First Person Sorrowful by Ko Un (trans. by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Lee Sang-Wha). Bloodaxe Books. 152pp, $23.95.
The central theme, the nearly obsessive thread connecting the poems collected in Ko Un’s First Person Sorrowful, is the question of what it means to be a man caught in a linear temporal universe where it is impossible to ever really leave the past behind.
These translations were taken from eight separate collections arranged here in such a way that they contain two full cycles within themselves, as well as the beginning of a third—a pattern which indicates the continuation of the cycle; Poetry Left Behind (2002), Late Songs (2002), Full of Shame (2006), Empty Sky (2008), Where Has My Frontier Gone? (2011), Fatherland Stars (1984), Songs for Tomorrow (1992), and A Cenotaph (1997). The majority of the poems represented here were taken from the later books, and it would be easy to dismiss the layout of the contents were the patterns not implicit within the poems themselves.
The theme of time reoccurs with clocklike regularity in verses that otherwise shift rapidly in tone between gentleness overlaid with humor and containing flashes of a startling brutality. The following is from Un’s poem, “My Next Life”:
I also let go, bit by bit,
the past hundred years’ garbage.
The next morning
drops of dew were hanging in empty cobwebs.
There were too many pasts in the world. The future had shrunk . . .
The oak leaves were twittering like returning birds.
He follows this image of gentle dispersal, of life moving forward but seeming to repeat itself like Augustine’s gyred universe, with a passage laced with the implacable finality of death:
In my next life I will be a breathless stone
deep beneath the ground,
under a mute widow’s skeleton
and the new, silent corpses of several orphans
bundled in straw sacks.
The next life he grasps for is no life at all, a diminishing spiral which culminates in a final end to repetition.
Ko Un’s poems take the ordinary world and peel the skin off, so that a gentle meditation on the passage of hours becomes something both beautiful and terrible as light shining through blood. These lines, taken from “Time With Dead Poets,” illustrate this shift nicely:
At times, a day is as long as a slowly writhing intestine;
At times, a day is as short as a newborn gull’s wings.
It’s because the dead poet’s remaining lifetime has settled
inside each of our lives born of the egg-laying myth.
These are images that are very firmly lodged in the visible world; in other hands they would be merely symbolic. Ko Un finds meaning in the ordinary, in biological function, and applies it as an illustration of his life.
The author is incredibly prolific, in every sense of the word. He produces work in vast quantity, matched in high quality, and while his work has a flavor that is distinctly his, there are shifts in tone that speak of an authorial mind containing riches.
His long poem “24 Little Songs” reminded me of two very different authors, Wallace Stevens, the American poet who wrote “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and the Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa (a man who suffered much in life and yet who wrote with great gentleness). Both authors shared a focus on detail and clarity of image which revealed perspectives that mingled close observation of the natural world with a gently humorous take on the nature of man. This is something that First Person Sorrowful does particularly well. The sixth “little song” tells of two Zen Masters of the Tang dynasty and their very different approaches in guiding their disciples to enlightenment:
Dulsan hits with a stick.
the hill in front of us turns the other way round and becomes
the hill behind.
Not every poet can pull off explanation marks. It is difficult not to laugh at the image of a couple of monks knocking themselves silly, high on a mountain top.
This is balanced by poetry which explores the personal grief of the author within a historical context, most often the aftermath of the Korean War. “Ruins,” a poem taken from Late Songs (2002), presents loss in the ashes of conflict as blatant fact:
When I was twenty,
everywhere I went was in ruins.
. . .
Ruins didn’t easily change
They didn’t change into something,
and weren’t born to cry like other babies.
The war did not end in my heart.
. . .
The oil-lamp lights of those days are gone now,
but the post-ruin age has not reached me.
In Ko Un’s world, time stops only in the heart. Emotional time stops. The consciousness becomes rooted to a certain spot and while we live and physically move on from that, the centered heart remains. We must do our best to build around that centre of immutable rot.
But even here the stoppage is not always a bad thing. The joyous side of non-physical stasis is evident in a poem from the same section, “Has a Poem Come to You?” closes the upper arc of the cycle.
To combat American imperialism from now on
we should unite,
Pierre Bouredieu told me.
He was three years older than me,
but very boyish.
So accordingly, I too became a boy.
. . .
Together we laughed aloud.
When we laughed
the one had so many wrinkles on his face and neck
That the other’s eyes disappeared completely.
This poem tells us that there are ways to merge the very best parts of youth and maturity. Ko Un has the fresh perspective, the untrammeled joy without brash callowness. He has developed the confidence of age, the emotional equilibrium, without sacrificing the fluidity that brings art to life. The fact that this is conveyed across languages depends on the skill of the translator.
Some translators are also artists in their own right. When that happens, when the right artists meet, there is a delicate frisson, a sympathy of mind that produces great light. Such light flows from this book. Brother Anthony of Taizé and Lee Sang-Wha work together so well, with such fluidity and grace, that the only voice audible in their translations comes from the author. It takes great skill, great art, for the artist to vanish completely. We know the great translators by forgetting their presence, believing, against what we know, that they are not.
Bethany W. Pope’s first poetry collection, A Radiance, was published by Cultured Llama Press in June.
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