Poems by Ku Sang
Translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony of Taize
Copyright 2000 An Sonjae, Brother Anthony
(Now out of print, these translations may not be republished without the translator's permission. They are made available online for the private pleasure of readers otherwise unable to see them.)
In the fields young shoots spring up.
In the fields leaves unfold.
In the fields flowers bloom.
In the fields the harvest ripens.
Then what remains for us to do, in the fields?
Only run errands, that's all.
Urging on his ox,
a farmer ploughs his field.
The long-blocked pores of the ground
burst open once more.
The frozen lungs
The spring sky seems
almost near enough to touch.
Ox and peasant
glance upwards together.
A cloud slowly drifts
The ploughshare bites into the ground
and rips its way through
thorns and creepers.
Just three days married!
Stealing sly glances at each other,
a young couple treads down the barley field
which, still frozen, creaks beneath their feet.
Patching up the rutted rice-field banks with soil,
as if firming up their swelling, restless hearts,
step by step they tread down the ground.
To the East outpouring sunbeams break through,
to the South a haze dances over the hills
like a nylon veil;
on the branches of an old West-leaning tree
yellow and red jackets blossom,
bearing waterpots on their heads;
in the village that lies to the North
the sweet smoke of morning smoothly rises
from chimneys over yellow thatch.
Like motes of dust in a hothouse,
swarms of gnats dance before my eyes,
the birds flutter, dive and chirp.
A smell like chicken droppings
drifts across from somewhere.
In the morning when the ground first thaws
the whole world exhales beauty.
Young Dog-shit's granddad,
in his dog-shit-rich fields
has emptied out shit from a basket of cane
and is spreading it round.
Millet pancakes: cow shit,
flower-shaped rice-cakes: horse shit,
coal-dust ovoids: pig shit,
raw oysters: chicken shit,
black beans: rabbit shit,
black flower-seeds: rat shit,
goat shit, donkey shit, fox shit,
shit, just call it shit,
lies scattered over the field.
Young Dog-shit saunters out,
with fish-guts hanging
from his snuffling nose,
he pulls down his dreadful ash-coloured pants,
spotted and coated with remains of rice,
and revealing his azalea-pink behind,
he strains and groans to deposit a turd.
Little Brownie comes out after him,
and goes snuffling with his shiny nose
around the furrows of the field
with their clusters of dung in crusts and scabs,
releasing a trickle of urine
before at last he expells a hard one, hiss,
and comes rushing across, wagging his tail,
trying to lick his master's behind.
Young Dog-shit raises his arse-hole aloft,
then grasping a long stick still steaming
he has plunged into the dung-pit
he drives him off, you cur, you cur,
waving the stick between his legs.
Then, lifting up his drooping head,
as he gazes at the bluish waning moon
still hanging on a northward fence
he conjures up a picture of those wild melons,
last year in summer, with their taste of honey,
but that brings back memories
of thundering stomach-ache and cramping diarrhoea
so that he shakes his head from side to side.
This time I must only eat one, or two, or three,
no more, he mutters, as with his stick-clutching hand
he presses down fingers on his left hand,
one by one counting off two whole fingers.
Up on the little hill over opposite, see
that wild apricot breaking into blossom like a battle-cry!
Skipping up and down from branch to branch,
one solitary magpie,
ejecting droppings like white grubs,
cackles to itself in pleasure.
Spring's new-born babes, still dangling the cord,
lie nursing in peace at my breast,
the slight breeze strokes tickling
the soft swelling breast
and the moist secret place
as it murmurs by.
Inside the plastic greenhouses
springtime seedlings are crowded together.
Pepper and spinach, crown daisy and lettuce,
egg plant, tomato, cucumber, courgette:
just like Nonsan military training center!
Fresh new creatures, untouched by corruption!
In a little while these fresh recruits too
will find themselves sent to frontlines or rearguard
on armistice battlefields of doubtful name.
In March, too, a still afternoon
in my critical guardpost,
a lyrical sky free of jet-planes!
And no sound of gun-fire.
Yet this early spring's bright balminess
somehow makes me want to weep, I wonder why?
Along the edge of a barley field
the weeping willow trees
dip their tresses in a stream.
Sunbeams beneath the water,
turned to golden grains of sand, dance
then pause, then flow again.
Hunched like toads
new crawled from the ground,
the village women and girls
attack the springtime washing.
they beat away
as if pounding out the rice-cake paste.
heh-heh, hee-hee! The tongues wag away:
Here's a baby girl born in the year of the horse!
The father-in-law's not too pleased about that!
And here's a mother-in-law too domineering by half,
or a cheeky student for sister-in-law,
but there a husband's gone back after leave,
and as for the gangsters of that Party...
In this happy scene
there still remain shadows of personal pain,
like the tear-stains in embroideries
made by young widows.
A turnip field on a mountainside.
Around an ancient, springtime-drowzy rock
a single blowfly buzzes.
It keeps coming and going
among old, panlid-like pats of dung
that lie in the grass on the crestward path,
now perching low on the rock's shaded waist,
now squatting high on its sunburned brow,
now moistening itself at the stagnant water
held in deep pits on its rocky crown,
then delicately folding its legs in prayer,
depositing spots of pustular waste
or laying tiny, nit-like eggs,
then flying off to land on a spring chrysanthemum's stamens,
a single red spot in the midst of the turnip field,
and there, like a little boy hypnotized by a cinema screen,
staring down at fields, rivers, roads,
as they stretch out level to the far horizon
and suddenly the world seems all suspended,
like a pale, dead body,
a moment without the sound of breathing,
a moment delivered from starvation, disdain and slaughter,
this moment, without curses or conspiring,
and somehow, blowfly, dungfly,
as if for you this stillness
bred a grieving fear,
echoing, your buzzing seems to weep.
