Ko Un's Ten Thousand Lives
Ten Thousand Lives.|
Green Integer, 2005.
364 pages, $14.95 (paperback).
This remarkable volume selects from the first ten volumes (there are now 23) of the South Korean former Buddhist monk's life time project to describe every person he has ever known through poetry. Imprisoned during the Korean War, beaten by police, tortured by having acid poured into his ears, and imprisoned four times during South Korean's democracy movement, Un is Korea's greatest living poet, assumed to one day win a Nobel Prize, and a leading figure in Korean politics and culture.
Robert Haas in his superlative introduction to this volume which places Un in world literature describes how Un, while in prison facing a 20-year sentence that began in 1980, in pitch-dark solitary confinement, conceived of this project. Released in 1982 as a result of a general pardon, he has continued to compose the Lives, but also translations, a narrative poem, novels, criticism, and small Zen Buddhist poems. In 1999, I reviewed Un's book of Korean poems, Beyond Self, here.
No one, from village water carriers to fellow prisoners, to former president Kim Dae-jung, is exempt from Un's loving eye, and as to be expected he finds the core of goodness in each of his subjects with a bracing wit and lucidity. Here's one poem:
In early morning Pun-im carries two buckets of water
on a yoke, her face bowed toward the ground,
Pun-im with her eyelashes so long.
Pun-im. There's no way of knowing what she's achieving
ten fathoms down deep in her heart,
as the hem of her black skirt soaks up the dew
and below it her busy feet soak it up too.
Pun-im, who never loses a drop from her water buckets.