The Postman

by Moon Dok-su

Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé

(First published in 2010 by Poetic Matrix Press)


Translator¡¯s Preface 3

Preface : Tinea 5

1. Joseph Roulin 6

2. Oarsman 8

3. Token of Fire 10

4. DMZ 14

5. Moderato 18

6. Now, here 20

The Poet: Moon Dok-su 30

Translator¡¯s Preface

Virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, Moon Dok-su is one of Korea¡¯s most senior literary figures.
Born in 1928, he joined the South Korean army at the outbreak of the war on June 25, 1950.
He experienced all the horrors of the Korean War before being seriously wounded in June 1953, only one month before the Armistice was signed.
He published his first poems in 1955, and has been in charge of the major poetry
review Simunhak since 1971.
He was professor of Korean literature at Hongok University, Seoul, until his retirement in 1994.
He then served as President of the Korean section of International P.E.N. and of the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation.

The following poem, ¡°The Postman,¡± which Moon Dok-su has described as his last major work, was first published in the December 2008 and January 2009 issues of the journal Simunhak.
It was then published as a single volume by Simunhak Publishing.
The poet, transformed into a postman bringing news of life to humanity, is the symbolic focus of the poem.
Memories of the terrible events of the Korean War combine in the poem with images inspired by the Korean resistance to the Japanese invasion of 1592-7.
In particular, the poet recalls the naval battles fought among the islands of Korea¡¯s southern coast, having recently read a novel evoking the Imjin War and the heroic life of Admiral Yi Sun-sin.
The poem explores how humanity can hope to find meaning and reconciliation despite wars and natural disasters; the events of Korean history serve as symbols of universal experience.

The Postman

by Mun Dok-su

Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé

Preface : Tinea

I want to scrape harder still at the contused skin of my feet.

The dust that stuck to your fingers as you wrote on the ground
beside the woman taken in adultery they had dragged before you,
the dust caught between your naked toes as you went around begging,
highest, lowest,
farthest, closest,
withstanding the Pacific,
oppressed by the weight founding Seoul and New York, brilliant as nuclear fission,

still longing to come closer to ¡®truth,¡¯ even by an inch or less,
my language is gasping.

1. Joseph Roulin

In the jade-hued lake on the slopes of the hill
behind your home, amniotic waters, you paddled.
Playing with carp and snakeheads, eating water-chestnuts, you grew.
One day a cord came flying, twined itself round your shoulders
like the cords tied round the sacred tree beside a village shrine,
and from it hung one postman¡¯s satchel, solitary,
that never tore though it stretched, elastic.
Empty, its circle like the Earth¡¯s orbit
was plainly visible as an image of Dharma.
Sunlight entered the chamber of Yuhwa1, Miss Koguryŏ,
Yuhwa who met Kŭmhwa on the shores of dark blue Ubalsu,
the sea where waves summon one another and blend;
it impregnated her, made her pregnant,
she laid an egg
the size of a two-gallon pail,
and your satchel is as large as that egg.
It swells round as the belly of the Primal Mother who bore our nation;
it¡¯s the bundle carried by a Buddhist monk.

The gleaming yellow beard
in Van Gogh¡¯s painting ¡°Postman Joseph Roulin¡±
descends from beneath the nose and both cheeks, circles the lips,
wriggling zigzag like springs, divides into two,
covers the chest, and in between
the wide collar of a blue uniform suddenly looms.
The top two of two rows of golden buttons on the jacket
and a badge ¡°Postes¡± clearly visible
on the narrow-peaked cap he wears.
His eyes are two green beads deeply inset.
It must be said that his uniform would not suit you.
His sweetheart and satchel would not do.
Rags found washed up on a streamside,
or ragged military garb discarded
by a prisoner in a POW camp, that would be better.
A rough cotton military uniform from the days
of the 1592 invasions might be best.

First you gently advance one foot
light as a butterfly,
as if delicately pushing it away, like paper a rock,
leaping across the Pacific, like a stream.
One high step, extending horizontally beyond the tip of your jaw or nose,
carries your upper body forward, after which
you gently set the sole of your foot on the ground.
As a spear thrown vigorously flies far before driving into the ground,
in reaction the rearward foot, serving as a lever,
advances in turn, again like a spear, rushes forward.
9.96 seconds for both legs.

Tendons contracting round like eggs in
calves, thighs, buttocks, breast,
the giant quickly hoists the globe aloft.
Erect, both feet treading the axis, knees apart,
you leap to your feet as if contemplating a millennium.
186 kilograms held in both arms, descending
through breast and waist by way of the knees,
lips clenched
both legs endure the risk of strain.
Jang Miran2 the Olympic weightlifter does it brilliantly.

Behold, the one who sat beneath the bodhi tree
adopted the full lotus position, intertwined legs bent from the knee.
Laying the right foot on the left thigh,
pressing down hard as a rock,
with your two down-folded fingertips you united two worlds.
then a missile comes flying, pointing downward with extended forefingers
making your own all the desires and prayers of those in war or starvation,
your palms open upward, all five fingers outstretched,
you rest on legs in the lotus position.
One assisting parents over a single-log bridge,
in a weightless orbit 500 kilometers up in the air,
a postman hastening along, heavy sack slung over his shoulder:
all have two legs.

