Ko Un 

Born in Kunsan (North Cholla Province) in 1933, Ko Un is probably the most controversial and surely the most prolific Korean writer at present alive. He has published well over a hundred volumes of poetry, fiction, essays, translations, and drama. His poetry ranges from the short lyric to the vast epic sweep of the seven volumes of the still unfinished Paektu-san. His fiction includes the Buddhist-inspired novel Hwaomkyong (The Avatamska Sutra) and Son (Zen), a fictionalized history of the early Son (Zen) masters of China and Korea. The ongoing twelve-volume series Maninbo (Ten Thousand Life-Records) contains short poems evoking one by one all the people Ko Un has met in his life, as an expression of his deep desire to incarnate in his poetry a radical rewriting of modern Korean history.  
Ko Un's life history is equally remarkable. As a child he very quickly mastered the Chinese classics. In his late teens, marked by his experiences during the Korean War, he became a Buddhist monk and was quickly given a series of important positions. After ten years he quit the monastic life and returned to the world, with a deeply nihilistic attitude that culminated in an attempted suicide in 1970. Restored to life, he became a leading spokesmen for the artists and students opposed to the so-called Yushin Reforms of 1972. He was among the many people arrested when Chon Doo Hwan staged his coup d'etat in May 1980. He continued to be identified with the writers opposed to dictatorship throughout the 1980s and was arrested many times. In 1982 he married and went to live in Ansong, away from Seoul. In recent years he has begun to gain an international reputation, invited to talk and give readings in the United States, Australia, France, Holland, and Germany. Translations of his work have been published in several languages.  
Identified with the socially active school of literature, Ko Un's name was for long anathema to those whose literary criteria were aesthetic and conformist, as well as to the government. His intense longing for the reunification of Korea is expressed in many places and his main concern has always been to express the historic identity of the Korean people as a whole. A man of intense emotions, his poetry is often characterized by the rhetorical features of public speech: rhetorical questions, exclamations, exhortatory imperatives. His poetic language is vivid and colloquial, marked by popular speech rhythms rather than by literary conventions. Controversy as to the evaluation of his work continues; he has many fervent admirers, while others criticize the spontaneity, the lack of polish and refinement that at times characterize his work.  

Eoh Island 

No one ever went to Eoh Island.  
They say someone went, though,  
went and never came back.  
But where is Eoh Island?  
Down the waves'bronze valleys  
south-east, south-east, lies  
only the eyeball-searing horizon.  
But where is Eoh Island?  
Row as hard as you can  
skim with all sails set!  
Perhaps that island, Cheju's dream,  
deep in its fishermen's blood,  
lies somewhere near?  
Where is Eoh Island, the blind man's island  
glimpsed at sunrise over Songsan?  
Waves, endless waves, alone  
thunder on, waves, thunder to the world.  
Arise, white clouds.  
Mighty surf, come rolling.  
But where are we?  
Where are we?  
The sea comes breaking, no return.  
In the waves hear the sound  
of my daughter crying, left behind.  
Is Eoh Island anywhere near  
the thousands of years spent fishing here?  
It is there, though!  
It was there, then it vanished.  
Is Eoh Island anywhere near?  
No one ever went there.  
Yet someone went  
went and will never come back again.  
Oh it's there, for sure, it's there.  
Oh no. Only waves.  
Nothing but overpowering waves.  


Transformed into arrows  
let's all go, body and soul!  
Piercing the air  
let's go, body and soul,  
with no way of return,  
transfixed there,  
rotting with the pain of striking home,  
never to return.  

One last breath! Now, let's quit the string,  
throwing away like rags  
all we've had for decades  
all we've enjoyed for decades  
all we've piled up for decades,  
the lot.  
Transformed into arrows  
let's all go, body and soul!  

The air is shouting! Piercing the air  
let's go, body, and soul!  
In dark daylight the target is rushing towards us.  
Finally, as the target topples  
   in a shower of blood,  
let's all just once as arrows  

Never to return!  
Never to return!  

Hail, arrows, our nation's arrows!  
Hail, Warriors! Spirits of the fallen!  

In a Temple's Main Hall 

Down with Buddha!  
Down with handsome, well-fed Buddha!  
What's he doing up there with that oh so casually  
   elegant wispy beard?  
Next, break down that painted whore of a crossbeam!  
A dragon's head? What use is that, a dragon's head?  
Tear down that temple, drive out the monks,  
turn it all into dust and maggots!  

Buddha with nothing, that's real Buddha!  
Our foul-mouthed Seoul street-market mother,  
   she's real Buddha!  
We're all of us Buddhabuddhabuddha real!  
Living Buddha? One single cigarette, now  
there's real cool Holy buddha!  

No, not that either.  
For even supposing this world were a piece of cake,  
with everyone living it up and living well,  
in gorgeous high-class gear, with lots of goods produced  
thanks to Korean-American technological collaboration,  
each one able to live freely, with no robbing of rights,  
Paradise, even!  
Paradise, even!  
utter Eden unequalled, plastered with jewels, still even then,  
day after day people would have to change the world.  
Why, of course, in any case,  
day after day this world must all be overturned  
and renewed to become a newly blooming lotus flower.  
And that is Buddha.  

Down for sure with those fifteen hundred years  
rolling on foolish, rumbling along:  
time fast asleep like stagnant water that stinks and stinks.  


It's absolutely inevitable!  
So just take a deep breath  
and accept this adversity.  
But look!  
A distinguished visitor deigns to visit  
my tiny north-facing cell.  
Not the chief making his rounds, no,  
but a ray of sunlight as evening falls,  
a gleam no bigger than a screwed-up stamp.  
A sweetheart fit to go crazy about.  
It settles there on the palm of a hand,  
warms the toes of a shyly bared foot.  
Then as I kneel and, undevoutly,  
offer it a dry, parched face to kiss,  
in a moment that scrap of sunlight slips away.  
After the guest has departed through the bars,  
the room feels several times colder and darker.  
This military prison special cell  
is a photographer's darkroom.  
Without any sunlight I laughed like a fool.  
One day it was a coffin holding a corpse.  
One day it was altogether the sea.  
A wonderful thing!  
A few people survive here.  

Being alive is a sea  
   without a single sail in sight.  

New Year's Full Moon 

Bitter cold day, the new year's first full moon,  
a special day.  
One housewife, busy from early morning,  
knowing that beggars will be coming by,  
puts out a pot of five-grain rice in anticipation  
on the stone mortar  
that stands beside her brush-wood gate,  
with a single side-dish of plantain-shoots.  
Soon, an ancient beggar comes breezing up,  
makes ready to spin a yarn but finally  
just pockets the rice and goes on his way.  
If only we had 360 more days like today in a year!  
His bag is soon bulging.  
As he is leaving the village, his turn made,  
he runs into another beggar:  
glad encounter!  
You've no call to go there, I've done em all!  
Let's us celebrate a Fool Moon too!  
Snapping dried twigs, they make a fire  
to thaw themselves by, then  
producing hunks of rice from this house and that,  
the two beggars set to,  
choking, laughing with mouths full.  
Soon bands of magpies hear the news  
and flock flapping around.  

Translated by Brother Anthony