The green sparks that rise
from my wide-spreading breast
give warmth to heaven and earth.
A gleaming springtime barley-field.
You know, I reckon the rice-field
is the field's secret sweetheart
When evening comes, they
snuggle up together
and make insect noises,
and then, by day, they both
forced up to the mountain top
together with the squatter's wooden shack,
spends every day
in just the same way
as the owner's poor household.
Ting ting ting
the sound of a bell echoing down into my heart
in the rough field round this squatter's hut
built secretly in the deep of night
at the foot of Namsan's walls
ting ting ting
the sound of the bell of our brindled cow
sold at the village market
ting ting ting
blinking its white-patch eyes
as it chewed the cud, the sight of its jaws,
plod, plod, its solemn pace
ting ting ting
that sound rends
my wasted breast
ting ting ting
Bean curd! Bean curd!
Bean curd! Bean...
Bang! slamming open the wooden door
that serves as both doorway and window,
and Plock! spitting a gob of coal-black plegm
onto my frozen chest,
storming out without a glance behind him,
our eldest son,
a student now, our Eagle!
From the highway
a muttering of voices rises.
Has the land-survey team arrived?
The Imperial landmark,
hammered in like a nail in a coffin!
I touch my congested breast.
And I shudder.
Note: Hadake is Japanese for "field". Korea was annexed by Japan
for 36 years.
In the kitchen garden, Man-Shik,
the secretary of the 4-H Club
has brought along his younger brother, he
completed agricultural school this year,
and together, in clean jackets and baseball caps,
they are repairing the hothouse:
replacing rotten planks,
mixing fresh soil with rice-husk ash,
bending sticks to make a framework then
spreading plastic sheeting.
How like the western-style house they used to dream of,
all those bright, elegant seedbeds and borders!
Now spring's early savories are growing here.
Man-Su, just back from military service,
wearing fatigues, a fatigue-cap as well,
is out weeding the barley-field.
Careful not to wound the roots,
he gently scoops up and spreads a layer of earth
and where the surface is gnawed by frost
and mined by the damp, he digs out the furrows,
smoothing and clearing the field's pores
so it can breathe and perspire again.
Pa-U gathers up a bundle
of yellow fallen leaves and brings them over.
Old Man Ironcast spreads them on the rice-seedling bed
as he goes along, gently, as if changing a child's nappies
or wrapping a baby in a coverlet.
Chemical fertilizer is convenient but,
too strong for young rice seedlings, cannot be used;
compost of dead leaves is warm and smells sweet.
and a bowl of makkoli,
the son goes on transporting new soil
while the old man fires grass on the rice-field banks.
The stalks of grass feel the heat
and thrust their faces under the old dry grass.
The old chairman of the reconstruction committee
from the orchard house,
makes an appearance, bearing an inlaid baton.
digging a hole there,
spreading manure around,
then grubbing out a sapling
and transplanting it elsewhere,
the old chairman weaves in and out
among his workers, shouting.
In the army he shouted so much
that now if he doesn't shout every single day
he cannot digest his food!
But face to face he is friendly enough.
At the village stables, those on duty
are disinfecting the pigsties and goat pens.
At the hen-house they are giving Newcastle vaccinations,
at the community warehouse they are bringing out the beehives,
at the hay-market they are inspecting fodder.
In the eyes of the cows chewing the cud in their stalls
swims the sky's milky haze.
Early ploughtime, like snow in spring,
blusters in, then melts away.
After night-time rain
rises with the dawn,
and washes its face
then basking in the morning sun,
combs out its hair.
In emerald green uniforms
high school girls
Hear them sing
the Spring Symphony.
A barley field in May.
Are you big?
See, I'm bigger!
look and see
which is redder?
yum yum yum.
of the nursery-school garden
is a field of paprika plants.
In the blue evening sky
in the yellow wastelands of my heart
in each twinkling
star up there
in each variegated
flower in there
the sound of feet
Here they are, Pa-u and Yeppuni!
Ah, these children!
as the young barley shoots
pressed down, rise up,
frowning and smiling
the moon that had hidden behind a cloud
It was in such middle-school days
that I cut out the picture
of a certain Empress
and took it into the toilets!
For such a passionate profanation,
I too squirmed.
Twenty days after the traditional date for rain,
rain fell, the first in forty-nine days.
Rain? Barely twelve millimeters
and even that stopped at midnight!
But the wilting barley sprouts in all the fields
have received new life, and now they sway in the spring breeze.
Beneath the plastic hot-houses in eastern Seoul
cucumbers and tomatoes
must be beginning to flower
in the Anyang vineyards southwards
the frozen, dessicated branches
must be beginning to stretch,
the soft white mushrooms in Kangwon-do,
the round brown mushrooms too down in Cheju Island,
imbibing moisture begin to grow,
in the lands to the south, near Pusan, there
the fields of spring greens and cabbage too
emerge from unimaginable disease,
in Hwangju there in Hwanghae-do,
in Anpyon up in Hamkyong Province,
the apple orchards begin their pruning,
up in the hills the slash-and-burn farmers
prepare their potato patches
in every sheltered place of central Chungchon
the mulberry trees begin to open their eyes,
relieving anxious hearts
and in the south-west plains of Kimjae
they are still scolding the skies,
'this much rain isn't enough
to do the spring jobs out in the fields!
It's only enough to make your feet muddy!'
as the weather forecast is read out:
'A low pressure system over Japan is combining with another low pressure
system over northern China to produce a deep depression. As a result rain
will begin to fall again this afternoon over the entire Korean Peninsula
and is expected to continue for 2 or 3 days.'
For more than a fortnight,
almost twenty days,
the monsoon rains have been pouring down.
The field's furrows and dips are full of water,
their lower reaches all submerged,
while beneath the ground the potatoes too,
naked, squelch and splash.
Old Man Ironcast's face, with its tones of burnt stone,
is these days tinged even deeper green
as, in curly linen clothes and covered with a sack,
he comes daily to the fields,
to make the water flow away,
plying his spade at the four corners of the field.
Then the son of the melon-patch neighbours,
a young rascal, creaks by in rubber boots and a plastic mack,
a stick in one hand, in the other a wet string bag
in which he is carrying a few spotted melons,
and greets Old Man Ironcast:
"Here, Pa-U's father, you might's well leave them ditches, no one ever drained a river!"
"Still, this here field's got to breathe out somehow!"
"Reckon as how this year we'm going to have to sell our melons as water-cucumbers, no other way."
"Above ground you can always get by somehow, but our potatoes down under here are bound to be rotten, every one."
"No matter what you do, this darned world's going to the dogs, it might as well rain straight on for three months and ten days!"
"What you say there? It don't matter what bitter words you've got inside, you mind you never speak them out! Don't you know that every word's a seed?"
the rain, that had slackened to a drizzle,
now became a torrential downpour,
lashing and splashing and gushing down.
The melon-field boy went straight home
while Old Man Ironcast stood at the edge of the field
like a dead tree-trunk:
"Heaven's getting old and crazy too!
It don't matter what these young folks say,
it hears and gets upset!"
He mutters what seem to be incantations
but the furious downpour of rain
shows no sign of relenting.
The rain which has been robbing us of energy
has been pouring down now in violent squalls
for a solid fortnight, till everything is soaked.
The cart from the fruit-farm passes
the village entrance, as if laden
with boxes of apples, but this is something far too new:
it is bearing five coffins, large and small.
No hand bell, here, and no chief mourner,
a credit-union group of only two,
while one shouldering a pickaxe,
one carrying a spade,
wearing sacks to keep the rain off,
carelessly follow along behind.
On the muddy dough of the roadway
frogs that have lost their holes,
bearing their fragile young on their breast,
leap and fall sprawling backwards on the ground.
"Why bother going anywhere,
I can die by my own hand,
just kill me here."
The policeman in rain-clothes and the umbrella-bearing
neighborhood captain advance, walking in silence,
supporting on their arms an old hag, who seems to hang free,
spirit and clothing unbound and scattered.
"Kill me here."
As she grabs his arm again and stumbles,
the captain drops a bundle of newspapers
that had been wedged against his side.
"Aha! Grandma! It takes formalities
to go to the other world too!"
retrieving a half-burned candle from the mud
they resume their dark, shade-like steps.
At the top of one page, huge stone-like headlines:
"Five in one family killed by pesticide!
Applied by grandmother to cure scabies!"
And on another page, in characters like fists:
"Another Coup d'Etat in the Dark Continent!"
After Syria, Ghana too!"
The storm pours down
like massacres, civil wars and battles.
And as the continent sinks down,
so the newspaper melts
and settles down into the mud.
Hills, villages, fields,
all shine dazzling,
covered with shimmering scales,
along the country paths stretching white like cotton,
men, bursting with health
like those you see in towns only
in advertisements for tonics,
out irrigating the rice-fields since dawn,
are returning home.
A jolly lass sets off, bearing the workers' lunch
in a basket on her head,
a hairy dog trotting behind her.
Refreshed by a cup of makkoli,
a bowl of rice,
a moment's snooze,
the men go back to the fields,
while a pair of white herons
fly across the sky
with a creaking sound.
They return through the evening twilight,
a load on their backs,
driving a cow,
The smoke from the kitchen fire,
the brushwood gate: warm and welcoming.
From time immemorial,
these hills, villages, fields,
are all in their proper places,
so in our land's appalling chaos
this primordial scene alone
In the flower fields, spread on wooden trays,
draped in light green dresses,
are twirling in time to a waltz.
In the background: the flower-thick hills,
the green plain made up of fields of rice and vegetables,
the white paths, and the flowing river a deep blue sash,
and as the music gradually evolves in free-flowing tunes
the flowers take each other by the hand, then let go again,
forming larger and smaller circles.
Now, from either side of the stage,
their heads adorned with laurel-wreath whiskers,
a host of angel-winged butterflies
darts fluttering in,
wafting hither and thither among the flower-halters,
they dance a swaying, rocking dance.
Whenever the flowers bow in greeting,
the female butterflies apply their lips to their heads,
and if the males take their lips from a deeply-felt kiss,
the flowers wave and shake their heads,
as the whole field ripens in song and dance;
but now from a nearby bare black branch
a single spider drops, as if suspended from a rope,
and makes an entrance, stalking sideways with extended legs,
over bare flesh wearing a clinging black dress.
Yet the frolicking flowers and butterflies just go on turning,
the spider turns too, from flower to flower,
like a dark shadow poised,
and finally, as one butterfly emerges from the flowering hedge,
it flings out a coloured ribbon and wraps it round,
then to the strains of a resounding heroic march,
like a gymnast performing floor exercises,
runs leaping and bounding up and down, round and round.
The flowers, petrified every one,
stand rooted there with drooping heads
as the spider turns round and round its female victim
who trembles lightly, wrappped in its thread,
and ah, that spider's pleasure-drunk evil smile!
The male butterfly, overwhelmed with fear, is helpless,
as it totteringly follows the spider's spinning rear,
it only bows its head
and uniting two limbs, it prays,
at which the spider, having first paid no attention,
seeming suddenly filled with rage, turns
and once again produces deadly bands from beneath its body,
adopting a net-spinning pose
while the prisoner, straining now to escape,
pushes out four of its limbs.
Perhaps she is too exhausted,
she suddenly seems to collapse on the spot,
collapses forwards with only her back twitching
and ceases to breathe.
It grows still and sombre on every side,
with only a sound as of a knife being ground,
and the ill-omened call of a crow
as the spider, rolling eyes of greed,
having once danced a kind of crazy sword-dance,
trying to lift the butterfly's limbs,
sniffing around it here and there,
seeming to wonder where to start,
hoisting up its head in two claws,
opens great jaws and prepares to tear.
emerging from the distant flower grove along a white path,
flashing in the sunlight, a stag-beetle approaches,
the pincers on its head all sharpened, arrayed in armour,
turning a double somersault, it arrives at the scene,
takes in the situation with a glance,
and seeming to grasp the facts of the matter,
having first pushed the spider aside with its horns,
laying one foot on the butterfly's breast,
with its pincer horns it cuts the encircling threads
But the spider, only pushed aside a little,
approaches the butterfly again and raises one leg
as if again intending to grab and tear it,
seeing which, the stag-beetle comes rushing headlong
and violently dislodges the spider with its horns,
whereupon the spider approaches one of the legs,
once again the beetle goes rushing headlong,
so that for a while there arises an exhausting battle
between the stag-beetle and the spider there,
until at last the spider quits the field
and vanishes back up into the old tree.
Whereupon the stag-beetle returns
speedily to the butterfly once again,
it detaches completely the spiders-web bonds
then picks up and arouses the butterfly
until it opens its eyes, raises itself cautiously,
examines its wings one by one, as it resumes its dance.
One male butterfly which had fainted away with fear to one side
now rubs its eyes, rises, comes shooting across like an arrow,
embraces the other and kisses its cheeks,
at which the flowers that had hunched their backs
and pressed their heads to the ground
lightly surge forward and form an escort
as a thunderous chorus of joy
arises, and the dance continues its frenzy,
the extasy reaching a climax...
and that old rogue of a stag-beetle,
arching its back in a hunch-backed dance
and yawning, goes off down the path to the woods.
In an ash-coloured sky,
seemingly about to collapse,
inky clouds twist.
The ground, too, looks dark,
as if about to spit ink;
driven like waves before a storm,
flashing pale silver,
the wheat-fields only reinforce
this sense of despair.
"Beneath a sky threatening rain and thunder,
wheat-fields stretch as far as the eye can see;
I have tried to express there
all of my sadness or solitude."
Auvers, Sunday July 27, 1890.
There is a sky so clear it seems about to break.
Beneath the dazzling sunlight
the wheat-fields dare not lift their heads,
the air is thick, the silence exhausted,
even the insect sounds seem to echo in the void.
Like a scarecrow in a fit of madness,
all day long a man wanders raving
through the wheat-fields.
Soon dusk falls.
"I cannot take any more."
Crack! Crack! Crack!
The sun vomits blood and sets.
The man topples.
If you climb the stairway ladder,
there is an attic room
with a window fixed in its sloping ceiling,
a palid lamp with a lolling tongue.
a cracked mirror where the light flickers,
a vase with crackled glazing,
a floor with gaping planks,
walls of blistered plaster,
a calendar with the wrong date.
On the old iron bed,
covered with a filthy blanket,
after lingering for twenty-eight hours,
at one in the morning of July the twenty-ninth,
the man at last expires.
Against the dead man's breast his brother
finds a single sheet of paper, a will:
"Now I have staked my whole life on painting
and it has destroyed my reason."
Hearse-less, the coffin
crosses the wheat-fields.
On the village hill
can be seen the cross of the church
where they refused to lend a hearse.
No end to the wheat-fields.
A little farther on, the cemetery.
In the farthest corner, at the foot of the wall,
two graves lie side by side.
Over that to the left is written
Vincent van Gogh
Over that to the right
Theodor van Gogh
On the stone,
a hand has laid a bunch of those sunflowers
which in his lifetime set his heart ablaze;
on every side stretch those wheat-fields
he loved to destruction.
Just as many people, busy memorizing one by one
the names of mythological Greek divinities,
names you can't get your tongue around,
seem not to know of Master Paek-kyol, or Lady Suro,
of Master Sosan, or Lady Sa-Imdang,
and just as so many young girls,
expert in the loves of Cleopatra,
of Romeo and Juliet, Marilyn Monroe, or BB,
or the passionate affairs of Broadway and Hollywood,
seem not to know the hard realities
of the life of their housemaids at home,
and though they enjoy tulips, cannas, gladioli,
even changing their make-up to harmonize with them,
yet they seem to despise us, looking down their noses
as if we had no connection with their past or future,
and don't even know our names.
Think of all those traditional nicknames,
homely and piquant,
that countryside parents give to their children,
names that we love as soon as we hear them:
Rocky, Iron-stone, Rolling-stone,
Dog-shit, Cow-shit, Iron-heart,
Great Wain, Bear, Everlasting,
Beauty, Grace, Cup-Cake,
Twisty, Docile, Moon,
Of course, dandelion, shepherd's-purse, rocambole,
cottonweed, clover, windflower,
leopard-flower, bellflower, or nettles,
everyone knows that kind of name,
but widowers-relish, beads-in-a-purse,
clowns-beard dead-nettle, dandruff-head,
goblins-bridle, knotted samphire, nuncle-beet,
lady's-button, ants pagoda, kiss-the-moon,
virgins lichen, thieves-by-the-way, goblins needle,
beggars vine, toddlers-grass, madman,
did you ever even hear
such delightful, natural names?
