Infant Splendor : Poems by Ku Sang

Translated by Brother Anthony of Taize‚
Copyright 1990 by Brother Anthony

Originally published with paintings by Chung Kwang
by Samseong Publishing Co. Ltd. (Seoul) 1990

Since this volume is now irrevocably out of print, the complete sequence of translated poems is reproduced below.

Contents :


New Year
The World of grown-ups
A tricycle
Lord! Once again
Substance and reality
Scenes from life
Playing by himself
Old children
The baby now
A bed of roses
Last words
Habitual ways of speaking
Picture and recollection
Fire in my heart
Interview with granddaughters
A wry smile
Touching scenes
A beard
Stolen glances
Like this and like that
Hole in the heart
A mirror-stand
A reminiscence
With wild flowers .
Chupung Pass
A vision
Harvest Moon Festival
A horrible feeling
Holy Mary, Mother of God!
Fresh and green
Evening twilight
Eternity within
Come out, snake!
A fable
Eternity already today
Poetic feeling
This year
Dirty Mop Monk
Jung Kwang's picture of a little boy
Jung Kwang's picture of a little girl


'Infant Splendor' is a phrase taken from my poem 'Dirty Mop Monk'. Beginning with a series that lasted some 3 years in the magazine "Contemporary Poetry" (Hyondae Sihak), the Zen artist Jung Kwang and I have published combined poems and paintings in various reviews, under the general title 'Records of Innocence'. Now a collection of our work is published here. The 'mind of childlike innocence' that we try to portray in our poems and paintings is not that state naturally found in the child before it reaches the age of discretion, but rather the condition of someone who has reached purity of heart by achieving mastery over self. Not, of course, that we claim to have attained such a state; I would rather say that we have simply been striving to fathom what might be the nature of such a state. At a time when the whole world seems fascinated by strategic values such as ownership and profit, in the midst of all this uproar, the fact is that we are eager to achieve such an innocence in our lives.
While we were bringing out our series of poems and paintings, we were criticized on the one hand for being 'unrealistic,' on the other for being 'unartistic'. But since neither of us has ever had any thought of becoming the 'ornament of the age' as poet or artist, it seems not to matter! Indeed, isn't that precisely what infant splendor implies?
We would like most especially to greet with great respect the Ven. Hye-ryon of Kam-ro Hermitage, who has encouraged and fostered our friendship.

Ku Sang
First Day of Autumn, 1989 

New Year

Who ever saw a new year, a new morning, all on its own?

Why! You yourself are polluting
each day, that source of mystery,
and just turning it into coal-black waste:

who ever saw a tattered day, a worn-out hour?

If you are not made new
you cannot welcome the new morning as new,
you can never welcome the new day as new;

if your heart's simplicity is once able to bloom,
then you can live the new year as new.


When I first began to toddle
the very first thing I felt
was the fact that my legs and arms
would not move just as I wanted them to.

And now I am close on seventy
what once again I feel
is the fact that my legs and arms
will not move just as I want them to.

Once I would totter towards
my mother's outstretched hands
and now as I live gasp by gasp
clinging to unseen outstretched hands

what I am hoping and longing for is
not a jet plane
or a spaceship

but an experience of the ecstasy of donning wings,
like a caterpillar as it becomes a butterfly,
and, joining with the angels, to fly and fly
with the whole cosmos as my flowery field:
that ecstasy.


You should not make the mistake of thinking
that the childlike heart the sages proclaim
is the state that precedes the age of discretion;

for that kind of infancy, infant immaturity,
is shackled by instinctive impulses
or else is merely complacent and narrow,

while the spirit of childhood
that we have to attain

is an innocence, a simplicity,
an artlessness
that arise from 'rebirths' such as
recognition of the truth
and victory over self.


Baby buds and baby sprouts,
baby leaves and baby flowers:
hills and fields, gardens, paths,
all together blaze with green flames.

Above and below, dazzling bright.
Everything warm and snug.

Who said this is the cruellest month?
Don't attribute to the seasons
all the devastations of your heart!
Don't shut your eyes, then say it's dark.

April is Mother of Charity,
a world of new greens, and of children.

The world of grown-ups

Don't mock me and say:
Why are you so sunk in thought?
It doesn't suit your little form!

The reason I am so shocked and dumbfounded
and quite at a loss for words

is, well, oh dear, well,
is the fact that
what you adults call 'life'
is so crammed full of lies.

You shout justice, yet you act unjustly,
you mouth love, yet you hate each other,
you advocate peace as you fight and kill.

I fear I am very impertinent
but as someone else has said

unless you regain the heart of a child
you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven and
likewise if you do not regain the heart of a child
you cannot escape the snares and quicksands
of this lying world.


I wonder if you can even recall
what that thing called shame is like?

That something you first felt
when you began to be aware of things,
after you broke the vase
that mother had said 'Don't touch!'

like the day when Adam and Eve
covered their nakedness with fig-leaves
in the Garden of Eden
after they had picked and eaten the God-forbidden fruit.

Shame? What humans first felt
when they did any wrong,
a sign of human conscience,
an omen of human salvation.

But nowadays you grown-ups,
even when you do wrong, you feel no shame!

That's a sign your consciences are paralyzed,
an omen that you are heading towards destruction.

A tricycle

A tricycle belonging to one of the neighbour's children is always out on the landing in front of my study door. Friends who often come to visit me are inclined to joke, 'Surely it's time you took to riding a two-wheeled bike?'

As a matter of fact, I have never ridden either a tricycle or a bicycle. For when we were children, tricycles had not made their appearance, and when my elder brother was in major seminary he knocked down a pregnant woman with his bike and our father forbade us to ride them.

