being steamed at Sang-muns,

all the doors were shut tight, the family ate alone.

Perhaps because the younger can never equal the elder,

Sang-sŏn, the younger, went one better

and on mornings after neighbors had celebrated offerings for the dead,

he could be found running here and there uninvited,

dropping in for a bite to eat,

and only leaving after getting a good meal,

to say nothing of three full cups of early-morning wine

to wash down the steamed fish.

When his kid wanted to eat taffy

and filched scrap iron,

old bits of plow,

or bits of hand-scales to exchange for taffy,

then got caught, and sworn at: You thief!

he would side with him and say,

The minute you eat taffy it turns into flesh and bones,

so come on, whats the use of yelling at the rain?

As for Sang-sŏns family affairs,

they never knew a lean year.

Things never went badly for that family

until the year after the start of the Pacific War

when Sang-sŏns wife was crossing an icy patch

with a water-crock on her head. She slipped,

she and the crock went crashing down,

and off she went to the world beyond.

Not one of the local lads offered to help carry the bier.

Bearers were hired at great expense of blood and tears

but then it was as if the banners and streamers were starched,

giving not so much as a flutter

as the bier moved off.


Note: When a villager died, usually all the neighbors would offer to help carry the coffin in the village bier as far as the burial place.




Elder Chos Wife


Cho Kil-yŏn from Saemal, over the fields from Kalmoe,

received a huge stretch of paddy and rich land at his marriage

but he squandered it all.

Now he earns his living farming someone elses paddy,

or rather he entrusts it to his lazy wife and pretends to farm it.

Yet this Cho Kil-yŏn sings nothing but hymns.

Even in the privy, its hymns he hums

and Elder Chos wife is just the same.

For laziness, shes first cousin to a maggot,

outdoing any outhouse-fed grub.

Even if cursed late-autumn rain comes pouring down

on the buckwheat on straw mats, the red beans on small mats,

she lies stretched out full length on the warmest part of the floor,

if anyone opens the door, she cries:

Aigu, what awful rain, what rain!

Well, cold rain makes a man, they say, and it makes grain tasty.

Then she gently summons sleep again.

As if she were descended from some leisurely angler,

she gently summons sleep again.

Meanwhile Elder Chos daughter, Sun-bok,

works as hard as she can.

She comes flying across their rented field

like a butterfly,

like a bee on a radish flower,

scoops the grain out of the yard,

rolls up the sodden sacks, piles them in the store-room.

At which, good heavens!

faint late-autumn sunshine emerges,

banishing all thought of rain.




Beggars: Husband and Wife


When they have no food left

they go roaming around five villages :

Okjŏng-gol, Yongdun-ri, Chaetjŏngji,

Chigok-ri, and beyond Sŏmun

no, six, including Tanbuk-ri in Oksan County:

If youve any food, please, could you give us a spoonful?

Their humility is so much humbler by far than

even the wife from Sŏnun-ri in Jungttŭm could manage.

The words please, could you give are scarcely audible.

During the bleakest days of harsh spring famine,

when they cannot see so much as the shadow

of a pot of cold left-over barley-rice, they say:

Lets go drink some water instead.

Off they go to the well at Soijŏngji

to draw up a bucketful. Then those two beggars,

husband and wife, lovingly share a drink, and go home again

In the twilight thick flocks of jackdaws settle,

daylight fades into twilight,

as husband and wife pass over the hill at Okjŏng-gol.

In the twilight, smoke from a fire cooking supper

rises from only very few houses.




The Widows of Chaetjŏngji


If you ask for the widows house in Chaetjŏngji,

its well-known everywhere.

In that widows house

live a widow of eighty

and her elderly daughter-in-law of sixty-four.

Both buried their husbands early on,

then planted plantains and balsams along the fence

and lived peacefully together like elder and younger sister.

At last the mother-in-law, being old,

grew chronically ill.

Her daughter-in-law cleared away her excrement.

She had difficulty in even clearing her throat of catarrh

and what a stench of old piss on the reed mat!

The daughter-in-law seemed to grow older,

her back bent

but even on snowy days she went wandering over sunny slopes

grubbing up shepherds-purse roots,

always serving her mother-in-law.

When she boiled those roots in bean-paste soup,

the perfume spread throughout all the village.




Fathers Second Sister Ki-chang


She got married.

Abandoned, she returned home.

She crushed balsam flowers to dye her nails.

She dyed all ten finger-nails,

saying nothing,

shunning even heaven far above.




Maternal Grandfather


Choi Hong-kwan, our maternal grandfather,

was so tall his high hat would reach the eaves,

scraping the sparrows nests under the roof.

He was always laughing.

If our grandmother offered a beggar a bite to eat,

he was always the first to be glad.

If our grandmother ever spoke sharply to him,

hed laugh, paying no attention to what she said.

Once, when I was small, he told me:

Look, if you sweep the yard well

the yard will laugh.

If the yard laughs,

the fence will laugh.

Even the morning-glories

blossoming on the fence will laugh.




Su-dong and the Swallows


Su-dongs family is only his parents.

When theyre out at work

and he is playing, alone,

looking after the house, he gets bored.

Home alone, his only sport is idly pulling weeds,

until every year in early spring the swallows arrive.

Filling up the empty house, the swallows become his family.

As droppings fall on Su-dongs head,

the swallows fill up the empty house.

The brood hatches, then in the twinkling of an eye,

the chicks grow up

and go their separate ways,

at which he finds himself bored again.

The yard is suddenly that much bigger.

Late in autumn the swallows,

setting off to fly fast over hills and seas,

over seas and oceans,

the swallows leaving for lands beyond the river,

for distant south seas,

gather on the neighborhoods empty washing lines

and sit in rows, preening their breasts with their beaks

before setting off.

Looking up at them all, Su-dong feels utterly lonely.

Feeling lonely

means growing up.

Youre leaving now, youll be back next year.

Good-bye for now.

He gives each of the swallows a name: