To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Three Poems by Ko Un (previously unpublished)

Translated from Korean by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Lee Sang-Wha


Gazing up at one star, let’s stay young!
In the darkness
let’s be our children’s twinkling hearts.
With hearts brimming full,
let’s be hundreds of light years of our fatherland in the middle of night.
Although we may fall, bodies wounded,
now youth is the nearest thing to truth.
All who are alive on land, let’s stay young!
With my eyes streaming tears through the long night,
isn’t our fatherland a joy between that star and me?
Gazing up at a star, let’s stay young!
Let’s make our fatherland’s shining star
that can never be disgraced
that day of your children and mine.
Indeed! The end of this beauty !
all is always born at the end. Let’s be morning.
Our fatherland, with morning sunlight vibrating.
Let’s be the youth of total unity that embraces all here, today.



An instant that is born between you and me!
There the furthest star rises.
Meetings of people—
in the hundreds of miles of Puyo,
in each village of ancient Mahan’s fifty-four nations.
Since then, our fatherland has seen myriads of meetings of people!
In this ancient land
parting means an expansion.
Procession of endless living,
no one can exist all alone. Tomorrow!
Ah, a man can be a man, a world, only among other people.



All day long she was out in the Man’gyong River’s mudflats,
where there was neither bone nor unhulled grain of rice ;
she came back home after gathering sea-blite ankle-deep in that distant, wretched mud :
Why, it was already early morning, with the Great Bear already setting ! She was exhausted !
With no time to lay down her weary body, she was obliged quickly to hull barley in a mortar ;
the pestle soared up, struck the dark void, came down pounding and pierced the ground.
Drops of sweat fall into the barley, added seasoning:
Well, with food of that taste, the brats should grow fast.
Where, if not here, would our irrepressible lives be maintained ?
A woman’s life surely saves a multitude of lives.
Borne in a palanquin, she crossed over muddy, slow-flowing waters from Changhang,
in Ch’ungchong Province to her husband’s home, and after that hard journey
began married life in a household with not so much as one crock of bean paste or soy sauce.
Two days after delivering her first son, she had to pound barley,
prepare food in a basket and carry it on her head to the paddy-fields
where the second weeding was in progress.
After childbirth the blood kept seeping out,
she had to wash her underclothes secretly five times a day.
But the way she walked, like a clothes pole, was brisk :
look, she was already walking that far, arousing a breeze.
She had no time even to sing as she had to do every job while the spring famine was passing.
If you left the fields untended in summer, why, that was as terrible as raising ten tiger cubs !
Living amidst flourishing grass, amidst poverty, amidst all those damned tasks,
my mother, my mother, how could she be only my mother ?

[A NOTE ON KO UN, AS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN JACKET 34, OCTOBER 2007. Born in 1933 in Gunsan, North Jeolla Province, Ko Un is Korea’s foremost living writer. After immense suffering during the Korean War, he became a Buddhist monk. His first poems were published in 1958, then a few years later he returned to the world. He became a leading spokesman in the struggle for freedom and democracy during the 1970s and 1980s, in a struggle for which he was often arrested and imprisoned. He has published more than 120 volumes of poems, essays, and fiction. In recent years, selections from his work have been translated into at least fourteen languages, including 5 volumes so far published in English: The Sound of My Waves (Cornell EAS) and Beyond Self: Zen Poems (Parallax) were published in the 1990s, Little Pilgrim (Parallax) and Ten Thousand Lives (Green Integer) were published in 2005. Abiding Places, Korea and North (Tupelo), Flowers of a Moment (BOA Editions, Ltd.), and Three Way Tavern: Selected Poems (UC Press), 2006. He has been invited to talk and give readings of his work at major poetry and literary festivals in numerous countries, and has been nominated for a Nobel several times.]

Ko Un's Songs for Tomorrow: A Collection of Poems 1961-2001 was published by Green Integer Press earlier this year.


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