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Ko Un - First Person Sorrowful

(Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé & Lee Sang-Wha. Bloodaxe Books, Tarset 2012. Paperback, 160pp, £9.95)
Reviewed by Nancy Gaffield
Cover of Ko Un - First Person SorrowfulUntil his remarkable performance at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in November 2012, Ko Un was largely unknown in Britain. This is all the more surprising, as Ko Un is a major international poet and human rights activist, now approaching his 81st birthday. In the course of his lifetime, he has published more than 150 volumes of poetry, essays and fiction.  Part of his obscurity is due to political factors, as well as the fact that only a small amount of his work has been translated into English. First Person Sorrowful was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2012, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé (An Sonjae) and Lee Sang-Wha, Ko Un’s  wife. The book joins only 11 other English translations of Ko Un’s  work, and it is the first of his books to be published in the UK. It is comprised of poems primarily written in the last decade. The poems are wide-ranging, taking in history, abstract ideas, daily experience, various family, friends and acquaintances, the Korean landscape, and other parts of the world, from Kabul to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. They focus for the most part on poems written in the last decade. Poems are selected from eight volumes here: Poetry Left Behind (2002), Late Songs (2002), Full of Shame (2006), Empty Sky (2008), Where Has My Frontier Gone? (2011), as well as a single poem from each of three earlier publications.
These are poems of witness. Drawing on eight decades of experience in the world, Ko Un both locates us in the world and takes us beyond, only to return us there again. The poems are not unified by form or theme, but draw on recurrences:  the seasons, the clouds and changes in weather, the landscape and language. Time is a major theme, as is war and its effects.  In particular, political issues are raised, some explicitly, whilst others hover in the silent margins and white space. For example in the poem ‘Peace 8’:  
Does peace come after one person has killed another?
It is not peace.
Or as the poem ‘Armistice Line’ explicitly attests: ‘All those years every word was a lie. / All those years the roaming souls of the fallen / alone have spoken the truth.’ Perhaps it is because of lines like these that he is still perceived as a dissident poet in his homeland. 
It is difficult to separate the poet from his biography. (For a comprehensive discussion of Ko Un, readers should consult ‘The Poetic Work of Ko Un: Comparing the Incomparable,’ by An Sonjae, published in Comparative Korean Studies 20:1). As Brother Anthony explains, to be acknowledged as a poet in Korea, the young poet must ‘apprentice’ himself to a senior poet, and publish a poem in a recognised journal on the senior poet’s recommendation. As in so many areas of his life, Ko Un did not follow that traditional way. Prior to the publication of his first collection Other Shore Sensibility (1960), he had experienced the deep trauma of war, in which half of his generation was lost. A deep sense of loss and the guilt associated with this led him to pour acid into his ears, leaving him permanently deaf in one ear. Following that, he entered a Buddhist temple on Jeju Island. Buddhism would remain an influence for the rest of his life. He left Jeju Island for Seoul in 1962, but the shadows which haunted him since the early days continued, and he tried to commit suicide by drinking poison in 1970. Later that year, he read about the death of a young worker by self-immolation, and at that moment, he ‘cast off his own death-wish’, and dedicated himself to his work.
The 1970s were his most productive period in terms of publications. However, the late 70s was also a time of political upheaval in Korea, and Ko Un was imprisoned for his participation in political demonstrations. In prison, he was beaten, and as a result, his other ear was damaged—leaving him nearly deaf. When martial law was imposed in 1980, Ko Un, along with many others, was imprisoned again and this time he was placed in solitary confinement. When he emerged from this, he did not wish to write new poetry, but instead embarked on rewriting earlier work.
As South Korea became a stable, democratic country, Ko Un began to return to the subjects that interested him earlier, especially Buddhism. In 1992, he was finally permitted to travel overseas, and since the late 90s, has travelled widely giving readings and lectures. Although a good deal of his work is Buddhist-inspired, he rejects the label of ‘Buddhist poet’.  It has been said that ‘pain authenticates his work.’ Many of the poems in First Person Sorrowful demonstrate the  lyrical quality he is noted for, as well as paradox and enigma. These poems resemble Zen hwate or riddles, as in ‘White Butterfly’:
One white butterfly,
ghost of wisdom, is flying
over the foolish sea.
All the books of this world are shut.
Others concern themselves with language. Growing up under Japanese imperial rule, Ko Un was not permitted to speak his native language; even his name was changed. In the poem ‘Still You Must Be Born Again’, Ko Un, who has said ‘every word of my mother tongue is a poem,’ reminds us of this essential connection:  
Decades of language—
despite misuse, abuse, violence—
is not your language you?
You must protect the nouns,
the hometown you used to look down on
from the hilltops that since have disappeared,
abolished souls,
the verbs, adverbs, sad adjectives
that vanished during the city night,
were abolished
to become a civilisation of the past,
and at length its skeleton. 
The poems are likewise engaged by the ever-present political separation of the Korean peninsula, which is also part of Ko Un’s personal biography as well as that larger political reality. This is powerfully expressed in ‘Armistice Line’:
Today again the sun is setting on 155 miles of barbed wire.
For what do I sing now, coughing blood,
if some day I should visit here again?
In the final section, ‘Where has my frontier gone?’ (2011), Ko Un writes: 
Why I’m going to the Taklamakan Desert
in broad daylight at the age of seventy-five
leaving all nouns and verbs behind:
the cry of immense emptiness
These poems point us to direct experience. Emptiness, the void, absence—these are ever-present. Even in the silence between ‘the cry of immense emptiness’ and ‘there’, they tell us everything we need to know. 
Other poems show us the epiphanies that can be discovered by simply paying attention. With his characteristic lucidity of vision, Ko Un tells us what it is to be human, as in ‘At Eunpa Reservoir’:
I wish I had a heart like this.
I wish I had that heart
making circle after circle
as when, in childhood,
I sent stones skipping over the water.
skipping over.
Stylistically noteworthy is his distinctive use of a concluding device, where the poem either returns the reader to the beginning, or radically breaks from it with a single, closing remark. These are often breath-taking, as in the title poem ‘First Person Sorrowful’. Ko Un says in the opening line, ‘Enlightenment soon becomes a contradiction,’ and he ends the poem with:
Today I bury
The ghosts of ‘We’ and ‘I’ in the endless waves of the Pacific Rim.
Who will be born?
Who will be born,
neither ‘We’ nor ‘I’?
Each wave is one wave’s grave, another wave’s womb.
For British readers, First Person Sorrowful is a welcome introduction to Ko Un’s work. Poems of lucid testimony, they transcend reason and emotion, even sorrowful emotion. They are essential poems for our time.
16 March 2014