Fix flourishing stamens
like a widower's hair
to a stem in the ground,
you have widowers-relish,
fix flowery pockets to either side
of a stubby stalk
and what you have is beads-in-a-purse,
let the shape of the flower be like two purple lips,
then by attaching two wisps of beard-like stamens
to the three parts of the lower jaw
you get clowns-beard flowers,
if all the body is covered with short fur,
has short-toothed leaves,
and two reddish flowers
no wonder you call it
leaves shaped like globes,
the whole plant covered with thinish hairs,
the flowers seem covered with fleas
so you call it fleas-nest,
still to be found exposed to the snow
on winter lily-ponds:
attached to a tendril,
a great leaf up to one meter long,
so polished it looks grotesque,
beside the sea,
great knotted stalks, and fixed to each
grows knotted samphire
also by the sea,
just like a large beet
with a beard attached,
the naked body of a pretty girl
blooming inside a flower,
a spike of flowers
seemingly invaded by a swarm of red ants,
since it blossoms yellow-brown:
has soft cotton fur all over
and on summer nights its yellow flowers
open wide and look delightful
hangs in swaying threads
from Cheju Island's trees and rocks,
while the leaves and spore-pods seem swollen with eggs.
the very name of thieves-by-the-way sounds wicked
and if ever its hairy seeds get stuck to your clothes,
there is no way of getting them off again,
goblins needle too
has needle-like seeds that cling,
is a mess, like dirty handmarks and footprints,
oozes yellow juice,
is dark and disordered, leaves and flowers,
all seemingly dipped in muddy water.
There are others too, too many to tell;
ladies underwipe, truth-to-tell,
hat mushroom, fly-catcher, violet, sticky-spoon,
if we preserve and respect
the names and the features of each of our friends,
who knows where it may end?
From ancient days we have often heard
"Heaven won't produce a wageless man,
Earth won't grow a nameless plant"
As people declare "No one is above another,
no one is beneath another,"
by roadside, in fields' furrows and on mountain slopes,
without asking for anyone's help,
growing up by nature, fulfilling natural duties,
then naturally passing away, see, our true life!
And even you whom men call poets
rashly call these weeds
and so reject them!
Note: How to translate such a poem? Here the option has been to form
names imitating popular English flower-names following the sense suggested
by the Korean name. Trans.
propped against the mountain.
There is a sense of anxiety,
like in being suspended upside down.
and people along the street
can be seen vaguely.
and the river
are set in parallel lines.
Now you touch
the soles of my feet.
I am being carried pickaback
up over a mountainside.
On the back of my father's head
a motherless desolation
My helpless sorrow is that I know nothing,
neither father, nor mountain.
Chuff chuff, puff puff,
chuff chuff, puff puff,
peep peep, a train passes,
old grandfather mountain mutters.
"Going North, the Manchuria train!
Going South, the refugee train!"
young grandson field corrects him.
"The unification train from Seoul to Pusan!
The unification train from Pusan to Seoul!"
Old grandfather mountain repeats, as a question.
"The unification train from Seoul to Pusan?
The unification train from Pusan to Seoul?"
Young grandson field replies confidently.
"The unification train from Seoul to Pusan!
The unification train from Pusan to Seoul!"
The mountain is ignorant of present reality.
The field is ignorant of past history.
Note: the slowest trains in modern South Korea are called "Unification
The field is relaxing in the meadows,
as a train goes by.
From the train windows
For no aparent reason,
antipathy flares up.
"No matter where I go, my destiny is fixed"
a pop-song rings out.
And rolling up a sleeve,
I shake a fist.
The leek field
of the garlic field
the beet field
the cabbage field
the barley field
and the wheat field
neck and neck
the corn field
of the millet field
as all the long legs
run the marathon.
Little paprika field
and ground cherry field
have lit a lantern and trot along
and lettuce field
are linked together
in a three-legged race
soy bean field
and red bean field
are having a race with biscuits
strung on a string
The cucumber field
up a ladder,
the melon field
is chasing a rugby ball
the water-melon field
rolls out a football
the courgette field
jerks and pulls
The flower field
waves multi-coloured stamens
and cries victory to the red team!
The fruit field
flies paper banners
from every limb
and cries victory to the white team!
Beyond the ditch
the perilla field
is up on the horizontal bars
the dry-rice field
at the foot of the hill
is doing handstands
the sweet potato field
in the sand
the grape field
is clearing hurdles
and the tobacco field, ahem!
scrambling up over the buckwheat field slopes
is up on the wooden horse high in the hills.
Field by field,
racing in relays,
the onward flowing river,
the travellers on the road,
the hairy dogs as they run,
the rolling bicycles,
the rushing buses,
defeating the jeeps,
defeating the clouds
that float across the sky,
defeating the swallows
in their flight,
the buzzing planes.
Beyond the windows
the fields' athletic meeting,
hip, hip, hurrah!
hip, hip, hurrah!
In the buses at rush-hour
people are packed together like millet seed.
In the highest
In my heart
thus, one day, misreading the Bible...
An electricity pole
is standing in the field.
Little bird, hush!
Now the field
is talking in a universal language.
That face peeping out from the balsam flowers?
A cousin who, three days after her wedding,
left for Manchuria,
giving me a set of coloured thimbles,
she left, with a hoarse whistle cry from the train,
but that same face, with the painted cheeks of fifty years ago,
is slyly peeping out at me now.
