Hong Yun-suk was born in Chongju, Pyonganbuk-do in 1925.
Her first poems were published in 1947 and since then she has published
many volumes of poetry and of essays, as well as a collection of poetic
dramas. She has received many of Korea's top literary awards for her work.
For much of her life she worked as a reporter for various newspapers and
Hong Yun-suk's poetry is often read alongside that of
Kim Nam-jo, the two being considered the leading women writers of their
generation; in addition, both are Catholic writers. Her vision of life
is deeply affected by the suffering brought by the Korean War and the lasting
division of Korea. Her poetic universe is often dark and inclined to pessimism.
Perhaps the fact that she is unable to visit her native region in the North
helps to explain the many images of life as an unending journey found in
The themes of individual solitude and of the emptiness
of modern life are expressed in many poems. When she tackles more public
themes, the longing for the reunification of Korea dominates her concerns.
Ways of Living 1
I am learning
how to sleep, and how to open my eyes,
how to walk along,
how to look heavenward a dozen times a day,
how to use a wad of cotton-wool after a tooth extraction,
how to be ill, loosing weight by the pound.
I am learning how to soak my tongue in the salt of tears,
and how to say goodbye, waving hands
with needles stuck under the nails of all ten fingers.
I am learning how to smile with my eyes while biting
choking back the pent-up feelings rising in my throat.
Wrapped in a thousand-league river of bandages,
though I am ready to burst,
I am learning how to die a dozen times a day.
Ways of Living 2
Pluck off those wings that cannot fly.
Cast aside the cross that cannot be borne.
Empty completely the heavy cart
laden with a conscience unaware of its own littleness,
that goes lurching sideways at every turning,
and live like Pilate who washed his hands, turning away.
Lock the darkroom of wounds with the key of silence
and write no will since you cannot die.
With no other thought, grow daily older
for the sake of one bowlful of life.
Brother, now with wounded feet bandaged
on this winter march over very thin ice
make yourself small as you can, barely breathe.
Lie low as the grass when the winds are blowing.
With only your soul waking, only your soul waking,
make this wintery river crossing.
Ways of Living 3
A tree, searing its flesh in steely sunlight,
achieving its end with hardened fruit,
turning back at last into a mass of darkness:
why was that tree, cursed to be rooted in the ground,
standing stricken with a punishment higher than itself?
Grant, I pray:
garments fit for our age
which sees the night out on windy plains,
straw sandals stoutly bound, poison in my breast,
a way to be transformed into weeds, wild flowers,
that put down roots and build their houses anywhere,
a way to crawl through the night,
hidden in shades, in hollows,
a 1980s way to see winter through.
Grant, I humbly beg:
branding pain with pain
nourishing torment with torment
the soul growing and made ill by the wind,
beautifully mad, a way to turn into a bird.
Ways of Living 4
You have to wait.
At the crossroads' red traffic light,
you have to stop going along, pause for breath,
look up for once at the forgotten sky,
hoist up and fasten the slipping pack.
A scrap of pink cloud on a remote mountainside,
inky darkness on the corner you turn,
on the road left ahead cold rain pouring down
we are all being soaked as we pass through this age
for see, this is destiny's winter
and no one can escape from this rain.
Frozen, we rub one another's flesh,
we sparingly share and kindle the remaining fire.
In the darkness our roots twine together.
Ways of Living 5
to put down roots in warm repose;
when spring comes even messy signs of battle
are covered with leaves.
Little soldiers of a nursery tale land
where snow falls and sunlight shines
burying victory and defeat underground;
when you briefly take the battlefront's snowdrift paths
forget the storm that swept through mountain trees
one gorgeous spring day.
Cover fallen petals with soil,
gently stroke the broken branches.
Unable to withstand one another's weight,
summon the hearts that linger about
the store-yards of memory in unlit streets
and set out again from the beautiful spot
where hope and lost labour embrace cheek to cheek.
Ways of Living 6
those hills and rivers like charcoal fires,
the plains we have walked across barefoot:
forty years now since we first ventured forth
and still this is the darkness outside of Canaan,
still we are turning about the walls of Jericho,
but when the time is ripe, pouring oil onto pitchpine
we'll light up the way with a seam of flame
and lace on straw sandals with brows ablaze.
We'll kindle lights to glimmer in the gold buttons
on our breasts,
gird our loins with wild rose fronds,
and stand like pillars in the windswept plains
to abolish darkness for an age.
We'll embrace with both arms the vast bulk of night.
In every place our language has ever been light.
Translated by Brother Anthony, of Taize'