1.  Spirit Mountain    2
2.  Epitaph    3
3.  Going Home in the Evening    4
4.  Faint Shadows of Old Love    5
5.  The Land of Mists    7
6.  A Ghost    8
7.  Small Men    9
8.  Death of a Baby Crab    11
9.  An Old, Old Question    12
10.  The Depths of a Clam    14
11.  Mount Inwang    15
12.  The Birth of a Stone    16
13.  Roadside Trees in April    17
14.  I Wonder Who    18
15.  To My Children    19
16.  Tightropes    21
17.  Wisdom Tooth    22
18.  In Those Days    23
19.  A Good Son    24
20.  Aniri 8    25
21.  Workers’ Day    26
22.  A Slide    27
23.  The World I Long For    28
24.  North South East West    29
25.  Evening snow    30
26.  Mutter mutter    31
27.  A journey to Seoul    32
28.  Who’s calling, I wonder    33
29.  Walking in the dark    34
30.  An autumn day    35
31.  He walked straight ahead    37

1.  Spirit Mountain

In my childhood village home there was a mysterious mountain. It was called Spirit Mountain. No one had ever climbed it.

By day, Spirit Mountain could not be seen.
With thick mist shrouding its lower half and clouds that covered what rose above, we could only guess dimly where it lay.

By night, too, Spirit Mountain could not be seen clearly.
In the moonlight and starlight of bright cloudless nights its dark form might be glimpsed, yet it was impossible to tell its shape or its height.

One day recently, seized with a sudden longing to see Spirit Mountain—it had never left my heart—I took an express bus back to my home village.
Oddly enough, Spirit Mountain had utterly vanished and the unfamiliar village folk I questioned swore that there was no such mountain there.


2.  Epitaph

He never read a line of poetry,
not one single novel.
He lived happily all his life,
earned a lot of money,
rose to high position
and left this magnificent tombstone
for which some famous literary figure
wrote an epitaph eulogizing him.
Even if the world is reduced to ashes
this stone will firmly resist the heat
of the flames and survive
to become a precious historical document.
Then what on earth does history record?
What tombs will poets leave?


3.  Going Home in the Evening

We gave up any thought of flying long ago.

These days we don’t even try to run.
We dislike walking, so we try to ride.
We mostly travel by bus or subway.
Once on board, we all try to get a seat.
Once seated, we lean back snoozing.
Not that we are tired,
but every time money-making is over
our heads become atrophied
and scales sprout all over our bodies.
Our blood has grown cold
but still, with our eyes half-open
our practiced feet take us home.

We return every evening to our homes
like reptiles returning to their swamp.


4.  Faint Shadows of Old Love

In late 1960, the year of the April Revolution,
we met at five in the afternoon,
happily clasped hands in greeting
then sitting in a chill unheated room,
our breaths condensing white,
we engaged in heated discussions.
Foolishly enough we believed
we were living for the sake of something,
for something that had nothing to do with politics.
The meeting ended inconclusively and that evening,
drinking grog at Hyehwa-dong Rotary,
we worried in a pure-minded way
about problems of love and spare-time jobs
and military service.
Each of us sang as loud as he could
songs no one listened to,
songs no one could imitate.
Those songs we sang for no reward
rose up into the winter sky
and fell as shooting stars.

Eighteen years later we finally met again,
all wearing neckties.
Each of us had become something.
We had become the older generation,
living in dread of revolution.
We chipped in to cover the cost of the party,
exchanged news of our families
and asked the others how much they were earning.
Anxious about the soaring cost of living,
happily deploring the state of the world,
expertly lowering our voices
as we discussed rumors,
we were all of us living for the sake of living.
This time no one sang.

We parted, leaving abundant drink and side dishes behind us,
after noting one another’s new phone numbers.
A few went off to play poker.
A few went off to dance.
A few of us walked sadly
along the University Street we used to frequent,
clutching rolled-up calendars under our arms,
in a place we had returned to after long wanderings,
in that place where our former love had bled.
Unfamiliar buildings had appeared suspiciously
though the roadside plane trees stood in their old places
and a few remaining dry leaves trembled there,
sending shudders up our spines.
Aren’t you ashamed?
Aren’t you ashamed?
As the wind’s whisper flowed about our ears
we deliberately made middle-aged talk about our health
and took one step deeper into the swamp.