In the cosmos flowers, the catechism sister!
Agnes, was it? Or Lucy?
With black wimple and white veil
framing her face, that ivory sister,
object of my tiny heart's deep longing,
that tall, tall foreign sister
is smiling out at me now.
And that face among the chrysanthemums,
whose might that be?
It looks like the dead face of my mother,
laid somewhere unknown in the North,
or my sister-in-law's gentle face,
(she too stayed behind),
but it could also be my future daughter-in-law's.
The crescent moon slips behind an inky cloud,
the garden now seems dizzy,
frightened too, maybe,
and wrapped in an icy breath.
Could I be developing a chill?
In my diseased field
pink seaweed is weeping.
Teck teck fallara
teck teck fallara
a trumpet shell is calling.
This worm devouring my breast, already 28 years old,
no matter what medecine you pour down inside,
nothing but widening cavities and lesions!
Ah, my expiring days,
would you enjoy the sight
of escaping spores?
Spreading and scattering
like dandelion puff,
where will they float,
the seeds of my life,
where will they bloom?
A field of exile, draped in white,
enclosed with railings before and behind,
medicine bottles and packets of pills
like a mound of garbage
heaped round the bedside.
A desperate northward sky
a pallid sun
sick in bed
a flock of crows devouring the left lung
a flock of jackdaws devouring the right
a fire kindles in my back.
on the head of
ideology's phantom shade.
In the autumn sky
flocks of wild geese fly away.
Casting long shadows
over my aching heart,
northwards they fly.
Each seems to hold the other's tail
as in straight lines they fly away.
they drop down and settle in the cavities in my breast.
the last one
my heart is racing
my heart is weeping
the sky is weeping
I set it free.
That single, lonely, flying form
is like me.
In the autumn sky
flocks of wild geese fly away,
within my heart
in parallel lines they fly away.
After the springtime harvest was over,
while the second planting of sorghum plants
were still no higher than one of my socks
and the autumn vegetables were so young
they still looked naked,
I entered the operating theatre.
My back was cut open with an electric scalpel,
a lung pulled out, a cavity incised,
flushed with antibiotics,
four ribs cut, then pushed back in,
my back sewn up;
they call all this cavity section
and restorative surgery.
One week! Day by day
the extreme pain and the anesthesia wore off,
the stitches were removed from my back,
and then, three weeks after,
I had a second restorative operation,
cutting through two more ribs.
Reassured that with this it was all finished,
overcoming the pain,
after about a month
I was moved down onto the general ward.
So on the second day,
using a stick
to support my bone-aching back,
I went out to visit the field.
How surprised I was, (how not to be?)
on seeing those young sorghum plants,
now grown up like children
if you once come home after ten years away,
a head and shoulders taller than me!
The cabbages, each like a young girl come back to visit
her mother's home,
sitting there plumply pregnant and full;
and the beet field marvellously dark blue-green
like a parade ground.
After that day out in the field I got sick,
sprang a fever, took to my bed again,
and another month went by.
One day they took an X-ray
and found something called false bone,
9.7 cm on the first rib
15.5 cm on the second
16 cm on the third
19 cm on the fourth
19 cm on the fifth
14.5 cm on the sixth
between the bones
they had cut.
On the next day,
nursing the joy of a return to life,
I went out to the field again.
But the sorghum had grown no taller,
only stood bowed with heavy head,
and though cabbage and beet came running naked,
perhaps they had reached their limit,
they too had not grown.
As the warm sunshine of the high autumn sky
met the cool breeze
on my noticeably lighter back
I wondered if I could expect to see
any greater miracle than this.
The kitchen garden, now autumn is ending,
looks like a meal table at the end of a party.
The homeward plodding sun's head
nods away westwards.
This seeping loneliness is
not so unlike that found
in a house just after
In the snow-sprinkled morning field,
his hair likewise frosted white,
a man stood idle.
Not like someone involved in days of plenty,
weaving sweetest dreams,
he seemed to be emerging harrassed
from a hard long night of pain.
Perhaps slow to get to work
beneath accumulated disasters,
while the field, incapable of yielding a harvest,
lay there, matted dry grass, an empty abyss,
except where some greens grew
in inopportune corners,
like his innocent offspring.
Receiving the gold-bright sunshine,
the frost-hardened ground
and the man's breast too
breathed out misty bitterness
as a gust of early winter's icy wind
shook in passing the last dead leaf
on an ancient branch at the top of the field,
and in the man's eyes
drew up an icy dew.
The heavens are all in gauze,
And I open wide the doors
of every cell in my body.
I long to love once
from the very beginning
a certain young girl
whom I never saw nor heard,
like the blind girl
in Gide's Symphonie Pastorale,
I mean that love
that begins like pure white snow
and ends like pure white snow.
You, the bear that from time to time came down foraging
in our fire-cleared hillside potato field
up in Samsugap Mountain in Ham-kyong Province,
making havoc, you rogue!
I heard that, driven by Russians, or Chinese, with automatic rifles,
pushed on over the Taebeck Mountains, the Sobeck Hills,
you at last arrived at Chiri Mountain,
in Namwon in whose sunny valley
Chunhyang used to dwell,
then, some time ago the rumor ran
you had been imprisoned in the zoo in Seoul, put in a cage,
and then for some reason
had been hoisted up and fixed in mid-air
on the roof of Hwashin Department Store
with a cosmetics signboard fixed to your head,
poor bear! You see, you cannot go
floating back northwards like a cloud,
and certainly you cannot rise and ascend
like Jesus of Nazareth,
after fleeing from Wonsan, the rich plains of Tokwon,
twice driven as far as Taegu and Pusan,
after crawling back up as far as Seoul,
on the slopes of Namsan at the foot of the walls
the parched ground round an illegal shack
became my lot, and your lot too,
our wretched lot.