Thinking of that, I suddenly realize that this is the only instance where I have acted strictly in accordance with my father's words and teaching from my childhood days until now. And what's more, there's not one of God's Ten Commandments that I have properly obeyed and kept, either,
and soon now I'll be meeting them. How shall I dare face them?


My only daughter, our youngest child, just turned thirty, has had a baby girl, and they are here staying with us while she rests. In our family our sons have had no children, so laying the not-yet-one-hundred-days-old child down:
eyes like her paternal grandmother's
nose like her maternal grandmother's
ears like my father's
hands and feet like my mother's
while the way she stops crying on being bathed
and quickly regains her dignity
is like her grandfather.

My family claim that I enjoy taking a bath so much that I never skip a single day. Since childhood, when there was no bathroom in our house, I have been in the habit of washing my face, hands and feet before going to bed each night.

But nowadays as this old grandfather looks back over a whole lifetime, there is a sense of regret at his neglect in washing his heart. For although Confession offers all that is needed in the way of heart-cleansing, for lack of frequent washing the dirt has accumulated, the skin has cracked, a scab has formed and grown rough, until now no matter how much you rub and scrub, it refuses to become clean and soft. Which is why this grandfather's only hope, and prayer, is a fervent longing that my granddaughter may learn to enjoy washing both her body and her heart.

Lord! Once again


Once again this midday my soul
wandering in search of your kingdom
like a kite soaring through the air
when the cord is snapped by a twirling blast
has vanished into the blue.


Once again this evening my soul
like a puppy that gazes up at the moon
and barks
is barking and whimpering towards you
and gets no reply.Substance and reality

In the course of my life in this world everything
has got covered by a thick crust of uses and categories
in my thoughts, people's thoughts,
until the substance and reality of things
can no longer be seen,
and only fossilized concepts are left scattered around.

Now, pushing aside that crust from off my thoughts,
I re-examine everything, one thing after another,
in imitation of my just 100-day-old granddaughter

and although I cannot yet see as clearly
as that monk who proclaimed 'mountain is mountain
water is water'
still, constantly entranced by the wonder and profundity
of everything,
I do not notice the passing of time.

Scenes from life


The female of a pair of baby turtles
my daughter had bought and put in my study
was lying still and limp
so I hunted high and low
until I finally got hold of a bottle of tonic
and poured that into the aquarium
and this morning she had pretty much revived
swimming down beneath the plants
then climbing up to perch
on a black pock-marked stone.


The little five-year-old girl from the flat above
comes in, carrying a piece of chocolate
and orders, 'Granddad, eat this'.
I lay it down, saying I'll eat it later
but she commands, 'Eat it at once'.
I have diabetes but
what can you do! Swallowing it in a gulp
---- 'Ah lovely!' No other way.


Every day an elderly man
from one of the apartment blocks,
carrying a big sack slung over one shoulder,
goes around the area between the blocks
picking up litter.

Whenever we meet
I greet him and also compliment him,
and when I remark on his constant efforts
he replies, 'It's my pleasure.'

Whenever I part from this novel Sack Monk
I greet him inwardly with joined hands.

Note 'Sack Monk' is the name given to a Chinese Buddhist monk of the Tang Dynasty, who always went around carrying a sack. In Korea it is customary to greet a Buddhist monk by bringing the hands together and bowing (Trans).

Playing by himself

Before the little girl next door
went to primary school
one day on seeing me she said,
'Granddad, they say you're famous?'
So I asked her,
'What's famous?'
She replied,
'I don't know!'
and I told her,
'It's something not good!'

This year, now in the second grade of middle school,
she studied one of my poems printed in their text-book,
and told me she had said that she knew the poet well.
'So what did you tell them?'
I asked;
'That you're just an ordinary old man, but
that you look like a little boy playing by himself!'
she replied.

I was delighted with her answer:
'Well done! Thank you!'
I said, praising her,
and felt cheerful for the rest of the day.


Last night I had a wet dream.
My partner was a young woman lovely as pear-blossom, but she was not my wife, so it seemed like adultery. I felt very self-conscious on waking up.

One night recently I dreamed I had become the head of our Korean CIA. In daily life, if someone I meet says, 'You should try to get a good position in society,' I sometimes jokingly reply, 'Maybe I can become director of the CIA!' But this is too ridiculous!

Now I am getting on for 70, and I believe that after we part from our fishy-smelling bodies, like empty sea-shells along the shore, our life continues away from the waves; but although these are only dreams, is it all just some kind of child's foolishness? Or is it a sign of how deeply the Seven Sins are rooted within my subconscious?

I wonder if I shall ever get free of such fantasies, waking or dreaming?

Old children

As a digression to a poem:
The fact that in the previous poem I described a dream in which I had become the head of the KCIA was mentioned by one friend at a meeting of our 'old children' group and each of them had something to say:

-- Hey, do you write so thoughtlessly because you want to be arrested for nothing?
-- My dear, are you already doting? You're talking nonsense.
-- A poet as head of the CIA, there's a fine idea!
-- Even if it's only a dream, it's disgraceful!
-- Writing that in a poem, you should be ashamed!
-- It's the end! Even a so-called poet has got so twisted!
-- Doesn't it mean that the world as it is is unsatisfactory?

Listening to so many differing opinions, I could only laugh, smiling blissfully like a child having fun because a trick has worked and people have fallen for it.

The baby now

The baby now
is seeing something.
Is hearing something.
Is thinking something.

It's seeing forms like those when
Mohammed in the cave on Mount Hira
received revelation from God.