2. Oarsman

Ancient boatmen¡¯s oars3 are tanks¡¯ caterpillar tracks,
archers¡¯ arrows are 105mm or 155mm field guns.

After winding through the Myŏngnyang Channel4, the bugle sounds three long notes that unfurl their tails in the air
as the order to advance echoes through the whole fleet.
All in unison, the boats¡¯ oars rise from the water then plunge back in,
the waves gushing from the prows leap high, charge on,
stricken waves that shatter, divide, and surge.
Four men are attached to a single oar,
facing each other in pairs, bodies bowing then leaning back.
At an initial drum beat their bodies push forward,
at another drum beat they pull back.
The drum directing the oars grows more urgent,
changes to a more rapid rhythm.
The boatmen are crushed
between the backward rushing waves and the sound of the drum.

Delicate hands that once grasped pens
support M1s, presenting arms,
one two, one two, are subjected to history¡¯s commands.
Rosary-like beads of sweat form, circle necks fold by fold.
¡°Passing on over comrades¡¯ corpses, onward, onward . . . .
comrades who vanished in a cloud of Hwarang cigarette smoke.¡±5
one whole generation blazes like a crimson furnace.
One soldier gasps right under your chin,
his heavy M1 slips as if about to fall from his grasp
then a whip emerges from somewhere like lightning, urging him on.
The command impelling the march grows more urgent
startled, coaxed, drawn onward, but then again
slipping, dropping, wiping off sweat, quickly rising,
I-go-ma6, kill me, I-go-ma, kill me,
Eli Eli lama sabachthani7
You-go-ma, kill me, They-go-ma8, kill me. You heard them speaking, didn¡¯t you?
You heard Om-mani pa-dme hum9, too, didn¡¯t you?
That second-lieutenant from supplies is more curious than ever now,
Ekasmin samaye, ekasmin samaye10.

Night rain is falling, falling hard, steadily, in torrents.
At night midday¡¯s intense heat is more like early winter
as they go groping along a hill-path in rain by night, darker than hell,
and jeeps, headlights extinguished, follow the firefly-like tail-light of the jeep in front,
follow the winding track, mud splashing up, sprayed thick on the windscreen.
Your postman¡¯s satchel is a mass of mud, too.
Soldiers¡¯ heads emerge from the ponchos covering their uniforms,
controlling their uncertain, shaky gait as they advance,
eyes glaring at the sight of the front line zone.

Those helmets with their thin metallic sound—are they safe?
They were camouflaged with grass, leaves and branches.
A rifle in one hand, a machine gun tied over their shoulders,
grenades hung from their breasts.
Climbing up and down hills and slopes, stamping on them like stone
so-called foot-soldiers scaling heights
amidst shells pouring down like rain,
who are they with a name like that?
Are they sons of those who fought off the invasion in the 1590s?

The platoon leader with a pistol at his waist,
a carbine over one shoulder, a shell on his back,
one soldier carrying a gun-barrel,
another soldier shouldering a gun-mount,
yet another soldier bearing a gun-base,
all those panting along—who are they?
Struck by the backward-moving gun-barrel recoiling after firing
they long to lay themselves down eternally
beneath the 105mm field-gun they had polished and cared for.

3. Token of Fire

You can sound out water ten fathoms deep, but not a person one fathom deep,
yet Buddha saw. In your jewel-eyes
you saw towering tongues of flame, saw a red-hot furnace
installed inside your icy spring-like eyes.
The blind seer Tiresias tried to stop him going
but King Laius said the country¡¯s calamities were his fault
and set off to visit the shrine. At a lonely crossroads he met Oedipus,
the child he had once abandoned on a mountainside, bade him stand aside,
and while they squabbled about who was right, the carriage horse¡¯s hoof
trod on Oedipus¡¯s foot, so he killed him with the staff he bore. Killed his father.
Did Prince Suyang11 see a sword of fire
in the weeping eyes of the nephew he deposed?
Did Yŏngjo12 see a fiery crown in the eyes of Sado, the son he had killed?
Flames make a U-turn over the waters at Chŏngnaengp¡¯o13 in Yŏngwŏl,.
Glowing flames of greed embrace green pine-woods; winding, they turn.
Ah, fiery the staff, fiery the sword, fiery the shell, fiery the nuclear . . .
Deep in a forest a wren builds its nest, using only one branch.
The mole drinks from the Yellow River, just enough to fill its tiny stomach.14
Did anyone complain? Tut, tut!

The postman¡¯s satchel eventually reached P¡¯yŏngch¡¯on.
Once past Inje15, from Wŏnt¡¯ong-ri onward the stream
came pouring down, threatening to cover the path along the foot of rugged cliffs.
Taking bridges that looked likely to collapse if even a dog crossed them,
cracked rain-sodden pathways, crumbling hill paths,
he stopped then went on repeatedly.
Engineers saw how he dug out dry earth with a spade, repaired the path,
made a bridge at flooded places with lumps of clay.
Getting out, spreading straw beneath the tires of trucks and armored cars,
they pushed them as they went skidding round morasses of mud.
At the end of twelve hours of rain-soaked march P¡¯yŏngch¡¯on appeared.