Note: Chunhyang is the heroine of a popular tale of faithful love set in Namwon (South-west Korea). The geography of this poem reflects the events of the Korean War.
In a field at dawn from which night has not yet withdrawn
see, monks in black cassocks,
some genuflecting with bended knee
some worshipping, their forehead pressed to the ground
some with both arms stretched up to heaven
some walking slowly telling their beads.
Whose great sin, what great fault are they thus weeping for?
Or what love, and whose have they once tasted
that they thus anxiously spend the night watches in prayer?
Receiving and drinking the icy air of a winter's morning,
with that chill that soaks deep down into the bones,
bare trees whose bodily frame alone remains
stand unmoving out in the field.
Ah, that purity, covering the empty spaces
at the very head of those trees, on their shoulders,
down over their limbs, to the tips of their hands,
their tightly fixed legs, to the very foot,
that limitless purity!
Monks and old trees, alike, had gone
and now faintly return with the rising sun,
first, in Silla's rainbow-tinted grove,
greeting the sun rising from the Eastern Sea
within that grotto at Sokkuram,
guarded by lovely angel figures,
all the coloured desires of each fulfilled
by that great image of Mercy!
And now, approaching the early morning river bank,
where teeming baby fish flash dazzling scales,
perched high on Christopher's shoulders
and laughing merrily:
Only Pascal's reed standing
with white hair and whiskers
waving in the wind.
A field on the Armistice Line!
on my field
white snow lies heaped high
over it pure air
The white snow-topped furrows:
the surging waves
of the sea.
There a hunch-backed
dreams a battleship's dreadful dream
over and over again.
On a dead branch
one single leaf
like a sign from a shipwreck.
And in this ocean
the green barley shoots,
all lined up in rows,
are having fun.
On the frozen ground of my heart
a bitter Siberian wind bites the flesh.
In a field of dry tangled weeds
a garbage dump
of gaping cans, smashed ration-boxes,
pages from the Army paper, broken-necked bottles,
and in one corner the cadaver of a hairy dog, shot dead;
along the ridges bitten into the fields by tanks
the dry stiff carcass of a cat;
in front of a tent like a plastic hot-house
behind a barbed-wire fence hung with blood-stained slacks,
coming and going, a yankee soldier;
whenever he whistles, peep-peep,
wretched urchins pop up their heads, like frogs,
from holes in the ground like those where kimchi is kept,
wrapped in coloured scarves,
yellow, red and blue.
The sky suddenly
begins to spew black mist
and a cluster of crows flaps off
over the sullen hills.
This itch in my back that drives me mad,
this rising bile that dilates my breast,
what can be causing it?
Eighteen degrees below, unspeakably cold,
the flowers in their crystal palace hot-house
the garlic field snug under thick blankets of straw
shows no sign of life,
only the spring greens, covered
with yellow plastic like army tents,
show signs of activity
but only I, the barley field, stand out here exposed,
no, I and our men on guard at the front,
each bearing a blue flame within his breast,
unable to explain the sense of the harsh season
with its burden of madness,
face to face with the fields across the river,
I persevere and so overcome.
Retreating south in January 1951,
in a truck without chains,
as it struggled up, then slid back down,
struggled up, then slid back down that ridge,
and sitting there beside the driver,
trying to free my mind of fear,
I glimpsed a field
in the valley far below,
sheltered, free of snow, a black spread of cloth,
on the way back north with the family,
in the midst of blooming mountain azaleas,
a field standing out like a mangy patch on a boy's head,
all white with new-sprung shoots,
freed from jail,
on my way to stay in the country, glimpsed askew,
a field, a mass, a host,
of shepherd's-purse spikes,
in that valley at the foot of Shindong hill
between Kimchon and Taegu,
a field, all stained
with the blood, tears and pus of lepers,
my old home, last glimpsed
as I lay on the operating table
of a foreign hospital,
that little scrap of mountain field!
Note: In 1965 the poet had a second lung operation in Japan.
Day after day after day
I face you.
You have been bright, and clear,
mist, drizzle, rainfall,
bang, crash, wallop, thud,
I have gone on through boredom and through anger,
through sadness and through joy,
through irritation too,
pretending not to be able to hear
those cries from life's burning hell,
or the sound of the desert vastness waves
blindly respecting your indecipherable heart,
overmuch seen, a complete stranger still,
but cherishing an inexpressible love
for you that has blossomed within me,
like a gingko tree I face you.
What has come and settled down
in the bamboo field?
Is it a thousand-years old pair of pythons,
lovingly set on the cushions of themselves
that have settled face-to-face?
Is it a wild-haired restless ghost,
lips stained with blood,
that is arranging
its dishevelled dress?
Is it a stone Buddha
that keeps changing position
to relieve its numbed feet
that is lingering there?
No, creeping, crawling toad,
it was you, rolling your big eyes
and scratching the rash on your back.
No, a river
Rather, a sea
In my lily-pond
are at play
in the paprika field
and the strawberry field
in the kitchen garden
the spring greens
are fluttering fins
like fish in streams
and beyond the village
out in the fields
in the potato field
in the sweet potato field
little squid in the melon field
big octopus in the water melon field
now this spot has become
my lost home in Wonsan!
