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CHON PONG-GON

 

Born in what is now North Korea in 1928, Chon Pong-gon fled south in 1946 and joined the southern army at the outbreak of war in 1950. He was wounded in 1951 and discharged as a result. He began his career as a poet in 1950 and after the war was one of the leaders in the attempt to integrate the experience of the war years into poetry. He worked for the review Hyondaesi (Modern poetry) from 1962 and founded the review Hyondaesihak (Contemporary Poetry) in 1969. He published a dozen volumes of poetry, including Sarangul uihan toip'uri (Repetition for the sake of love, 1959), Ch?nhyangyon (Love song of Ch'unhyang, 1967), Bukui Kohyang (Home in the North, 1982), and Kidarigi (Waiting, 1987), and received a number of major awards, including the Literature Prize of the Republic of Korea in 1980 for his volume entitled Piri (Flute, 1979), and the Culture and Arts Prize of the Republic of Korea in 1984. He also published several collections of essays and critical writings. He died in 1988, shortly before his sixtieth birthday.

Despite the presence in his work of poems like some of those translated here, his main inspiration came from the dreadful experience of fratricidal warfare and the division of his native land that ensued. In many poems, images of fire and darkness conflict, the darkness of past memory challenging the natural human desire for lightness and erotic pleasure.

As a poet, he wrote in a way that might perhaps be termed 'surrealistic' for he was a particularly experimental writer. He celebrates beauty in erotic imagery often involving luscious flowers, yet always the lurking shadows of war haunt the fringes of his world and when he died he was working on a new cycle of linked poems entitled "6.25" about the Korean War. His entire poetic career embodied a search for ways of coming to terms with and overcoming the traumatisms of those years.

 

 

 

Rivers

 

When France, land of freedom, love and peace,

sprinkled military boots

across the heavens,

when England, land of the rose,

shattered the seas

with salvos from its warship guns,

when Russia, the people's land,

tore up great mounds of earth

with its tanks' caterpillar tracks,

the lovely blue Danube flowed red with blood,

the Suez Canal too flowed with blood.

 

We too flowed.

Our tears flowed.

In corners of the soot-blackened world, we

wept like doves with shredded wings.

 

 

 

If you come to a stony place

 

 

If you come to a stony place

you can see the river.

If you come to a stony place

you can see the wind.

If you come to a stony place

you can see waterbirds.

If you come to a stony place

you can see clouds.

If you come to a stony place

you can see sunshine.

If you come to a stony place

I can bend my knees on the stony place.

If you come to a stony place

I can gladly bend my knees on the stony place.

Yes, indeed. If you come to the stony place

deep in the South Han River,

truly happy, to the point of tears,

I can bend both knees on the stony place.

 

If you come to a stony place

then alone can you meet the river.

If you come to a stony place

then alone can you meet the wind.

If you come to a stony place

then alone can you meet the waterbirds.

If you come to a stony place

then alone can you meet the clouds.

If you come to a stony place

then alone can you meet the sunshine.

 

 

 

The slide

 

 

Nothing towers higher

for children

than the slide

in park

or school playground.

 

If they have to draw a picture of it

they draw you a slide

towering above the three-story school building.

 

One, two,

three, four. . .

naturally the sun shines

in the mouths of the laughing children

clambering up then shooting down the slide.

They are shooting down

from the highest heavens.

 

 

 

The pearl

 

 

On the copper-hued back

of a lovely thing

the shine of that single line,

the silver of a ring on a finger:

I dug out that silver.

I fostered

that pearl too.

 

 

 

A piano

 

 

In the two hands

of that girl sitting at the piano

ceaselessly

ten together

twenty together

fresh bright fish,

following the sparkling light,

come bursting out one after another.

 

I went to the seaside

and caught

one wave

of the most thrilling deep blue.