5.  The Land of Mists

In the land of mists,
always shrouded in mist,
nothing ever happens.
And if something happens
nothing can be seen
because of the mist.
For if you live in mist
you get accustomed to mist
so you do not try to see.
Therefore in the land of mists
you should not try to see.
You have to hear things.
For if you do not hear you cannot live,
so ears keep growing bigger.
People like rabbits
with ears of white mist
live in the land of mists.


6.  A Ghost


Look at that black car
speeding through the dark.
Look at those men in everyday clothes
vanishing up side-streets smoking cigarettes.
Look at those oily marks
spreading over the devastated earth.
Look at those pieces of iron
littering every roadside.

If you cannot see the shape of the ghost
you must all be blind!

Within the flying dust and cement
that enter our lungs each time we breathe
until at last it seems we must suffocate

if you cannot hear the voice of the ghost
you must all be deaf!
Hear the voice of those corpses
rotting sunk in some deep pond.
Hear the voice of those broken bodies
that rise smoking from every chimney and fill the sky.
Hear the groans that to the bitter end
do not emerge from mouths clenched tightly shut.
Hear those shouted commands that rise
from a treeless sandy plain.


7.  Small Men

They are getting smaller.
They keep getting smaller.
Before they had finished growing,
already they had begun to get smaller.
Before they first fell in love, as they thought about war
they began to get smaller.
The older they get the smaller they get.
As they break off a yawn they get smaller.
As they shudder from terrifying nightmares
they get smaller.
Jumping every time someone knocks they get smaller.
Hesitating even at a green light they get smaller.
As they lament that they do not grow old quickly enough
they get smaller.
As they bury their heads in the newspaper,
since the world is so calm they get smaller.
Standing neatly in line wearing ties they get smaller.
As they all think about earning money doing business
they get smaller.
As they listen to inaudible orders they get smaller.
As they repeat words identical as uniforms they get smaller.
As they fight with invisible enemies they get smaller.
As they attend multiple meetings and clap they get smaller.
As they consume luncheons of power and pick their teeth
they get smaller.
As they grow fat and play golf they get smaller.
As they go to cocktail parties and drink scotch they get smaller.
As they embrace their wives now grown too stout they get smaller.

They have grown small.
At last they have grown small.
They have grown smaller than the quick-eyed sparrows
that fly up to the eaves from the garden.
Now they know how to smoke while wearing a mask.
They know how to laugh louder than ever at unfunny moments.
They know how to be sincerely sad for long periods
about things that are not sad.
They know how to keep happiness hidden deep down.
They know how to evaluate correctly each kind of anger.
They know how not to say what they really feel
and to cast furious glances at one another.
They know how not to think of questions nobody asks.
They know how to count their blessings
every time they pass a prison.
They know how each to take an umbrella and walk down alley-ways
when it rains.
Instead of dancing in the plains
they know how to sing falsetto in bars.
When they make love they know how to cut back on uneconomical
wearisome caresses.
they have grown small.
They have grown quite small enough.
All that is left is their Name, Occupation and Age.
Now they have grown so small they are invisible.

They cannot get any smaller.

8.  Death of a Baby Crab

One baby crab,
caught with its mother,
while the big crabs, tied together by a straw rope
foam and wave aimless legs,
tumbles out of the hawker’s basket
and crawls off sideways, sideways over the roadway,
in quest of past days of hide-and-seek in the mud
and the freedom of the sea.
It pricks up its eyes and gazes all around,
then dies, squashed across the roadway,
run over by a speeding army truck.
No one notices how a light of glory shines
where the baby crab’s remains rot in the dust.