It's hearing voices like that which
rang out over the head of Jesus of Nazareth
when he was baptized on the banks of the Jordan.

It's lost in thoughts like those when
Shakyamuni attained enlightenment sitting
beneath the Bo tree in the forests of Mount Gaya.

No, the baby is seeing, hearing, thinking
something that is none of those.

It's seeing, hearing, thinking something
that no one else can see or hear or think:

something that as a quite unique human being
it alone will have to bring to bud and blossom.

And all on its own it's smiling sweetly.

A bed of roses

I am glad and grateful and happy.

Wherever one is, that is the best place to be.

Maybe you think that where you are now is a bed of thorns,
but you see, really it's
a bed of roses, the best place to be!

I am glad and grateful and happy.

Note This poem is a version of the words with which the poet Kong-cho (O Sang-sun) used to greet visitors. The 'best place' is marked by a flower-patterned mat on which the guest is invited to sit (Trans)

Last words

On the day the poet Kong-cho died
after completing his full life's span
in unhindered freedom without any concern
about each day's food or a place to rest,
as I was helping care for him

he left me these words:
'Freedom has shackled my whole existence!'

More significantly, Jesus of Nazareth,
who has shown me eternal life,
when he was dying nailed to the cross
truly fulfilling the will of Him,

cried out,
'My God, my God,
why have you forsaken me?'

Did those laments and cries of distress arise
from scepticism about their lives?
from uncertainty about their lives?
No! Certainly nothing like that at all!

But supposing there had been no such confessions,
they would merely have been people who lived
guided by their own fantasy,
sustained by their own persistence;
therefore those words are
a final affirming of their lives,
a final perfecting of their lives:
lives they lived as something offered up.

Note: Kong-cho was the pen-name of the poet O Sang-sun.

Habitual ways of speaking

'Old Pilot', that I was close to during the Korean War, if ever he saw or heard of anybody acting improperly, would first cry out, 'I'll kill him!' in a loud voice, then say to his startled companions, this time in very sweet tones, 'I will now sing a song,' which would make us laugh and smoothe down our bad feelings.

However, at some time or other his way of speaking transferred itself unconsciously to me so that nowadays I find myself saying
'I'll kill him!' in the street
'I'll kill him!' in the bus
'I'll kill him!' at meetings
and worse still
'I'll kill him!' in church
and as I read the evening paper
'I'll kill him!' 'I'll kill them!'
not so that anyone can hear
but again and again without regard for time or place.

They say words are the seeds of action, and as the symptoms are getting worse day by day, if now in the heart there is a silent gun, the number of those I long to suppress keeps increasing one by one, so that if ever that desire materializes, I have fury enough to commit mass murder, and I am myself astonished at that bottomless endless murderous intent.
And just now suddenly there flashed into my mind the realization that of course if 'Old Pilot' always used to add the preposterous refrain 'I will now sing a song,' to his repeated 'I'll kill him!', it was designed to act as an antidote.

In future, whenever the thought 'I'll kill him!' arises, I'll likewise recite at least a favorite poem, so that there will be no murder, not even in the heart.

Note 'Old Pilot' was a nickname given to the late air-force captain Lee Kye-hwan.

Picture and recollection

The other day, as I was looking at a book of paintings by 16th century European artists, I saw a picture of a man with one arm shackled to a great rock, the other rising in the form of a wing; it all seemed extremely familiar, and after careful thought what emerged was something that happened when I was five or six:

The yard of the unfenced house next door to ours in the village was covered with grain spread out on straw mats to dry, and the whole family living there had gone out; the door of the main room was open, and up on the roof of the earth-floored space in front of it a hen was flapping around, one leg tied by a cord to a heavy stone.

After observing it for a while, having made sure nobody was near, with a great effort I snapped the cord, then ran away fast, went home and spent the rest of the day hiding in my room.

When evening came I emerged and this time peeped into the yard from a distance, only to see that the hen was back flapping around at the end of the cord attached to the stone.

Immersed in my recollections, I began to feel that my whole existence has been rather similar to that picture, to that hen.

Fire in my heart

Another memory from when I was five or six.

A young widow, more or less thirty years old, I suppose, had rented a room in the guest-quarters of the house next door and she earned her living working in the laundry of the nearby monastery, a consecrated widow in the Catholic church.

Born late and growing up alone under the care of elderly parents, I was very much attached to that young woman, and she was very fond of me, too, so that I not only frequented that house regularly but even sometimes spent the night there with her, without any objection from my parents.

One autumn, it was a bright moonlit night like tonight, I had fallen asleep after playing beside the woman as she beat out the washed clothes on a fulling-block; in the middle of the night I opened my eyes and found her still beating away Tock-tack Tock-tack and half teasingly asked her, drunk with sleep,
-- Aren't you going to sleep?
then turning over lay down again, only to hear from behind me,
-- Sure, when the fire in my heart is out!

Of course, at that age I had no idea what the fire in her heart could be, or how it could be put out, but those words lodged somewhere in a corner of my mind, ready to emerge vividly as I lay here,
unable to get to sleep on this bright moonlit night.

Interview with granddaughters

I have two granddaughters,
one by my son, one by my daughter.

Their names are Hyang-na and Hyang-ji,
I chose the names myself.

Just gone two and just gone one,
they are still tiny mites.

We fix a date
and meet once a month.

When the day comes both
have so astonishingly grown
that it's not a matter of cute tricks,
they merrily lead me such a dance
that for half a day this old granddad
with his white hair and white beard
doesn't know if he's coming or going.

It's like something from a cartoon
I leave it to your imaginations

but anyway, for me those days are
the most immaculate and utterly innocent moments.