Once again the postman¡¯s satchel passed over Dog Ridge16.
From that Dog Pass, that rose abruptly
along the winding road to Kajŏn-ri17, far off
to the left could be seen the lower reaches of the Soyang River18
foaming as it wove its way through mountain valleys
while on the slopes of the low hills below the First Platoon, Second Platoon,
Third Platoon, had taken position in order. They had twelve mortars lined up.
Dig trenches deep, deeper,
dig them with two levels
so you can make out the far-off horizon if you raise your heads.
If you come under fire, tuck your heads in like turtles, curl up.
Have enough ammunition ready.
You heard the captain¡¯s urgent voice.

You experienced the appalling bombardments dividing South and North.
You saw, inwardly shouting, War is wrong, don¡¯t shoot!
The sound of the bombardment echoed at the division command-post to the rear
and from the fire direction center the order came to keep firing come what may.
Prepare to shoot, declination 1635 elevation 777 charge number 20!
Gunner 1 adjusts declination and elevation
Gunner 2 raises, lowers, then fixes the angle
Gunner 3 takes the charge
Gunner 4 lifts the shell and inserts it into the muzzle
Once it has dropped to touch the bottom, Bang! they fire.
The soldiers rush forward, hunched to avoid the ensuing blast,
blocking their ears with their hands, they recoil briefly,
all in the twinkling of an eye.

The bombardment coming from the Northern side
from Soviet-made 122mm or 152 mm medium and heavy guns
a steady bang bang bang, flames belching,
the 120mm mortars fire rapid volleys, turning like spools.
Whoosh, woosh, long-held screaming sounds like heavy iron being dragged
come riding along the high tension wires.
It¡¯s artillery shells, get into the trenches!
The soldiers dive nimbly into the bunkers, boom!
Sandy soil collapses, blocking the view,
Suffocating from dust and cordite, one soldier
stifles his coughing, collapses.
Get water, quick!
Holding the trembling shaking wounded soldier, giving him water,
he rocks him, It¡¯s alright, don¡¯t worry,
then his head falls to one side; losing strength, his limbs grow limp.

To Death, South and North are no different.
In the trenches dug meandering like knife-cuts over the highland peaks
machine guns¡¯, submachine guns¡¯ tatatat, tang tang, tatatat, boom, bang,
turns into an inferno of hand-to-hand fighting.
Pulling out bayonets, they lunge at their brothers¡¯ throats,
fixed bayonets slash at their breasts.
Drops of blood splash, sprinkling every face.
Gun-stands split, gun-carriages collapse as though they¡¯re melting,
gun-barrels are crimson smoke-stacks.

To Death, South and North are no different.
Rice-balls and water only reached Hill 974 after two days.
Members of the supply service got up by way of a steep hillside path.
A procession of wounded soldiers going down supported by medics:
one with his head all swathed in bandages leaving just a slit for his eyes,
one hobbling down, leaning on a stick, covered in mud,
one dragged along half-carried on the shoulders of a slightly stronger soldier,
one carried down lying on a stretcher groaning as if muttering to himself,
one who plunges his head into the stream and sucks in water.

Corpses lay scattered across the heights,
craniums went rolling about like footballs
kicked by toes, then caught by fire-blackened piles of stones.
The wind whistles, caught in skulls.
Under evenly bleached smooth brows
two empty eye-sockets loom
and the teeth in upper and lower jaws gape as if wanting something more to gnaw.
Mixed among spent cartridges and dud shells
scraps of bone from feet and jaws, knees and ribs and spines.

Soldiers died muttering something.
Ahh, the signifiant 19 preceding speech,
they died hitting out at the sound after speech has ended.
A sigh, a murmur, a groan, a scream, a wail:
Mother, forgive this bad son, dying first.
Mother, live long!
Mother, they cried, and died.
What sounds is your bulging satchel full of?
Rattle, rattle, tinkle, crack, crack,
noisily bustling, rushing, gushing, rushing,
the sound of Joseph Roulin the postman¡¯s golden buttons bursting.
The sound of unhulled barley, green rice, bean-paste, seaweed all mingling.
The sound of a girl¡¯s underskirts as she walks between paddy fields,
a tray on her head.
A refined lady who has fallen asleep sitting quietly on her chamber-pot,
living in seclusion, a childhood friend sitting opposite playing go-stop.
F*cking bastards, goddam f*cking bastards!
Yelp, yelping, rolling, spinning like a top.
snap, snap, snap snapppping, hissing, weeping, skulls gather
corpses wrapped in chadors from foot to shoulder,
the sound of the Pieta breathing, the sound of the Pieta¡¯s heart beating,
it¡¯s not the breaking of pottery shards,
it¡¯s the sound of dud shells and shrapnel and bones melting together.
Letters and postcards all burned up.

4. DMZ

In the satchel, dancing on gaunt haunches, jerking,
is a rifle broken in two like a stick.
Iron bridges spanning the Yalu20 and Imjin21 rivers are mere toys.
The caterpillar tracks of the Soviet-made T34s
that startled the South that Sunday morning
are nothing but paper, all crushed flat.
There are many farewell messages, once tied round necks, fallen,
the writers invisible now:
where have all the addressees gone?