9.  An Old, Old Question

Who doesn’t know that?
As time flows on
flowers wither
leaves fall
and one day or other
we too grow old and die like animals,
return to the earth,
vanish towards the sky.
Yet the world, unchanging
as we live on, keeps prodding us awake
with an old old question.
Only look!
Isn’t this new and amazing and lovely?
Every year the deep perfume
of lilacs growing on mounds of rubbish
fills the back-streets.
An unsightly prickly cactus
dangling from the corner of a broken pot,
blooms with one bright flower
after long restless nights.
The bright form of a lotus flower
springs from a pond’s black slime.
And surely
a child’s sweet smile,
sprung from a dark human womb,
makes us still more perplexed?
We oblige our children
to put on shoes
to prevent them treading barefoot on the ground
and when their hands get muddy
we wipe them off saying, “That’s dirty.”
For goodness sake!
Not rooted in the ground,
their bodies not smeared with mud,
the children’s bursting hearts,
their bouncing bodies,
as they frolic and grow,
all that welling energy—
where do you think it comes from?

10.  The Depths of a Clam

After they got married, the girl never confessed her first love affair. And of course her husband never got round to telling his secrets, either. As they went on living, their lives were nothing but disenchantment. In order to conceal their disenchantment, they said countless things, but there were still things they did not say.
The disenchantment built up like lead inside their bodies. The words they could not say hardened in their breasts like cancerous cells.

Although the disenchantment was unavoidable, they always wanted to speak. They longed to pour out all that they had on their hearts to someone. It seemed that if nobody was going to remember, they would be able to relax and tell it all at length.
At times it happened that other people said something similar. Or while reading they would discover a passage to that effect and thankfully underline it. Or they heard music that was more explicit than words. Yet to the very end their lips remained sealed like clams.
Finally, after living long years in unending disenchantment, they died still treasuring their secrets. In so far as they were silent, history was concealed and truth was hidden. So today, as we repeat their life and discern those hidden depths, we still believe that this world is worth living in.


11.  Mount Inwang

Majestic Mount Inwang!
In old days a breeding-place of tigers
and for five hundred years rising
on the outskirts of the nation’s capital—
then called Hanyang—
gazing down on the joys and sorrows
of Seoul as if on childhood toys.
The home of my remote grandfather
Where now is the trustworthy face
of that tremendous rocky slide
I used to itch to climb when I was a child?
Today broken glass and plastic bags lie scattered
in the pine groves of the steep valley
where pure water used to run between the rocks.
A gray oily haze shimmers
veiling the mountain’s mass
and now its mighty spurs,
crisscrossed in all directions with asphalt roads,
imprisoned in the midst of a population of eight million,
seem about to collapse,
panting and gasping for breath,
showing only a desiccated profile,
a shabby back,
slumped down on one edge of downtown Seoul,
reduced in old age to life in a rented room.
Poor Mount Inwang!


12.  The Birth of a Stone

I wonder if there are stones
in those deep mountain ravines
that no one has ever visited?
I went up the mountain
in quest of a stone no one had ever seen
from the remotest of times.

Under ancient pines
on steep pathless slopes
there was a stone.
I wonder
how long
this stone all thick with moss
has been

Two thousand years? Two million? Two billion?
Not at all.
If really till now no one
has ever seen this stone,
it is only
from now on.

This stone
was only born
the moment I first saw it.


13.  Roadside Trees in April

Their tops were cut off long ago
so as not to touch the power lines.
This year even their limbs have been lopped
so they cannot sway if a spring breeze blows
and only the trunks remain like torsos
suffocating and grim.
When the lilac perfume deepens,
memories of another April day return
but now every trailing branch has been cut off
so that the street-side weeping willows,
lined up in rows,
unable even to put out new leaves,
seething with impatience but
unable to utter even a cry,
are putting out leaves from their trunks.


14.  I Wonder Who

I wonder who has abolished the downtown bus-stops.

I wonder who is blowing a whistle far away
as he follows along behind us
eavesdropping on what we say
spying on our loves,
and has gone off robbing us of our deep sleep.
Our happy home has been raided like a brothel
our laboriously cultivated flowerbeds
trampled underfoot.
I wonder who has dirtied our pure skies
put barbed-wire round our green villages
emptied waste oil into our broad oceans
disturbed our serious meetings
stopped our forceful steps
arrested our honest neighbors.
I wonder who is pointing a gun at our backs
With our eyes blindfolded
our mouths gagged
throats strangling
veins pumped up,
I wonder who has entered our heads
and is sticking a knife into our brains,
reading things we never wrote.
I wonder who is beating a drum far away
as he drives us up a blind alley.