Do you see the sea in front?
soy beans sandfish
red beans hair-tail
all in swarms
round and round
on a wave-washed brink
the spring greens
out in mid-sea
shrubs and trees
zelkovas and other old trees
like sharks or whales
while in the woodland depths
lurk the deep sea fish:
and there too
can be seen
and, rare as coral,
A young girl, her scarlet hair-ribbon trailing down
over a blouse with coloured sleeves
and a long blue skirt, bears a basket of flowers,
a newly-wed girl, her apron lightly spread
over her yellow blouse and red skirt, her hair
fixed with a jade pin, bears a brass bowl with a floral design,
a woman in a white blouse, a grey skirt,
a winter hat prettily perched on her head,
bears a coloured bamboo basket,
all are out in the lark fields
digging up young spring plants.
A child, wearing a man's silk waistcoat,
riding a plump cow and playing a bamboo flute,
draws near to the hill, its pines
like green clouds, all spread with tiny flowers,
and far away in the plain dimly woven
with fields dry and wet,
beneath the stands of brightly blooming plum and peach,
you can see thatched roofs like inverted shells.
Maybe on a day like this one swallow
came with a gourd-seed in its beak
and summoning Heung-bu offered it to him.
An old hag, with a filthy towel for a scarf,
the cotton stuffing sticking from her jacket,
clad in rough slacks dyed in lye,
bears a worn-out wicker basket,
a girl draped in a ragged jacket
over military fatigue pants
bears a battered pot,
a girl, her hair disheveled,
a charity-handout sweater over her tight thin skirt
and with striped underwear beneath,
bears a chipped gourd dipper,
out in the plains where flocks of jackdaws fly
all roam in quest of premature spring plants.
The rice fields are burnt white, as if by ringworm,
the fields yield only scurf-like dust,
on the hills behind the rotting thatch roofs
stand pine trees, each with peeling bark,
towards the tomb-like hilltop,
a lad who had poured his morning broth down his throat
then gone without lunch at school
is tottering homewards,
his rattling plastic book-bag the only lively thing.
Along the country path, unfolding smooth like a roll of linen,
a cultivator bearing a young couple speeds merrily along,
away from the village with its blue and orange roofs in rows,
towards the rice fields and their pools of milky stagnant water,
the fields sprouting bright with flames of green,
those hills with their rows of fruit trees standing.
The hills ablaze with flowers that cry victory,
and the skylark-stroked plains
mingle as in an embroidered scene,
and now shortfalls of barley are a thing of the past,
man and nature have recovered their original accord.
Note: Heung-bu is a character in a popular Korean folk-tale who is
rewarded for an act of kindness to a swallow by the gift of a magic seed.
In the thick forest
where the furnace-sun pours down heat,
hands like great toads
strike fire from a flint
large as a stone on a storage jar
and, parting, set the fire free.
Flames attack the sky.
In a flash the jungle is a sea of flames.
Towering heavenwards, trees
tall as Russians or Yankees,
others with fat trunks
recalling greasy Manchus,
thickly packed bushes
like soldiers of South and North in arms
not understanding the recent madness,
thorn-sharp bushes bristling
with present hates and hostility,
brambles tangled in history's twists,
matted by Destiny's turning wheel,
the forest of all the powers,
down to the roots of every system,
in short, this century's entire dead ground,
with a sound of thunder,
a sound of guns,
is overturned completely and burns.
On the vast deserted mountain heights
where they ruled as undisputed masters,
the tigers, panthers, and other such
flee now with fire at their tails;
bears, badgers and boars,
that had only thought to fill their stomachs,
all fall into blazing trenches and ditches;
snakes, foxes, wolves and wild cats,
all such cunning kind
run hither and thither in search of escape,
their eyes glinting till the end;
owls, bats, and all that steal by night,
the spiders with their information net-works,
the toads, moles, rats, with all such spies and agents,
the bands that eat at every table,
as well as the nests of the birds that sang
and paid no heed to the world's affairs,
yes, even the guiltless little frogs,
They race around in stifling smoke.
They stumble and roll.
They groan and howl in pain.
Even the blood they shed is consumed,
all crackling, consumed in flames.
A billowing tidal wave of fire!
In this great mountainside blaze
every curse is undone,
every bond is unloosed
from off this land, this people.
Oh, then burn on! Burn on!
Burn a whole month! Burn for three!
Once everything has vanished into smoke and ashes,
once the blood-shedding darkness has gone,
in the peace of the pyre,
in the relief of a mother delivered of child,
behold, a new land!
A plain in which North and South shall be one,
now forcibly divided,
united as flesh closes to heal a wound.
There, as if from Noah's Ark,
see women and men advance
wearing plaited bamboo hats,
with sound of gongs, beating drums,
blowing flutes and clashing cymbals
They dig the ground.
They cultivate the fields.
They sow the seed.
In this vast new field,
free at last of the shadowy trace
of the resentful dead, now at peace,
celebrating the world's new dawning,
they shall honour anew none but One,
only the Trinity of autonomy, diligence, harmony.
Today my soul once again
soared through the sky
then, like a kite that has snapped its cord,
borne off on the moment's chill winter winds,
it vanished away,
I wonder where?
I have never so far heard
any voice whatever,
from heaven, from earth,
or from men.
Neither have I seen any vision.
Within my breast have blossomed and vanished
upon billions of tales of things endured
but I could not express a single word.
Was my soul born, from the very start,
with unseeing eyes?
Day after day, every day
I open wide the eyes of my being
and look up to heaven
but encounter only obscurity, only vast emptiness...
Just one footstep ahead of us,
no, from the very beginning,
with the solar system turning and turning,
have been swimming on through space.