Wearing helmets and long black boots
from the mouth of the Imjin River via Kimhwa and Ch¡¯ŏlwon toward Kosŏng22
following the ups and downs of latitude is of no small importance.
They swagger along as though it all belongs to them.
Leaving behind the line where they confronted one another, guns aimed,
South and North are each obliged to pull back two kilometers.
Kindly hands drive in iron posts at regular intervals,
drive them in with weighty hammers.
They sink deep into earth soft as tender flesh. It hurts.
Wearing helmets got from somewhere, they erect and unroll fences of barbed wire
stretching 155 miles from west to east without a break.
So land and nation are divided in two,
divided at the waist, families separated, severed,
a vortex of pain, grief, bitterness, tears
that like clouds and winds and sky know nothing of North and South.
Cranes lay eggs in nests on high pine-tree branches,
squirrels, boars, hares frolic and play,
in green groves the pale bodies of deer gleam occasionally,
this DMZ inside its tangles of barbed wire.

As if the void has finished reading a generation¡¯s depths
it bounces off with a bang.
Like a ping-pong ball slowly swelling like a balloon, it rolls away.
At a kick from soccer players¡¯ feet it goes to Manchester, Milan, and back.

You can¡¯t stay put quietly in one place, can you?
You want to orbit the whole world once you¡¯re struck by the bat.
The brand of void in that bulging postman¡¯s satchel you¡¯re bearing
is the zero Indians were the first to discover, isn¡¯t it?
If you pierce the deep walls of geological strata

From that gap emerges like a stream of urine a sound of pure water
whose source is far away;
playing spoilt and humming like children,
it wakes the weary sleeper.
The ball of the void is rolling off.
But it¡¯s not rolling off like a skull. In the desert and in the ocean
rolling, rolling, trundling, trundling, tumbling, tumbling, revolving on
delving deep into the desert, roundly rolling,
rolls down into the sea, several lengths of silk unfurling.
Wind, gas, starvation, despair, shellfire, nuclear mushroom cloud,
forcing your way inside, grinding, reducing to powder, you go rolling on.

Your lungs were blocked by Australian sandstorms,
then in 2004 or so, wandering lost in the groves of Mediterranean myth,
you tasted the enticing apple
that boastful Paris23 awarded to Miss Aphrodite.
Sharing that apple with your wife
you munched the depths of a myth ripened in the hue of the Mediterranean.
And briefly you glimpsed Themis24, a sharp sword in her left hand,
her eyes blindfolded, holding a set of scales in her right hand.

Raising up rocks toppled by earthquakes,
pulling apart the gaps in broken bricks and penetrating like a ray of light,
you bounced off gaping windpipes
but even in Sumatra¡¯s Aceh25 and in Sichuan26
the ball hit the floor and rebounded.
It went higher than you, higher than Mount Pukhan27.
After turning once round the pure water at Mount Paekdu28¡¯s 2,700 meters
rolling across the Sea of Galilee on which Jesus walked bare-footed
at the peak of Everest¡¯s 8,848 meters
as well as that rock seen in Lumbini29 on which Siddhartha¡¯s gaze lingered

The ball erases itself.
As it rolls on it erases its own every gesture.
Flying on, it erases the path it has taken.
Even in the midst of explosions and slaughter,
breathing, it erases.
It even erases the way it erases.
The interior, exterior of the office
and all that surges to fill the city¡¯s labyrinth,
cannot be touched or seen, yet
rising, as if cultivating trees or flowers,
300 stories to the 300th story, all erased,
even my army registration number 213360.
figure by figure the number of beading drops of blood
flies away like birds lined up on an electric wire.

5. Moderato

Confucius is turning cartwheels round a toy tree, grumbling to himself,
Jesus rides a young donkey without any saddle, hanging on with the tips of his toes,
Buddha sits cross-legged under a bodhi tree, opening and closing his eyes.
And you are still dabbling in mud, born two months premature.

Something drops out of a pocket and rolls away, a seal made of a scrap of glass.
Before it falls between the planks in the floor you pick it up, hold it tight.
Squeezing all five fingers tightly together, each joint seems to be checking something,
that it will not catch fire from gunfire
or crack if struck by a sword.

Neither a red rose-root from Mediterranean soil
nor ivory from an elephant in the African jungle,
a scrap of glass from a used helicopter discarded as junk,
trimmed and polished round and smooth, you carved it.
Slightly rounder than a little finger,
the name you acquired, made by your father, held in your mother¡¯s arms,
now the corners are worn, the characters indistinct.
Caked thick with geranium-red ink,
no matter how hard you pressed, it was as smooth as your chin at that age.

Bullets concealed among thickets of pampas grass
ta, ta, ta, tack, whoom, tack, bang bang.
You went rolling like a log among the weeds in the furrows at the foot of the hill.
Thigh pierced, thigh bone snapped in two,
A wound across your eyebrows, scraping your brow, all torn away, your body
was wrapped in blood. Wrapped in death¡¯s net. Just then

Who was it picked you up, carried you on his shoulders?
Who were they that seized the stretcher poles, raised you?
Was it a roadside stone? A flower?
Hold that ankle, wedge his head, keep it level.
He¡¯s still breathing. Quick, hurry.