I wonder who is this someone we didn’t invite.

15.  To My Children

Never go into dangerous places.
And it is better to do nothing
that might make people suspect you.
That’s what my deceased father
always used to say.
Obedient to his words,
I stayed indoors
like a cat on a sunny back porch.
I was always a sweet child—
someone who lives peacefully,
someone who never does anything,
someone who leaves no trace behind.
According to his words, if you live like that
what difficulties can you have in life?
I was willing but it is not so easy
to live like that either.
Maybe it’s because I lack mental stamina?
On days typhoons blow,
sitting indoors at home
sorting out dog-eared books
and burning old diaries,
I keep tearing things up
so that nothing will remain.
For suppose something were to remain!
And even if one day suddenly
I became unable to do this,
suppose somebody were to remember me!
But in any case maybe a strange
telephone call will come first.
When an earthquake strikes,
just staying indoors is dangerous too.
Even doing nothing
makes people suspect you.
Having shunned the sin of
the quiet life,
this is what I will tell my children:
Don’t live peacefully.
At least do something.
No matter how shameful the trace,
leave something behind you.

16.  Tightropes

There’s no audience, yet
everyone’s carrying a pole
and walking the tightrope up in the air
where so many ropes are crisscrossed
that if there’s no way ahead on one
they jump across to the next
and even when resting keep switching
from one to another and back.
But if you fall
between the ropes you
into the unfathomed dark.
With so many ropes crisscrossing
it sometimes looks like solid ground
but if you blink one eye and
make a false step
you’ve had it so,
trying hard not to fall,
controlling their swaying bodies,
everyone’s ever so cautiously
toeing the line.

17.  Wisdom Tooth

It’s a nuisance.
It ought to come out.
It will just go rotten
and damage the molars.
A wisdom tooth should come out.
I don’t know why they grow at all,
you can’t chew with them.
(A doctor’s words are always
medically correct).
But will taking it out
really be the cure?
(Frightened patients
are invariably pig-headed)
I think I will not get rid
of this wretched tooth
though its aching keeps me awake at night.
It may be a bothersome wisdom tooth
but who if not I will chew on
and be capable of patiently enduring
and treasuring
this part of myself
that gives me my share of pain?


18.  In Those Days

Was there anyone who didn’t know?
What everyone felt.
What everyone went through.
Was there anyone who didn’t know?

In those days
everybody knew
but pretended not to know.
What no one could say,
what no one could write,
was spoken
in our language,
written in our alphabet
and communicated

Was there anyone who didn’t know?
Do not speak too glibly now times have changed.
Stop and think.
In those days,
what did you do?

19.  A Good Son

That friend of mine
lived with his widowed mother beyond middle age.
Now his hair is graying.

Today he and his wife have come out shopping,
he with a mourning badge for his mother
fixed to his lapel, and together
they are choosing a tie.

Since those two got married
I have never seen them look so carefree
and so cheerful!


20.  Aniri 8

When we wore father’s old clothes cut down to size
and spent winter nights gnawing peeled cabbage roots,
our younger siblings with their close-cropped heads grew strong
and our older sisters enjoyed dates in Sajik Park.
There was nothing to be ashamed of.
Poverty was conscience
and the wealth of us all.
Sons and daughters,
who’ve sold that last treasure
to buy videos and air cons and sports-cars:
What need is there for you to hide your faces
under that thick make-up,
somehow feeling ashamed, perhaps,
disguise yourselves as film-stars or singers,
play the stock market?
What you need to recover,
dear daughters-in-law and sons-in-law,
is not the treasure your parents bequeathed,
it’s the poverty you’ve forgotten.