A wry smile

I went into Toksu Palace gardens
on my way to give a lecture for housewives
and there, sitting on a bench in the shade
of the wisteria-covered pergola, was
my sworn friend but, would you believe it!
Well! Sitting there as bold as could be
elbow to elbow with some young thing!

I simply couldn't believe it of him,
so I called out, 'Old fellow!' to embarass him
and he came across, saying,
'Are you jealous or something?'

'Do as well as you can!
I'm for the flower-beds too!'
a bantering reply
but going on my way I reflected:
he's over seventy
and his wife died last year
he's living alone in the flat
so maybe.... I thought.

When I came out after giving my talk
there was my friend sitting downcast
alone on the bench
-- Jilted already?
I asked mockingly.
-- My granddaughter, fallen in love,
ran away from home, wanted to talk,
he replied, smiling wryly.
I likewise gave a wry smile and together
we strolled off towards our usual bar.

Touching scenes


That one is coming near hippity-hop
with quick steps.

That one is going off slip-slop
dragging his feet.

That one is beaming ha-ha
happy smiles.

That one is sitting grrr
all huddled up.

They are all getting worked up
at the thought of becoming president...

I am observing them all hmmm


In an evening sky that has descended lower
than the nearby 63-storey building
the waning moon of early winter
hangs so very lonely.

On the 11th floor veranda of an apartment
one old poet, having gazed out for a while,
humming a line about 'The old site of a ruined castle'
withdraws into his home,
leaving the moon all alone.

Note: "The old site..." is the title and the first line of a well-known Korean song. (Trans.)

A beard

From the early spring of 1980 I was confined to my bed for about three months by a severe attack of chronic asthma. As a result my beard grew thickly beneath my chin and there was really nothing I could do about it.

As chance would have it, that was just when the 5th Republic was being launched, and the kingpins of the moment wanted to have my paltry reputation, no bigger than a pig's tail, on their side, so they set out to drag me into their 'political reality'. Of course I firmly declined, calmly urging them, 'You can see I'm on the rubbish heap, what help do you think it will be to have me?'

Whether it was my words or my face that finally convinced them I'm not sure, for at first they were all hoity-toity, with 'Even if you refuse, we'll go ahead with our decision and announce your name anyway,' but finally they picked on someone else, and as a poet I safely survived one more of the ups and downs of our country's troubled history.

However, apprehensive of possible further demands or enticements, I decided to let my beard stay, with only a little trimming, just a white beard on my chin, like the old men of former times, and at first all the people I met had something to say about it; those not particularly close to me but much younger would say,
-- It suits you so well. Anyone has only to see you to know that you are a poet. You look like some wise master or hermit, far above all earthly things.
They would laud it to the skies, while my family and close friends said,
-- Take that thing off your face. Haven't you got anything better to do?
-- To be sure, you look just like the founder of some heathen religion. Now show yourself in your true colours!

Their scolding and sarcastic remarks came thick and fast.

And whenever I went to any meeting, for want of a better topic the conversation would always end up focussing on my beard, so that for fear that in such groups as The Hundred someone would demand a public explanation as to why I was letting my beard grow, since I could hardly tell the real reason, I would say,
-- I felt that you were not giving me sufficient respect, so to get a little more...
Which once provoked Sok Dong to say,
-- From now on let us all resolve to respect Ku Sang's beard, and nothing else!
For which I had to endure a burst of mocking laughter.

How time heals! Now 7 or 8 years have gone by and my beard seems to have found its place;
luckily no one seems interested in criticizing it nowadays, but there is one annoying thing about it: at present, whenever I attend any public function I can be sure that the TV cameras will come zooming in on this white-bearded face of mine. And since that seems to get broadcast, my acquaintances often greet me with 'We're always seeing you on TV,' so that it seems to have had quite the opposite effect to what was intended when I grew my beard in the first place, but I can't shave it off again... Well, nothing's perfect in this world, is it?

Note: The Hundred is an association founded by the late Ms Kim Hwal-lan. Sok Dong is the literary name of the children's writer Yun Sok-chung.

Stolen glances

A midsummer day at noon
the temperature is hovering around thirty-five;
Sprawled on the wooden floor of the living-room
of a flat on the 7th floor of the block in front
a young woman clad in a light chemise,
her legs stretched out in front of her,
is delving into a water-melon with spoon and knife
and devouring it.

Behind a mesh-window
up on the veranda on the 11th floor of the block behind
an old man with a white beard
feels his mouth watering at the sight of it all.

After a while, having finished eating,
she lifts the hem of her chemise with one hand
and fans herself with the other.

The old man on the veranda, seeing this,
slowly blinks once, then turns and goes back into his room,
fanning himself audibly with the fan he is carrying:
the statues of Han-shan and Shih-te roar with laughter.

A little later, when the old man returns to the veranda,
what meets his gaze across the way?
The young woman has changed her dress and is kneeling
very decorously opposite some gentleman.

Turning as if disappointed, the old man of the veranda
retreats again to his room, muttering
'What chameleons women are!'
and the two monks titter and giggle more than ever.

Note: Han-shan and Shih-te: two Chinese Zen monks of the 7th century Tang Dynasty. Famous 'monastery fools,' they are traditionally shown in fits of uncontrolled laughter.


A solitary dandelion growing on the railway line
pushing up through the gravel between the sleepers

every time a train passes by
has its eyes filled with dust and smoke
its ears deafened with the roar
its heart sinks down
and it nearly dies.

Yet as the seasons pass
it puts out leaves
rears up a stalk
then flowers
and produces a globe of puff.