Who was it held the scalpel in the battlefield encampment
while bullets snapped at the tents, that flapped as if about to fly off?
Whose hand inserted the mysterious needle to keep the pulse beating,
life going, in that mummy inside its plaster dressings? Who was it,
pursued by shells, transported you to the hospital beside Kyŏngbok-gung30?
Don¡¯t say too recklessly that you could see no god.
There are so many things in this world we do not understand.

Amidst the sound of artillery, leaving dawn behind, the evacuation train is slow,
and late at night here¡¯s Taegu¡¯s military hospital. The stretcher¡¯s loaded back
on a truck, welcome to cock-crow Taegu31, no cocks to be heard, though.
Wounded soldiers brought down from the front covered the station square
like so many rags, poured out and packed dense like the stars of the Milky Way.
A winter flower-bed in full bloom!
Was one of those stars looking after your seal that day?
There are so many things in this world we do not understand.
        That winter¡¯s night in Taegu, cold pressing on cold, layer upon layer,
        like rocky strata, was a truly primitive agony.
It was an arctic city of frozen tears and groans.

Breath in its final rattle, gasping, groaning, wailing

a torrent of screams, ahh, ayayai, uck, uck, ummm, unggg.

Men with legs cut off, eyes lost, spines broken,

grasping severed hands, armless, only the shoulder blade left,

roars, sighs, laments, supplications, exclamations . . . .

No Zeus here, who heard even sighs confined in towers.

And those already dead could not reach this place.

The festive chorus of insects filling autumn meadows.

Not hell, not hell, not hell but

Eli Eli lama sabachthani

Something round drops from your trousers and goes rolling off, endlessly.
Ekasmin samaye, ekasmin samaye

6. Now, here

The woman taken in adultery32 dragged to him by the mob:
Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone.
Then Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the dust.
The moans that came rising up, caught like phlegm in the throat,
Umm, umm, um, euh, yeuk, euk,
naive last words squeezed out squirming by death,
written in snow, all melt away.
The wind blowing across ripples goes scudding off.
The sky erases the footprints of a sister who emigrated beyond the water.
Father who coughed then hid away in a dark corner of the ward
spreads mats in the yard where mosquito-coils smolder,
white-haired grandmother who used to look for her grandchildren stars
in the night sky then turned into a fossil where she was,
mother who lost her life and suddenly disappeared
while she was waiting for the ferry beside the river, eager to meet her son,
your satchel, flabby like the belly of a newly delivered mother
no letters to pick up, no one to deliver them to.

Sak sak sak sakkat sakkat sakkat . . .
a corps composed of robot33 warriors is approaching.
It¡¯s not the sound of a far-away typhoon. Gradually coming near
left-right, left-right, dissonance of metal-voiced orders
a corps composed of cloned soldiers is approaching.
In one hand a pistol, in one hand a machine gun,
grenades and shells dangling like fruit on their breasts
When the pulse in their wrist sparkles on receiving the order to open fire
they do not fall flat, but stay standing where they are:
Ratatatat tatatata takatak takatak.

Robot father and robot son
are false troops posted behind the Japanese lines at the Myŏngnyang Straits34.
The big robot blocks the port side of the leading galley
and strikes at the enemy soldiers with a stone as they come charging, swords drawn.
Then the big robot took charge of the oars while the small robot took up stones.
As the big robot leaped onto the boat of the sword-wielding enemy,
struck by their swords he fell into the water.
The small robot strikes with a stone at the heads of the enemy
who cut down his father until other enemy soldiers slash at his belly.35

The skulls of grandfathers, sons, grandsons killed in battle
cover the highlands like the tumuli of royal tombs, roll to and fro like balls,
hit the tawny satchel hanging from one shoulder, bounce away,
end up hanging from the scorched stump of a tree.
The gulag36 Solzhenitsyn left behind him with a sigh, carrying a shovel,
passing the desolate Hinggan Range, crossing the Tumen River by night,
gulag, gurage, gulag, gurage,

37 jellyfish gulag where tangles of tentacles extend beneath shiny high hats.

Ghosts descending to look down on the Nile from the tip of the obelisk at Luxor
gaily mingle with the bones of those killed by terror on September 11.
Skulls from the Killing Fields of Cambodia come flying.
Skinny spirits once pressed down under the foundation of the Parthenon emerge,
descend the stone steps, quickly hide in the olive groves
or disappear over the wall of the Erechteion to the north.
Robots quite cover the dark ravine at Hill 924.
Like rabbits they nimbly leap across the stream,
then squirming like worms they wriggle their way up the slope,
changed into monkeys they swiftly climb the branches of oaks and hide.
Robots¡¯ arms overturn and toss tanks about like toys,
as they go climbing up Hills 680, 673, 749
that are wrapped in autumn¡¯s red petticoats,
and the knife-edged rocky ridges surrounding the Punch Bowl38.
What¡¯s that weeping in your now empty satchel?
Shrapnel? A jewel? a skull? Rattle, clatter,
Memento mori ! Memento mori !