21.  Workers’ Day

Today the car-park is completely empty.
The parking attendant has not come to work.
All day long the sunshine streams down
on the open space, stained with splashes of oil;
from time to time pigeons come in search of food,
the wind blows past.
With no sign of people working,
no trace of things left lying around,
empty, open to the sky, this patch of ground
has thrown off every unjust occupier
and for a moment reclaimed its rights
as it enjoys its rest; today let’s not call
this open space a car-park.

22.  A Slide

In the shantytown’s playground, snot-nosed kids
are busy playing on a slide.
Storming up the steps of the slide
they come swooshing down again.
All day long from morning to night
you play on the slide
until the seats of your pants wear out.
Why you keep on sliding down?
No one ever asks.

High up in the distant Alps,
people climb to near the Matterhorn
then go irresistibly sliding
down dazzling white sheets of ice.
Skiers thronging from all over the world,
all sorts of little folk playing about
look far smaller than any ant
on the broad breast of fathers soaring aloft
in the gentle embrace of mothers flowing down.
You all go sliding fearlessly
down steep snowy slopes.
Why do you keep on sliding down?
No one ever asks.


23.  The World I Long For

I reckon there may be another world
between this world
and the world beyond.
All kinds of flowers and trees mixed to form a great forest
humans and animals drinking the same water together
earning the money we need
operating easy machines together—
a place where everyone lives on good terms in harmony.
I keep dreaming of such a world
though I have so far never been there
but still I long for it
and I don’t know how many times
I have prudently exercised my voting rights,
yet invariably the candidate
I voted for


24.  North South East West

In spring a flood of tender green goes rising,
spreading northward, northward.
Unhindered by barbed wire or military demarcation line
it journeys north.
Rising over mountains
crossing plains,
azaleas and forsythias cross the border north.
In summer the cuckoo’s call,
the croak of frogs,
are just the same in every place.
In fall a flood of golden hues comes dropping
spreading southward, southward.
Unhindered by demilitarized zone or lines forbidding access
it journeys south.
Crossing rivers
passing over valleys
cosmos flowers and crimson leaves cross the border south.
In winter the taste of ice-cold pickle
the taste of spicy morning soup
are just the same in every place.
North South East West: making no distinction,
covering everywhere alike
in white, no one can keep back
the snowstorm.


25.  Evening snow

Waiting for trams
at open air stops
on winter evenings we
longed to become houses for one another.
We longed to become snug rooms
inside which
every kind of shame could be concealed.
Snow might fall
and wind might blow—
we longed to become enclosing walls for one another
until day dawned.


26.  Mutter mutter

All you who with a single word move whole regiments
so that they are prepared to fight to the end!
You who can stir crowds to a frenzy with a husky call
and make them love you—
reassure a trembling heart with a sweet whisper.
One dish of black noodles, two mixed sea-food noodles!
A downward adjustment of the economic growth rate! A total wage freeze!
You’ll go to hell if you don’t believe in Jesus!
Buy some dried mackerel or a swordfish!
With everyone raising their voices and shouting,
who makes any effort to hear
words gabbled on their own—
mutter mutter?
Yet everywhere you go,
there is nowhere you cannot hear, borne on the wind,
the sound of an endless muttering
and there is no lack of people
who spend their whole lives muttering
so it’s hard to understand.
Mutter mutter

27.  A journey to Seoul

As you pass Pyŏngtaek on the way up to Seoul
crossing the evening plains full of autumn smoke,
perhaps in the shaking window you
may glimpse your suddenly unfamiliar face.
Do not think that it is yours!
Are there no familiar faces beside your own,
gnawing dried squid and playing cards?
As you look at the screaming bright roofs
in the twilight and the TV antennas
fluttering like dragon-flies
and your fascinating weekly magazine,
nod your head.
Do not listen to painful sounds
like the calling of grasshoppers
poisoned by pesticides,
like the radio hiss
when the late-night programs are over.
Aren’t the energetic songs
played from every roadside loudspeaker cheerful?
And the roar of cars speeding along the motorways?
People have long compared life to a journey.
As you drink your beer or cola,
have a pleasant journey.
Do not think at all.
If you are surprised,
say only Ah!
If you want to say more, keep quiet.
When silence feels awkward,
talk about the long drought,
about the football match against Argentina,
about the rising GNP and the stock market.
For your own sake,
and for mine.
28.  Who’s calling, I wonder