Now those seeds
floating off on the breeze
will sprout afresh
in those green fields over there.

Like this and like that

Apartment-life may be like a henhouse
in the middle of a concrete jungle,
but there's plenty of sunlight comes in
and it certainly can't be compared
to Diogenes's barrel.

In the open spaces front and back
trees stand here and there
and as they change with the seasons
they allow an experience of the wonders of nature
while a few chrysanthemums and roses
equally enthrall my soul.

Strolling on the river banks where wild plants grow
and gazing out at the River Han
is my daily task
and now I have become a single drop of water
within its flow
so that there is nothing I can call myself.

Only the people I meet indoors or out
may seem a little out of breath
like athletes running in a stadium
but that too will change!
The problem is that when I was young
the folks at home were too easy-going.

Like this and like that
my life nears its close
and even death that I used to dread
has now come to seem cozy like a mother's hug.

Hole in the heart

Somewhere deep inside my heart
a hole has opened

so that as I touch
that emptiness or rather
that boundlessness
that eternity

out of that place
that can only be called
the Void

a miraculous breeze comes blowing.
A mysterious sound comes chiming.
A divine word comes ringing.

And as I, becoming a baby again,
with pre-verbal language,

as everything in the whole world,
each in its own place and with its own form,
becomes a bright star and shines,

as I experience my immortality,
the transience of life grows more precious still
and I am most utterly happy!

A mirror-stand

One evening recently I went to a restaurant in Insadong that I often frequent; as I entered the dining room I noticed a mirror-stand with a mirror about the size of a book, and struck suddenly with an
uncharacteristically laudable idea, I asked the proprietress:
-- Let me know what shop round here sells those mirrors, and I'll get one too.
-- You want to give one to your granddaughter?
and at the end of the evening as we were leaving, I was handed that mirror-stand all kindly wrapped up and not allowed even to think of paying for it.
I carried it home cheerfully and said to my wife, with a show of bravado,
-- Now at long last, how about a luxurious experience thanks to your dear old husband?
and gave it to her; she unwrapped it, looked, then, seemingly disappointed, said,
-- It's too early to give it to Hyang-na, she's barely four, we'd better keep it a while, then give it to her.
As a matter of fact, the big mirror-stand that my wife brought with her when we married forty-four years ago got lost when we fled southwards soon after Liberation in 1945 and from that time until now, when she is seventy, she has made do with hand-mirrors or wall-mirrors; it's needless to say carelessness on my part, though with her position as a practising physician if she had really wanted a mirror-stand it would not have been beyond our possibilities, but since she is by nature someone with no interest in prettifying herself, she gets along fine with just a hand-mirror.

A few days later I went back to that restaurant, taking a pottery flower-vase adorned with a
painting of a landscape by Unpo by way of return:
-- And was your granddaughter pleased then?
I replied,
-- She's still only a baby; she doesn't know what a mirror-stand is!
and made up my mind that I really would arrange to give my wife an Yi Dynasty-style mirror-stand, but as of the time of writing this I have not actually got round to doing so.

Note: Unpo is the professional name of a famous contemporary deaf artist, Kim Ki-chang.

A reminiscence

Seeing the face of Miss Rim Ch'un-aeng,
triple gold-medallist at the Asian Games,
shining from the TV screen,
her expression seems so very familiar.

After long rummaging through my memories
I recall Modigliani's 'Portrait of a Woman'
pinned on the wall of my boarding-house room
when I was studying in Tokyo in my early 20s.

At the time I admired and loved
that haggard-looking face so much
I even bragged to my friends
I would marry a woman like that.

In the end, I couldn't meet any such girl
and I got married to my rather more cozy wife,
and now, after forty-two years have gone by,
at last just such a girl has appeared.....

Well, they say that Goethe when he was 70
fell passionately in love with a girl of 18?
And Henry Miller, who survived until last year,
is supposed to have sent telegrams of courtship
at the age of 70, too?

But me?
Well, that's another matter!

Judging by the mirror
today of all days
my grey hair and my grey beard
look whiter than ever.


One day last autumn, Professor W, whom I had met when I was at the University of Hawaii, came to my study during a visit to Seoul.
Then a little later Professor W's Korean student, who had accompanied him on his visit to our house, arrived with a truckload of various potted plants which he duly brought up to my study, saying,
-- Professor W sent me a hundred dollars to buy pots of flowers to put in your study. He insisted on potted plants.
I only said 'Thank you,' receiving them calmly and gratefully, but once he had left I burst into gales of laughter, such as I rarely enjoy.
In actual fact, I already had on the veranda of my study two potted orchids, as well as 5 or 6 other kinds of potted plants, but Professor W must have taken them for weeds and mistakenly felt that my study was a sorry sight indeed, without a single decent flower in it.
However, that foreign friend's kindly-meant gifts were rather too intrusive for my taste and I got tired of seeing them; then as spring came they grew even more bulky and threatened to be even more gaudy until at last today, after mature consideration, I finally sent the whole lot off to a convent.
And now I am contemplating my weeds with a very peaceful feeling. These nameless wild flowers first came up of their own accord several years ago in a pot where some spring chrysanthemums had been, and they vanish and reappear, reproducing themselves in this or that pot. I have only to contemplate them -- even though I am sitting here in a secluded room on the 11th floor of a concrete jungle hen-house apartment block -- to feel that I am walking along the lanes or over the hills of my childhood home.
Besides, as I contemplate their tiny, fragile, mysterious flowers, I really sense, to the point of tears, that truly 'Solomon in all his glory' cannot be compared with one of them.