Mister Driver, let¡¯s go round that way a bit.
How can I do that? a bus is not a taxi.
Well, this old woman has a pain in her knee.
Don¡¯t talk nonsense.
Last time, the driver went round for me.
That driver must have been crazy!39
                This is how they make love.
If it can¡¯t all the time see the hen.
he ox puts out its head and stares around,
and if the ox is lying in a corner, the hen goes right
to the cow house, sidling along then tottering back.
That is how the ox and the hen make love.40

When the evening wind is strong like this, the camellia flowers all fall as if slapped on the cheeks,
then the fallen petals, unable to move about on the ground,
are swept off toward the sea and the reason why camellias are as red as red can be, like blood . . . .

Seeing that, it¡¯s like the tale of a young woman aged nineteen and a man aged twenty-one
who met and agreed to keep a date once in five years in the camellia grove on Yongch¡¯o-do island when the trees are in bloom, then part again . . . .
truly, there are such varied vicissitudes in this world,
it¡¯s as they say, sleeve has only to brush against sleeve to provoke a lifetime¡¯s involvement, and a long life allows one to see such things.41

That is how their love is red as camellias.

PC, TV, fridge, air-con, robot skull
gleam, marked by God¡¯s hands.
Now everywhere you extract the jagged stones emerging from road-surfaces
and scatter flower-seeds
between hospitals, cemeteries, old folk¡¯s homes, groves, rocks,
you conceal a television set like a lottery ticket, erect an antenna.
Lend me your mobile, I have to talk to God.
This is how everyone wants to love.

Dressed in bright clothes, the child held on tightly to mother¡¯s hand.
My goodness, how can the two be so much alike!
Kyŏnnaeryang42 and Myŏngnyang43, uniting mainland and island, channels
that defended our people, east and west made one44, now shine even bluer.
Arising from a common source, the rivers Yalu, Han, Yŏngsan, Naktong,
shielded the distant Pacific, Atlantic.
As this turquoise planet turning in its elliptical orbit
is seized by Eve¡¯s hand and lifted up, I tremble in fear.

The Poet: Moon Dok-su

Moon Dok-su [Mun Dŏk-su] was born in 1928 in Ham¡¯an, South Kyŏngsang Province. In 1944 he went to study in Japan, returning to Korea some time after the end of the war, in 1946. After a short period of training he began to teach in primary schools; it was only in 1950 that he formally passed the qualifying examination and became a secondary-school teacher and began to teach at a high-school in T¡¯ongyŏng. On the outbreak of the Korean War at the end of June 1950 he joined the army. Wounded in action in June 1953, he was evacuated to the military hospital in Taegu, then discharged from the army. In 1955 he graduated from Hongik University, Seoul, after studies centered on philosophy, esthetics and art.

He began his literary career in 1955 with the publication of poems including 'Ch'immuk' (Silence) in the review Hyondae Munhak on the recommendation of the senior poet Yu Ch¡¯i-hwan. In 1957 he began to lecture in Cheju University, before moving to the department of Korean language and literature of Hongik University in Seoul in 1961. He remained there as professor until he retired in 1994. He also lectured in the graduate schools of many of the most important universities in Seoul. After 1964 he became active in the publication of literary journals, and in 1971 he became managing editor of the major review Simunhak, becoming its official publisher in 1977, a position he still holds. In 1974 a number of writers were accused of being North Korean spies. He led a campaign procliming their innocence and demanding their release. For this he was arrested and tortured. He refuses to testify in court. In 1979 he spent a year studying comparative Korean-Japanese litertaure in Japan. From 1981 until 1984 he was president of the Modern Poets¡¯ Association of Korea. He received a doctorate in Korean literature from Korea University, Seoul, in 1981. He was elected to the Korean Academy of Arts in 1993. From 1992 he served as president of the Korean branch of International P.E.N. for 3 years. In 1994 he retired from Hongik University, and was appointed a professor emeritus. He served as president of the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation in 1995.

His published volumes of poetry include Hwanghol (Fascination) (1956), Son.Konggan (Line.Space) (1966), Saebyŏk pada (Ocean at dawn) (1975), Yŏngwŏnhan kkot'pat' (Eternal Flowerbed) (1976), Saranamŭn uritŭlmani tasi 6 wŏrŭl maja (Only we survived to see June again) (1980), Tari nohki (Bridge-laying) (1982), Kkotpat sokŭi pench¡¯i (Bench in a flowerbed) (1988), Mannamŭl wihan allegro (Allegro for encounters) (1990) etc. He has also published a considerable number of collections of critical essays and contributed to many other volumes. Volumes of translations of his poems have been published in Japanese and in English (Drawing Lines, Homa & Sekey, 2004). He has received many major awards and prizes over the years and is one of the leading figures in the Korean literary establishment.

His early poems were quests for the inner meanings inherent in nature, but later his interests grew wider, even extending to a critique of contemporary civilization. Nonetheless, the main characteristic of his work is the way in which he approaches his topic, whatever it may be, from a specifically "animistic" perspective. All the objects figuring in his poems exist in relationship with living beings while at the same time they are in sympathetic harmony with the poet's own spiritual world.

In many ways the main poetic quality of his work comes from the ways in which he deconstructs language, setting words in renewed relationship without the usual grammatical framework. By so doing he offers a paradigm of confusion, symbolic of the state of modern Korea, and at the same times expresses a hope of harmony as his poems take the reader through a creative process of reading and interpretation.