Who’s calling all the time?
You peered into that gaping crater,
nervously made a complete turn of it,
looked across at the other side again
kept peering into the hollow interior
waving a hand regretfully
as if replying to someone
then suddenly jumping over the fence
you leaped in
arms open wide
as if about to embrace someone
you went racing down the slope
and vanished
in the very middle of Sangumburi crater
piercing a stll unhealed wound
you plunged into an ancient underground vein
as if someone was pulling you
into the place where those who died
in the caves there after endless pursuit
entagled in thickets
live on.

29.  Walking in the dark

As night begins to fall, they rub their eyes as if just waking up. Among them are a lot of familiar faces.
My ancestor who was once Minister for Music is sitting in the armchair in his room, gravely stroking his beard. My Grandmother from Seoul’s Nuha-dong is for ever putting a burned-out light-bulb into a sock and darning the hole in the heel.
After retiring from politics, Father kills time leafing through old almanacs, or digging in the vegetable patch. Mother who died just as she was scooping rice out of the big crock is still lying as she fell before the door. Sister is making deep prostrations, invoking Ti-tsang Bodhisattva over and over again.
Kim Ku still bleeds from the assassin’s bullet, and I can see the death-mask of wrongfully executed Chuksan. Friends killed in the 1960 Revolution come and go, looking as young as ever, while protesters who set themselves alight still suffer from their burns.
At night it’s like this, not only in our house and garden, in Seoul and in the countryside – mountains and fields, river and sea are all so full of the dead that it’s hard to avoid them as you walk.
That’s why walking in the dark is difficult.

30.  An autumn day

I don’t know who’s playing but I can hear the sound of a trumpet
being played badly on the hill behind our house.
Abruptly I recall his words, when he said
that because of an overwhelming fatigue
he had finally not been able to keep his promise.
On the persimmon tree, where lustrous leaves
sparkled all summer long,
now only a few persimmons remain
hanging high up to feed the birds
while no one has picked up
others, that have fallen to the ground.
I wonder where I shall fall.
There is no one for me to wait for now
at the corner of a familiar alley
or on some bench in a park.
Immersed in the songs of late-autumn insects
I dream dreams of bygone days
then waking from those dreams
I long to question the waving cosmos flowers:
I could not see you in springtime.
Where were you all summer long?
Flowers blooming so late along the roadsides,
you laugh delightfully, modestly hiding your mouths.
Still I want to meet someone
and share talk with them
but with lips tightly shut,
eyes hidden behind thick glasses,
and a disease I do not want to suffer from
buried deep within me,
I am heading slowly toward that same place,
pretending it does not matter at all.
The sound of a trumpet being played badly
recalls far off days of youth—
because of an overwhelming fatigue
I have missed my last chance,
is what he said and now I think I understand.

31.  He walked straight ahead
        A tribute to Kim Young-Moo

    Someone caught sight of him at an ancient temple, where maple and gingko leaves were flying free in the autumn winds.

    He said he seemed to have drawn a straight line from the first gateway to the porch sheltering the Four Heavenly Kings, and to be walking along it, straight ahead. Amidst all the other visitors walking splay-footed with legs wide apart, he must have struck the eye like some delicate deer.
    I am convinced he was not just practicising walking in a straight line. For he was someone who spent his whole life walking straight ahead.

    Ignoring deceit or roundabout ways, he strode past us along a single path. Never hurrying, always just walking straight ahead, he finally grew remote, far off, then suddenly disappeared. Left without words, struck dumb, we gazed after him. There was no trace left.
    Alas, we learned too late of his departure.

    Later someone said they’d caught sight of him at some Catholic shrine, walking bolt upright as before.
    Today, vainly hoping that one day we may suddenly come face to face with him, we continue to follow after him.
    Our hearts yearn to hear the sound of his feet on the fallen leaves, the sound of his high, clear voice coming from ahead of us.

    Or perhaps we shall hear that as a youthful voice coming from behind us, walking straight ahead along a snowy road.