Ko Un (b. 1933) is one of South Korea's major poets, and has received international praise for the quality of his verse and for his history of political independence and resistance. One of his most significant works, Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives), an epic written during his imprisonment by the authoritarian South Korean regimes of the late 1970s and early 1980s, was published in the United States this year. The individual poems read as strongly narrative and often focus on everyday themes and folk content.
I'm not sure about the rest of his work, which may be far broader in its range and forms, but the poems in Ten Thousand Lives do interest me, as does the idea of a contemporary epic. Former US Poet Laureate and University of California-Berkeley professor Robert Hass, who wrote the introduction to the English-language selection of Ko's work, will be publishing an essay on it in an upcoming issue of the The New York Review of Books.
Here is one of Ko's poems, "Su-Dong and the Swallows":
SU-DONG AND THE SWALLOWS
Su-dong’s family is only his parents.
When they’re out at work
and he is playing, alone,
looking after the house, he gets bored.
Home alone, his only sport is idly pulling weeds,
until every year in early spring the swallows arrive.
Filling up the empty house, the swallows become his family.
As droppings fall on Su-dong’s head,
the swallows fill up the empty house.
The brood hatches, then in the twinkling of an eye,
the chicks grow up
and go their separate ways,
at which he finds himself bored again.
The yard is suddenly that much bigger.
Late in autumn the swallows,
setting off to fly fast over hills and seas,
over seas and oceans,
the swallows leaving for lands beyond the river,
for distant south seas,
gather on the neighborhood’s empty washing lines
and sit in rows, preening their breasts with their beaks
before setting off.
Looking up at them all, Su-dong feels utterly lonely.
means growing up.
‘You’re leaving now, you’ll be back next year.
Good-bye for now.’
He gives each of the swallows a name:
From Maninbo (Ten-thousand Lives), published by Green Integer, 2005, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Young-moo Im, and Gary Gach