By Ko Un
Translated by Brother Antony of Taize, Young-moo Kim, and Gary Gach
In darkest night, near midnight, the dogs
in the middle of Saeto begin their raucous barking.
One dog barks, so the next one barks
until the dogs at Kalmoe across the fields
follow suit and start to bark as well.
Between the barking of dogs,
scraps of voices echoe: eh ah oh…
Not unlike the sound which the night's wild geese
let fall to the bitter cold ground
as they fly over, high above,
not unlike that splendid sound
echoing back and forth.
It's the women from Sonjei-ri one their way home
from the old-style market over at Kunsan
where they'd gone with garlic bulbs by the hundreds
in baskets on their heads,
there being a shortage kimch'i cabbages
from the bean-fields.
Now they're on their way home,
after getting rid of what couldn't be sold
at the cleaning auction at closing time--
several miles gone,
several left to go in deepest night!
The empty baskets may be light enough
yet I wonder: just how light are they
with empty stomachs, nothing to eat?
Still, they don't suffer alone.
They share this pain,
these plain, simple people
these plain, simple women.
What a good homely life!
Perhaps the dogs have gotten used to their voices,
for the barking starts to die away.
Night seems eager to declare:" I myself am night! "
And the darkness blinks its vacant eyes.
Ko Un is the greatest Korean poet alive today. He was born the son of a farmer in 1933 in Southwestern Korea, Cholla Province (a region that prides itself on its relentless antagonism to the party politics of Seoul). A precocious scholar from the start, he studied Chinese classics as a youth and learned to read and write Korean from a neighbor's servant (when Korean was prohibited as a public school language by colonial Japanese). In his late teens, marked by his experience during the Korean War, he became a Buddhist monk. After 10 years and after becoming an abbot at Haeinsa Temple, he quit the monastic life and returned to the worldly world, but with a deeply nihilistic attitude that culminated in a suicide attempt in 1970.
Ten Thousand Lives is his major, ongoing work, which began during his imprisonment, when he determined to describe every person he had ever met. The above selection is from this work.
As Allen Ginsberg remarked of this singular quasi-beat poetic mingling of cosmic perception and the ordinary life, Ko Un's poems are as "hard nuts to crack--yet many seem immediately nutty and empty at the same time."
His works in English translation include Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems (Parallax Press, 1997) and The Sound of My Waves (Cornell East Asia Series, 1993), both collections I commend to your attention. For the political and the natural orders often collide in his earthy poetry, come wryly together, mingling wit and compassion. As he wrote in a poem set in the DMZ from Ten Thousand Lives , called "Kin Shim Muk" ,"The road between Tongduchon and Uijonbu/ stretches glorious, not a yank in sight!"
Ko Un is still writing this one long poem, "Ten Thosand Lives", and turning his own one life into an exemplary planetary life of action and meditation, poetry and compassion, deeply expressive of Korea and the global soul of the world.
The above poem is poignant and glows with rustic charm in its images. It beautiful ly upholds the stoic and sanguine spirit of Korean women. You may be able to empathize with it as such sights are not unfamiliar in India too. Loved the last two lines.
From "Ten Thousand Lives" by Ko Un published by Green Integer.