Born in Taegu in 1927, Kim Nam-jo is one of Korea's leading poets. She has published numerous volumes of poetry and essays and has been awarded many major literary prizes. She served for a time as president of the Korean Poets' Association and has long been active in the Korean P.E.N. Center. For almost forty years, until her retirement in 1993, she was professor of Korean Language and Literature at Sukmyong Woman's University in Seoul.
Herself a Catholic, many of her poems are addressed to a mysterious transcendent figure that may or may not be God. Her main themes are love and loneliness. In many poems she depicts the passionate reality of human love and explores the ways in which human love mirrors the love which is the essence of the nature of God. She also suggests by her evocations of intense human solitude that love alone can give meaning to an otherwise desolate human existence.
A grove of towering trees three thousand years old,
all winter long a snowy waste, no end in sight,
where those trees
stand tall in the snow-covered expanse.
when one of those trees
fell, caught in an avalanche,
the Good Lord
hugged it to his breast.
Softly he bade it:
Rest, my child, rest. . .
The Good Lord
when it had been just a tiny seed
and knew the young avatars
springing up from its enormous roots.
that day the Good Lord's love
was a loving consolation.
there were a bird that had sung for three thousand years,
it would sing: Rest, rest.
For after three thousand years, that tree
must have been supremely weary.
a member of the redwood species
known as Sequoia,
henceforth a sleeping saint
for the next three thousand years,
will enjoy the most blissful sleep and repose.
In the majestic grove
this winter too
among far-reaching endless snowy wastes.
There I first glimpsed
such desolate loneliness.
Above the soaring towers of the old castle
a flag is waving
like a boat being rowed
like a windmill turning in the wind
waving on and on
until the threads grow thin
then casting away that body like a corpse
they raise a new flag
what it's like to be up there all alone
in the sky with the drifting clouds,
what it's like
to be shaking all over, looking down
on the mutability of people and things?
There I first glimpsed
such adult prayer.
Good things never pass away.
a good man's decease:
only the fact of their existence cannot perish.
Caught in strange light
half veiled in mist
half bathed in sunlight
relations and friends from bygone days
all are gathered together
no distinction between
living and dead
in the Good Lord's book
written by the Good Lord's hand
all equally lovingly listed
a snug night's sleep
an antique desk
a book once read then laid down open
moonlit nights of times gone by
even nearly spoken confessions of love:
all good things
never pass away.
Because a soul nestles
in all the true things
that emerge in human existence.
Mary Magdalene 4
I hear faintly the sound
of nails being hammered through hands and feet.
After the one you loved
had hands and feet pierced with nails
before your very eyes
your body became the shrine
of the sound of nails being hammered,
the echoes of that sound.
is the most powerful thing in all the world.
It is the awful dread
of standing before reiterated suffering.
It is love, you too loving.
Until you have piled up ashes
to form a high mountain
until you have bleached blood
into a river of pure water
All that remains unchanged between heaven and earth
is death and love.
So from you
every dawn and every night the pain
of nails being hammered into Hands and feet
knows no end.
Poem and Reader
If one person in a year
ten people in ten years
if in the course of fifty years of writing
enter into deep communion
with one poet's secret soul
if in one hundred years
one hundred readers
to the living emotion and life-long love
one poet transmits
with true readers increasing
in number as slowly
as a stone growing in size
ah, if only I can flow in their veins
like a stream of hot pure-spirited blood.