1 Yuhwa, the eldest daughter of Habaek, the king or god of the Yalu River, was confronted by Hae Mosu while she was bathing in a river. According to the Samguk Yusa, Hae Mosu was the son of heaven, riding in a chariot of five dragons, arriving in 58 BC to establish Pukbuyŏ (North Buyŏ). Eventually she married him without her father's permission. However, Yuhwa escaped Hae Mosu's chariot before they could ascend to heaven and she returned to her father. Because his daughter's actions brought disgrace to him, Habaek exiled her to Ubalsu, a stream in Tongbuyŏ, condemning her to a mortal life. Yuhwa was later freed by fishermen, who brought her to the king of Tongbuyŏ, Kŭmwa. Her beauty and intelligence impressed Kŭmwa and he took her as a concubine. Impregnated by sunlight, Yuhwa gave birth to an egg, from which emerged Chumong, destined to become King Tongmyŏng, the founder of the kingdom of Koguryŏ (58 - 19 BC, r. 37 – 19 BC).

2 Jang Miran won the +75kg weightlifting gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, breaking three world records on the way.

3 The poet refers to pages 84-5 of Kim Hun¡¯s novel K¡¯alŭi norae (Song of the sword, 2005) as his source for details about the events of the Japanese invasion (1592-7) known as the Imjin War, evoking the naval battles fought among the islands of Korea¡¯s southern coast.

4 The narrow Myŏngnyang Channel runs between Chindo Island and the mainland in Chŏlla Province, toward the western end of the southern coast of Korea. It is marked by a fierce tidal rip. On October 26, 1597, Yi Sun-sin won a major victory against the Japanese fleet there, preventing the Japanese from gaining entry to the Yellow Sea and finally frustrating their planned invasion of China.

5 These are words from a song that was very popular at the time of the Korean war, ¡°Sleep Well, comrade.¡± Hwarang cigarettes was the name of a brand very widely smoked at that time.

6 The Korean exclamation ¡®Aigo¡¯ is used in many different situations to express emotions ranging from surprise and delight to anguish and despair. ¡®Aigo mae¡¯ means ¡®Ah, mother.¡¯

7 Words of Jesus on the cross, ¡°My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?¡± Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34, a quotation from Psalm 22.

8 The poet introduces puns based on the simliarity in sound between the Korean ¡®Aigo¡¯ and the English ¡®I go.¡¯

9 Tibetan mantra, ¡®Hail to the jewel in the lotus.¡¯

10 The opening words of each Buddhist sutra in Pali, ¡®At a time / for a time [I heard]¡¯ suggesting the vaguely defined notions of time found in ancient India.

11 On June 11, 1455, Prince Suyang carried out a bloody coup and forced his 14-year-old nephew, King Danjong, to abdicate. Suyang then took the throne as King Sejo, the seventh monarch of the Joseon Dynasty. Sejo sent the dethroned king into exile, and eventually had him executed. For the poet, this has mythical force as a story of a (virtual) father killing his son.

12 King Yŏngjo was the father of Crown Prince Sado (1735–1762). Prince Sado was the royal heir. After his father heard reports that he was mentally ill, had killed people, and was very erratic, he finally ordered him to be sealed alive in a large rice chest where he died within eight days. The stories of the tragic deaths of Danjong and Sado at the hands of their fathers join in the poet¡¯s imagination with the story of Oedipus, where it is the son who kills the father.

13 Yŏngwŏl is a region in Kangwŏn Province that includes the village of Ch¡¯ŏngnaengp¡¯o (aka Ch¡¯ŏngnyŏngp¡¯o) where Danjong was exiled and killed. The Sŏgang (West River) makes a U-turn round it.

14 A quotation from the opening chapter ¡°Enjoyment in Untroubled Ease¡± of the Inner Chapters of the Chinese classic known as the Zhuangzi (íöí­) after the name of its supposed author, also known as Zhuang Zhou (íöñ²). The words are spoken by Xu You (úÉë¦) as he refuses to become king.

15 Inje is a township in eastern Kangwŏn Province, near the western slopes of Mount Sŏrak. The other localities named are nearby, close to the DMZ, and were the scenes of fierce fighting during the Korean War.

16 Dog Ridge is the name of a ridge on the mountain road between Inje and Kajŏn-ri.

17 Another hilly region of Inje.

18 This river flowes through Inje and on westwards until it joins the Pukhan River near Ch¡¯unch¡¯ŏn.

19 A French term from linguistics, meaning ¡®signifier,¡¯ commonly used to refer to the sound of a word as opposed to the reality it refers to, the ¡®signified.¡¯

20 The Yalu River flows westward from Mount Paekdu to the Yellow Sea and for much of its course forms the frontier between (North) Korea and China. Very occasional rail and road bridges allow traffic to cross. The poet may be evoking the passage of thousands of Chinese soldiers into Korea during the Korean War to support the Northern side.

21 The Imjin River rises in the north-eastern region of North Korea and flows into the Yellow Sea together with the Han River to the west of Seoul. It now forms the dividing line between North and South at the end of its course. The ¡°Bridge of No Return¡± was the last link between the two countries at the end of the Korean War, by which prisoners of war returned home.

