every tale was a tale beginning long long ago
When she died, it seemed she was eager to go on telling tales,
because she died with her mouth wide open,
and no matter how hard they tried to close it, it kept falling open again.
Ko Un deserves a Nobel Prize in Literature. This is a truly remarkable book, compulsively written and compulsively readable. BRIEF REVIEW: Buy it now. You won't regret it.
Ko Un's project, which this book presents a selection from, is to write one poem each about every person he has ever met, plus a few more about historical and mythological figures. This would be impossibly insane if he were not able to combine such vastness with the wonderful details of the individual people and the individual poems:
"Dad, Dad! Ma's dead! She died and she won't shut her eyes!"
our great-aunt takes up all the room.
What we call sorrow is not the least bit sad, really.
It's like a stream hidden in a valley, gone like the tune of a song
once you're over the crest of the next hill.
When a woman like that enters a house of mourning,
the wine and food in the offerings find their proper flavor,
("Our Great-Aunt at Taegi")
As in these lines, many of the poems derive some of their energy from the specifics of Korean mores—here the rites of mourning. Many of them make use of the emotional Korean interjection "Aigu":
When it rained,
he would hold out both hands to the rain
and exclaim in delight: "Aigu, Aigu! How good to see you!"
("Father")And of course there are complete poems that touch on specifically Korean things:
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.
His round complte, as he's leaving the village
he runs into another beggar:
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.
I especially love the "bands of magpies" here.
As Ko Un lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea, many of the poems contain traces of that experience (or, of course, are explicitly about it):
THE WIFE FROM SUREGIAt Frog Embankment,
there are only frogs, all the rest of the world is dead.
The wife from Suregi is weeping there,
but the croaking of frogs drowns out her weeping.
This evening is the tenth anniversary of her husband's death.
She's managed to get some barley to cook, digs spoon and chopsticks
into the bowl in ritual offering, and weeps.
Her metal spoon and chopsticks are gone, taken by the Japs.
Digging a wooden spoon and chopsticks into the bowl, she weeps.
At Frog Embankment,
she weeps, but the croaking of frogs drowns out her weeping.
It's no use to her dead husband's ears.
Still, it does not take the "exotic" element of Korean customs or specifics of Korean history to make the lines or the poems work:
At the age of a flower he died like a flower.
("Chõng Yong-gi of the Righteous Army")
See that migrant lapwing perching on a branch!
("Old Foster Father")
The sea off the west coast isn't quite a real sea.
It's more like some nearby neighbor
clearing his throat, like a neighbor's house,
like the yard of a neighbor's house
on a sultry day
where the smell of smoke lingers even after the fire's out.
Surely no one could ever return from such a sea.
It's been five years since Il-man's father from Paekdang-mei
went off as a seaman thanks to people he knew.
He spent five years on boats catching shrimp and whitebait
out near Kaeya Island.
Il-man's father used to spit on his hands
and handle rope so deftly,
a ribbon bound tightly round his head.
Now Il-man's grown up.
he's the spitting image of his father.
Il-man is Il-man's father.
As in the characterization of his Great-Aunt as someone who "takes up all the room," Ko Un has a way with quickly sketching in a personality. The deft handling of rope in the above poem, or this: "Someone like watered wine" ("Uncle Maeng-sik").
Robert Haas featured a slightly different version of "The Women from Sonjei-ri" in his Poet's Choice in 1998, from an earlier edition of Ko Un's poems. Haas also wrote the introduction to the edition I have, in which apparently Gary Gach has joined the other two translators and reworked some of their earlier translations.
Sometimes, Ko Un even slips into what seems like magic realism:
A DEAD DOG
On digging up the heating flue under the floor,
when it refused to draw properly,
we found a dog that had disappeared from the house.
It was dead, of course.
Cautiously, Father took it up into the hill behind the house and buried it.
The next day it rained. As the rain made the leaves
green again, they barked.
Since Ko Un grew up in a country village, the poems often arrive at arresting images of rural poverty:
If a kid dies there's no tomb, no offerings:
there'll be another one born by-and-by.
Or even an image of relative rural wealth:
You from a rich house
had really nice clothes
your five buttons always shining bright and
every day a boiled egg snuggled
bright in your lunch-box, where the white rice
contained very little barley
At this point, I have provided some examples from the first 96 pages of this book of over 350 pages. I could go on and on. To come back to my first point: BUY IT.