Common to all four Korean authors I have read so far is a life deeply scored by war, oppression, hunger and persecution. These travails run from the later Choson era in the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 1980's, a period which includes the collapse of a regime and civil war; then the Chinese, the Russians and the Japanese struggle over Korea without a by-your-leave from the Koreans; then Japan annexes Korea as a colony in 1910 and doesn't loosen its grip until 1945(*); the division of Korea, the Korean War, and decades of military dictatorship follow... What can one say?
When the poet Ko Un was born in 1933, he drew his first breath in a Japanese colony, a colony in which it was forbidden to teach the Korean language in the schools as part of a campaign to replace the inferior Korean culture by the infinitely superior accomplishments of the Japanese. Too malnourished to be drafted into the army during the Korean War, he nonetheless witnessed much of it (the war swept over essentially the entire peninsula) and lost many family members and friends. In 1952 he entered a Son (Zen) monastery but left dissatisfied ten years later. After a period of inner torment and self-destructive behavior during which he twice attempted suicide, he found a purpose in the pro-Democracy movement in the early 70's. This earned him prison and torture (like Kim Chi-ha
Though he had started publishing poetry as early as 1958, while in prison he conceived of a project which still occupies him. This project, Maninbo (Family Records of Ten Thousand Lives), consists of writing one poem for each person encountered in his life. This simply stated principle need not be taken literally, but Ko has produced at least 20 volumes in the project already! Thousands of persons have left a sign of their lives in his poems.
The translation I read is a selection from the first ten volumes of Maninbo. Robert Haas writes a nice introduction, and I would like to quote a passage from his discussion of the poems in the earliest volumes of Maninbo.
Most of them are as lean as the village dogs they describe; in hard times people's characters seem to stand out like their bones and the stories in the poems have therefore a bony and synoptic clarity.
And clarity is the keyword, to judge by the poems in this selection. His poems are linguistically and structurally quite straightforward; their art is manifested in the manifold ways he alertly captures at least one significant aspect of each of his subjects. His diction is nearly that of prose; his tone reserved but sympathetic. Unlike Kim Chi-ha, Ko does not emote, though emotion is certainly close beneath the surface.
Her face was a mass of freckles,
as if she'd been liberally sprinkled with sesame seed,
but her brows were fine, and her eyes so lovely
they made breezes spring up from the hills and plains.
Her shadow falling across the water
was like nothing else in this world.
Near the end of Japanese rule, after she had picked
and handed in the castor beans,
she left, wearing a headband stamped with the Japanese flag,
to become a comfort woman.
A woman from the Mijei Patriotic Wives Union took her away,
saying she was off to earn money at a factory
making airplane tails.
Took her away with the Japanese flag flying.
Then, ho-ho, a bottle of liquor
and a ration ticket for rice arrived at her family's house
from the village captain.
"Ho-ho, what have we done to deserve such favor?"
After Liberation, when everyone came back,
not a word was heard from Man-Sun...
though white campanulas blossomed
and cicadas sang.
Often, Ko exaggerates some trait of the person, using the hyperbole to draw in the reader, and then surprises with some kind of poignancy.
The Wife from Kaesari
Although she brought up three sons
as stout as big fat toads,
the wife from Kaesari never so much as once
coughed out loud after getting married.
No matter what anyone said,
her only reply was a reluctant mmm,
and even that didn't really leave her lips,
a tiny sound, eager to quickly crawl back in again.
Among the neighborhood women
no one had ever been seen with such a tiny voice
as the wife from Kaesari.
Once her eldest son was married,
she never spoke harshly
to her daughter-in-law
but merely stitched away at a torn hemp jacket.
She took care that no one heard the sound
of her blowing out the kerosene lamps.
The wife from Kaesari
went into a decline in her last year of life.
No one knew just what was wrong with her.
When she was dying, her three sons were in her room
waiting for the end to come.
Knowing no eloquence in her lifetime,
she was incapable of any decent last words.
She was more or less heard to say
the lid of the soy-sauce jar up on the terrace
ought to be opened to the daylight
and also, it seems,
that the lining in father's jacket ought to be replaced.
Then in a flash she expired.
Clearly, Ko memorializes even what are apparently the most modest of lives. I find such poems much more absorbing than those he wrote about the famous, where not the person but the role he played seems to come to the fore.
Of course, with so many poems written, not all can be equally gripping; but it is remarkable how Ko is able to maintain freshness and variety, at least in this selection of what the translators considered to be the best in the first 10 volumes of Maninbo. Cumulatively, reading this collection gives one the impression of having lived through 50 years of Korea's stormy history. The numerous poems based on characters from his home village transmit a many sided view of hard lives full of duty, superstition and envy, touched only in moments by beauty and generosity.
One last, little poem:
With hands still wet from washing dishes, she goes out
to the black alder grove and cries to her heart's
her dead mother's face appears. Star-seed sprinkled in the
sky, stars appear.
(*) The stories of the Korean sex slaves (sometimes called comfort women) for the Japanese army are just a portion of the horrors of that occupation.