With wild flowers

In a flower-pot out on my veranda
where orchids had died off
a wild plant came up of its own accord
and produced flowers like white dust.

This single tiny plant,
occupying this moment in eternity
occupying this place in infinity:
the fact that it has born flowers,
the more I think about it,
the more it seems mysterious beyond measure.

Indeed, this being called I too,
occupying this moment in eternity
occupying this place in infinity:
the fact that I am face to face with this wild flower,
the more I think about it,
the more it too seems mysterious beyond measure.

And finally as I muse over these things I,
escaping from the being called I
and united with the wild flower

as one expression of eternity and infinity,
as one part of eternity and infinity,
as one love of eternity and infinity,

now exist here.


I have this little granddaughter, not yet two, Hyang-ji. She comes once a month to pay a visit to her old granddad, and every time she comes I am struck by how much she has grown, not only in body but in heart.
This time when she came, as we were sitting eating supper around the table in the living room of my flat, my wife and her mother feeding her or she feeding herself as she moved around on their laps, suddenly up the little rascal stood, crossed to the sideboard, pulled a sheet of tissue-paper from the box lying there, toddled across to her granddad, and proceeded to wipe away the drops of sweat that had gathered on my nose!
From what I have heard, they say that humanity began to evolve two thousand million years ago from single-celled organisms, and we had become fish by about one thousand four hundred million years ago, by which stage affection was already being exercised, then by about four hundred and fifty million years ago we had become animals, with affection being extended to the young of the species, then about one million years ago when humanity appeared, at last affection was extended to other people and even to other kinds of creatures.
'Humanity': that kind of affection extending both to other people and to other creatures! That is precisely the 'barometer' indicating the difference between people and all the other animals, it is love, mercy, benevolence, so there is nothing special about the teaching of the sages who tell us that we should manifest such 'humanity' concretely.
Having experienced our Hyang-ji's flawless humanity, I have been deeply moved and happy now for several days. And I feel ashamed of my own humanity, dulled through lack of use, like the affection of the beasts.

Chupung Pass

On the steep slopes
at Chupung Pass
a mass of mountain flowers I cannot name
comes into view.

A pretty woman in Korean dress of ramie fabric
sitting beside me
exclaims in a warm voice,

'Oh, just look at those flowers!
Aren't they lovely!'

Her sigh echoes that of the Lady Suro.

Stroking my grey beard I evoke the image
of that old man of thirteen hundred years ago

evoking his image today in this place
as the old man thirteen hundred years before
from his place on the mountain slopes by the East Sea
evoked the image of me today
and inside the speeding express bus
alone I feel sad
and alone smile sweet smiles.

Note: The Lady Suro was a governor's wife renowned for her beauty in the Silla Dynasty.
The 'old man' figures in a Silla dynasty song: 'Song of an old man offering flowers'.

A vision

Here I am, sitting on the wooden veranda
of the Amitabha Hermitage, a building
three hundred years old, as old as old can be,
pillars and walls all askew,
perched on the middle slopes of the outermost ridges
of the Diamond Mountains.

Sound of the breeze
sound of streams
sound of birds
absolutely nobody near
only sometimes a squirrel
taking a short-cut through the garden
stares up wide-eyed.

Sitting thus for half a day,
looking up at the strange rock shapes
of Longevity Rock,
or gazing out at the distant East Sea,
or up at the clouds drifting by, then
casually stepping down into the garden:

Is this some kind of apparition?
My mother.
In the forty years since I left my home in the North
she must have died and I know nothing of her tomb:
my mother

is there in the sky above the fresh green trees
that cover Sonhwa peak,
just like the Virgin as she appeared at Lourdes,
enveloped in a halo!

The form is so lifelike
I rub my eyes, brushing away tears
and take a few steps forward
and, ah, she has vanished.


Harvest Moon Festival

your unworthy son is older now
than you were when I took my leave of you
for the last time,
and it seems my hair and beard are whiter
than my father's when he died.

I have heard that after my elder brother, the priest,
was taken away by the communists, you found refuge
in the house of your god-daughter Johanna
until you died,
but were you laid in a coffin?
Were you provided with a grave?
I do not know,
and I cannot picture your burial-place,
to my greater grief.

today is the festival of the Harvest Moon,
they say a million people have left Seoul
to go and venerate their ancestors' tombs,
while groups have come from Japan and China
for the same purpose,
but I just attended a Requiem Mass this morning
and now, sitting here absently
at the window of my study,
I am gazing up at the clouds as they drift Northwards.

Oh mother.


Those people know not
what they do.

These too know not
what they do.

Deliver us
from this blind strife.

Give us eyes to see
at least as much as two-week-old puppies can.

A horrible feeling

Everybody knows the story, how in the New Testament the Pharisees dragged before Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery, and asked,
'The Law of Moses commands that anyone guilty of this sin should be stoned to death; what do you say?'
To this double-noosed snare of a question Jesus at first made no reply but indifferently stooping down wrote something on the ground, but when they demanded a reply he raised his head and said,
'Let one among you who is without sin be the first to strike her!' and the main point of the story is that on hearing this the Pharisees went away one by one, beginning with the eldest. What we have to note here is the fact that Jesus is concerned to show up an attitude common both to the Scribes and Pharisess of his own time and to today's experts in the ways of the world: they consider justice and love, which are one, as two separate things, and confuse the sin and the sinner.
But the more I see and hear of life in today's world, the more I have a horrible feeling that if such a legal dispute were to arise in present-day Seoul, the adulterous woman, of course, and Jesus of
Nazareth as well, both would simply be stoned to death on the spot, and my heart grows dark and full of dread.

Lord God!
Deliver us from utter evil.
Lord God!