22 These three names are counties in Kangwŏn Province divided by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Kimhwa and Ch¡¯ŏlwon are in the center of Korea, and were the scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the Korean war. Together with P¡¯yŏnggang, they formed the three corneers of the ¡®iron triangle.¡¯ Kosŏng is at the eastern end of the 155-mile long DMZ, which does not exactly follow the 38th parallel that had formed the line of demarkation between the Russian and American-controlled zones before the Korean War. During the later stages of the war, the opposing sides repeatedly advanced and retreated short distances to either side of it.

23 A reference to the Greek myth of the Judgement of Paris, in which he awarded a golden apple to Aphrodite, rather than to Hera or Athene, since she promised to give him the most beautiful woman in the world. She turned out to be Helen of Troy and this is the origin of the Trojan War.

24 Themis was the Greek goddess of law and justice. Blindfolded to ensure impartiality, she holds a set of scales, and a sword for punishment.

25 Aceh, a region at the far north-western tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, was the closest point of land to the epicenter of the massive 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, which triggered a tsunami that devastated much of the region. 226,000 Indonesians were killed or went missing in the disaster, and approximately 500,000 were left homeless; tens of thousands died elsewhere.

26 Sichuan (ÞÌ ô¹) Province was the location of the Great Wenchuan earthquake of May 12, 2008 which killed at least 70,000 people and left millions homeless.

27 A rocky hill to the north of Seoul.

28 Mount Paekdu is a dormant volcano on the frontier between Korea and China. Its crater is filled with water and from it the Yalu River flows westward, the Tumen River flows eastward, forming the frontier between the two countries.

29 Lumbini, now in western Nepal, is the traditional site of the birth of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha.

30 Kyŏngbok-gung is the principal royal palace of Seoul. Just to the east of the palace was the main military hospital during the Korean war.

31 Taegu, a city in the south-east of Korea, housed a major military hospital to which those seriously wounded, like the poet, were transported for treatment. Its old name was Talgubŏl (ӹϣÛé) which in its pronunciation suggests a pun on the Korean word for ¡®chicken.¡¯

32 John 8: 3-11

33 The word robot was first used by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), published in 1920. The word robota means literally work, labor or serf labor, and figuratively "drudgery" or "hard work" in Czech.

34 The Myŏngnyang straits are a 300 yard long channel between Chindo (Chin Island) and the mainland off the southern coast of South Chŏlla Province. They have such a powerful tidal rip that the sound it produces is likened to the roaring of animals and the strait is also known as Uldolmok (Roaring straits). On September 16, 1597, they were the scene of a famous victory when Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598) led 12 Korean boats against 133 Japanese ships in the Myongnyang Straits, exploiting the movement of the tides. The Koreans sank 31 enemy ships and sent the Japanese fleeing.

35 In this section, the poet combines images from the 1590s with an imaginary future war fought entirely by robots.

36 The word Gulag, originally an acronym derived from the Russian name for The Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies, came to mean the system of forced labor camps developed in the USSR under Stalin. There were at least 476 separate camps and the novel The Gulag Archipelago (1973) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) first made the word familiar in the outside world.

37 The Japanese word for ¡®jellyfish¡¯ is ¡®ªéª² kurage¡¯ and the similarity with the word ¡®gulag¡¯ is the source of these puns. The umbrella-like body of a jellyfish resembles a hat, which the poet identifies with the large horse-hair hat called a kat worn in earlier times by Korean men of the ruling class. From the body of the jellyfish a mass of tentacles hangs, by which the jelly fish stings its prey. «¯ «é«° (guragu) is the Japanese katakana-script way of writing ¡®gulag.¡¯

38 The Punch Bowl is a basin along the Military Demarcation line at Haean-myŏn, Yanggu-gun (Kangwŏn Province), between such heights as Taeu-san and Tosol-san. The area owes its name to its geographical appearance, resembling a bowl (the name derives from the Devil¡¯s Punch Bowl in Surrey, England). Many fierce battles were fought here during the Korean War because of its strategic location.

39 The opening lines of this stanza are quoted from a poem by Yi Dae-Hŭn.

40 The central part of the stanza is from a poem by Sŏ Chŏng-u.

41 The final section is from a poem by Kim Wŏn-il.

42 Kyŏnnaeryang channel divides the island of Kŏje-do from the mainland town of Tongyŏng, off the south coast of South Kyŏngsang Province. The poet stresses the divisive function of the channel. It was the scene of a major victory by Admiral Yi Sun-sin in 1592.

43 Myŏngnyang Channel (see note 4) likewise divides the island of Chindo from Sinan on the mainland and here too the poet evokes a tension existing between the two sides.

44 The two channels, one in South Kyŏngsang Province and the other in South Chŏlla Province, are both part of the same Southern Sea and both were the scene of great victories by Yi Sun-sin, in which the sea helped to protect Korea from the Japanese invaders. Yet the poet recalls that in both places, there was traditional conflict between the people living on the two sides of the channels. In addition, there is a long tradition of conflict between the two provinces of Chŏlla and Kyŏngsang. Here, the poet evokes hopes for reconciliation.