Holy Mary, Mother of God!

Holy Mother,
our life in this world is such a mess,
I am afraid even to talk of it, but since now
we cannot deal with it ourselves,
I beg you to tell your son our Lord in heaven
something about it.

Holy Mother,
just as our Lord prayed his Father from the cross
to forgive people
because they did not know what they were doing,
I beg you to pray earnestly your son our Lord in heaven
to forgive all these nations
clamoring here in the chaos of the seven sins.

Holy Mother,
as you kept on at your son
at the marriage in Cana
until he changed the water into wine,
I beg you keep on at your son our Lord in heaven
like any human mother,
to straighten out our life in this world.


When buying beef or other meat,
if you ask for so many kun
a rough guess is good enough,
but if you ask for so many grams
then guesswork is not acceptable.

If you hear of so many degrees
above or below zero,
you can estimate if the weather is hot or cold,
but if you hear of so many millibars of pressure,
you can't estimate the power of the wind you will have,
and if they can tell you the 'discomfort-index'
why the devil can't they calculate a 'comfort-index'?

Then as soon as they go on to talk about
velocity per second and the speed of light
your head begins to ache,
while if someone ever mentions calory-contents
you lose your appetite for that meal.

Worse still, when they talk of
'improving your sexual levels'
as they often do in the papers
in advertisements for magazines,
do they mean that the sweetness and joy
of a kiss can be measured chastely?

Since today we are all living
in a world of measureable quantities,
I am an old man quite out of step with the times.
But I have one question.
As the world goes running after quantity like this,
why is the world of quality reduced to such poverty?

And if they calculate values as they do,
why is it that the theft of a few thousands
and the embezzlement of a few billions
are not punished proportionately?

Note: a kun is a traditional Korean measure of weight.

Fresh and green

My head frosted white,
I gaze up at the fresh green
of the courtyard gingko tree.

As I gaze up at the fresh green,
the image of last winter's gaunt skeleton
comes to mind:

then where in this fresh, bright greenery
are hidden the footsteps
that are hastening on towards decline?

If that tree is every springtime
full of new life, it must be
because its roots are sound!

Then if your approaching death
is to be blessed with Resurrection,
the roots of your heart must likewise
be kept free of decay.

Evening twilight

It was quite by chance that the three of us happened to visit the Olympic Park; emerging from the wedding of a member of a friend's family, one day in late February, we were so struck by the intense spring light that it seemed wrong to separate and go home to curl up so soon.

We had not thought to bring along our old-age pensioners' cards but the girl at the ticket booth charged us the reduced rate anyway and, indicating one of us, remarked with a smile, "Isn't that one 'Sonja's Rules of Warfare'?"

It may be called spring, but still there was nothing to be seen in the park but dry withered yellow lawns and trees standing skeletal, everything was infinitely dreary and the so-called modern sculptures standing around struck us as not so very beautiful.

Passing over a hillock, we found another trio of old men, of about our age, advancing shakily towards us: nothing to write home about, as the saying goes.

-- My dear, what say you go and join up with that lot?
My friend the novelist Chong Pi-sok suggested sarcastically, looking at me.
-- Why, do you think you're any better than them?
We swapped jokes blithely enough but although our clothes were perhaps a bit better cut, they were really the spitting image of ourselves.

Passing the place where you can see remains of old earthen fortifications, we reached the top of another rise. From there we had a view of a distant pavillon, a pond, a stone bridge. But by now the three of us had run out of energy for further walking. It was the poet Kim Kwang-kyun, who was using a walking stick, who spoke first,
-- Nothing special worth looking at over there!
-- With companions like you, there would be no fun in it, anyway!
I said, disparaging our company, so that old Pi-sok burst out,
-- Ah, if only even old Lady Minister had come along, for want of anything better!
And we all burst out laughing.

We grumble at one another, yet after all we are nothing but dried-up trees; we had wanted to observe the spring: but how can there be any cheerfulness left for us at our age? Turning, the three old trees look up at the sky where a pale twilight is gleaming.

Note: "Sonja's Rules of Warfare" was originally the title of a classical Chinese novel, which was adapted into Korean by Chong Pi-sok and became the basis for a popular TV series to which the girl was referring. The 'Lady Minister' refers to the essayist Ms Cho Kyong-hui, who was previously a Cabinet Minister.

Eternity within


Day and night, inside the confines
within me, snarling,

I wonder what that ferocious beast
is really like?

Has it glimpsed some prey?
Today it is bounding high.


Aimlessly drifting
over the sea within me,

I wonder where is the port of call
of that anchorless skiff?

The waves seem rough.
Today it is rocking wildly.


Endlessly stretching its pinions
in the vastnesses within me,

I wonder when and where
that bluebird dream will be fulfilled?

It longs for the Gardens of Immortality.
Today Eternity lies within me.

Come out, snake!

I went to the opening of a retrospective
exhibition of paintings by the great master
Pung-gok (Song Chae-hyu);
bringing together the major works of his
lifetime's career -- seventy years --
it filled both floors of the Hoam Gallery.

Strolling round the gallery with him
I said, just to have something to say,
'Are all these really painted from your own inspiration?'
and congratulated him;
'Sometimes I copied other people's things,'
was his riposte.

We moved on a bit then stopped
together in front of a painting
entitled "Come out, snake!"

Beneath an evening moon as big as a tray
a frog as big as a rock is sitting
squat on his behind, his back legs spread out,
a bulging stomach as big as Namsan hill;
on the palm of his left paw extended before him
he is holding high a big glass brimming with liquor;
with eyes big as saucers, his mouth gaping fit to split,
a strange and touching sight, all flushed with drink...

'Aha, your self-portrait, my dear!'
'Hmm. Do you possibly know this admirable condition?'
'Well, I'm no good at the way of righteousness,
but when it comes to the way of drinking...'

We looked at one another and guffawed loudly
'Do you still drink, old friend?'
'I've said good-bye to all that! What about you?'
'Me too; doctor's orders!'
We each fell into a melancholy silence.

A fable

In the early days of the Choson Dynasty
the great statesman Hwang-hui
said in a quarrel between woman servants
-- What you say is true
and what you say is true.

His wife standing nearby,
seizing on the ambiguous equivocation,
-- Your wife is true, too.

In my younger days I could never fathom
Hwang-hui's inner thoughts
and simply took it for some kind of joke,
but now I keep discovering how similar to him
I myself have become in this world.

It was not that he meant that those women's words
were relatively true, or that he could not tell
if they were good or bad,
he did not speak with an intention or calculation
to sidestep or appease,
but he had come to understand that
all human opinions and wisdom are always imperfect,
and I understand and sympathize with his decision
to suspend judgement for that reason.


I am two of us inside.
Or maybe rather three.

The I that people see outside,
the I close hidden here inside,
and the unconscious I
that I myself cannot divine,
each I stands apart.

Today again: after a haircut and shave
in a local barber's shop
as the girl was giving me a massage
her hands touched my private parts
and for a moment there was a quarrel
between me wanting to warn her off with a "Don't"
and me hoping her hands would slip that way again.

You can say that this kind of fight
between me and me inside is constant,
but recently one night in a dream
I was with a woman I'd never met
and it's ridiculous but I ejaculated;
who was the I acting there?

Which of these three, then,
is the real or false me,
the good or bad me,
which of them is really me?
The more I wonder the less I know.

And as I reflect this way and that,
I get more and more anxious
about which me will be involved
the day I die and go to be judged.

Eternity today

Today again news came of a friend's death.
Well, we all have to go,
some sooner some later.

I hope my turn comes 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,

Poetic feeling

Each month for this series
I select bits of idle chatter such as this
and turn out things called poems,

so that one young poet, perhaps finding it rather odd,
observed, "Then it seems there is absolutely nothing
in the whole world that is not a poem?"

Right! There is nothing
in the world, to be sure,
that is not a poem.

From humanity on down,
in every thing and every act,
all that is true and good and beautiful
is all poem.

More than that, in every person
and in every thing and in every act
the good, the beautiful, the true dwells.

And it is written that where sin increases
God's grace increases all the more.

Discovering that,
and then like a child
savoring and enjoying it,
is to be a poet.

Note: "Where sin increases... ": Romans 5:20.


Usually when we talk with someone,
no matter how much a speaker dresses up his words,
if they are not stamped with sincerity
those words will never touch the other person's heart;

much more, no matter how gorgeous the symbols of a poem,
if reality is not there, how will it ever move people?

People commonly claim that words and thoughts are distinct,
but really thoughts and feelings are experienced in words
so that it has been said 'Being dwells in language'

And just as another person may savour the beauty of a rose
blooming in a neighbour's garden more than the actual owner,
or just as the trampling of a roadside weed
may move someone else to tears of pity,

a poem is something born, brought into being and written
out of a 'universal sensitivity' and compassion,
so never try to find or get or write a poem
while haltered by ownership or self-interest!

Ah! The wonder of the Word!

Note: 'Being dwells in language' is from Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought.
'Universal sensitivity' is Paul Val{ry's definition of poetry.

This year

As this country rocked like a boat in Galilee's storms,
I spent the whole year not loosing my belief in God alone,
just doing as I could what had to be done.

Laid up sick, I suffered for more than a month,
there were many hard things in the family and the world,
but having endured it all meekly, it proved more valuable
than any good fortune could have been.

These days, as I dream bright dreams of the world beyond,
entrusting all things to His divine Will,
even if storms are forecast for the coming New Year
there is nothing I fear.

Dirty Mop Monk

All in tatters both outside and in,

he claims he'll swab off every last trace of filth
from this world with his mop; I am dumbfounded.

A scrawl of black ink:
the back of Dharma's head!

My! What infant splendor!

Responding properly to you is no easy thing!

But as I stand panting here
at the crest of my life,

unexpectedly encountered,
a shower of grace!

Note: Dharma is used here in its original Sanskrit sense of 'truth'.

Jung Kwang's picture of a little boy

A snow ball rolled,
scraps of charcoal stuck in,
a child's face and,
to round it off, a nose askew
made of a dead leaf,

that's all the face is and yet
more lifelike than the real thing,
isn't it a marvelous creation?

Why does this child's face
look so familiar to us all?
As it must, inevitably!

It shows both you and I
in swaddling clothes
as we were cherished once at our mother's breast,

it shows both you and I
as we shall become again
sometime, at long last!

Jung Kwang's picture of a little girl

No contour to her face,
no neck, no arms,

below the flowing locks that hang
like a rotting thatch roof
covered with trailing gourd creepers,
a silhouette in inky lines
like two old broken posts,

while beneath eyes and eye-brows that look
like bits of straw fallen to the ground
and arranged evenly by chance,
just like an unhealed wound in form,
a nose,

and to crown it all a red dot:
cherry lips too are
on the way out.

This rough-faced little girl
has the expression of a crawling baby
that is gazing up towards its mother

and as it melts into the sweet smile of a love
that cannot be perceived with just the five senses,
it shines with a light of higher purity
than the light of the morning sun.

She is adopting an air
that would put even Venus to shame.