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Manoa 13.1 (2001) 170-175

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Six Poems

Ko Un

Headmaster Abe

Headmaster Abe Sudomu from Japan:
with his round glasses: a fearsome man,
fiery-hot like the spiciest peppers.
When he clacked down the hallway
in slippers cut from a pair of old boots,
he cast a deathly hush over every class.
In my second year during ethics class
he asked us what we hoped to become.
Kids replied:
"I want to be a general in the Imperial Army!"
"I want to become an admiral!"
"I want to become another Yamamoto Isoroko!"
"I want to become a nursing orderly!"
"I want to become a mechanic in a plane factory
and make planes to defeat the American and British devils!"
Then Headmaster Abe asked me to reply.
I leaped to my feet:
"I want to become the Emperor!"
No sooner were those words spoken
than a thunderbolt fell from the blue:
"You have formally blasphemed the venerable name
of His Imperial Majesty: you are expelled this instant!"
On hearing that, I collapsed into my seat.
But the class master pleaded,
my father put on clean clothes and came and pleaded,
and by the skin of my teeth, instead of being expelled,
I was punished by being sent to spend a few months
sorting through a stack of rotten barley
that stood in the school grounds,
separating out the still useable grains.
Every day I was imprisoned in a stench of decay
and there, under scorching sun and in beating rain, [End Page 170]
I realized I was all alone in the world.
Soon after those three months of punishment were over,
during ethics class Headmaster Abe said:
"We're winning, we're winning, we're winning!
Once the great Japanese army has won the war,
you peninsula people will go to Manchuria, go to China,
and take important positions in government offices!"
That's what he said.
Then a b-29 appeared,
and as the silver four-engine plane passed overhead,
our Headmaster shouted in a big voice:
"That's the enemy! They're devils!" he cried fearlessly.
But his shoulders drooped.
His shout died away into a solitary mutter.
August 15 came. Liberation.
He left for Japan in tears.

Yi Yong-Ak

He left us the most painful and lovely of all
the modern poetry written in our land,
he left us the most painful and truthful of all.
In the 1930s when we were under Japanese rule
he would stand, hungry,
in the center of Seoul,
waiting for anyone he knew to come by.
Soon after Liberation in 1945,
So Chong-ju published a volume of poems, Nightingale,
in praise of long journeys to Western realms
and went out to the publication party
dressed in a fine silk shirt.
Yi Yong-ak turned up at the party
and drew him into a corner:
"Chong-ju, a word in your ear."
Then he pulled a knife from his belt
and slashed the fine silk shirt,
spat, "You hopeless bourgeois,"
and walked out.
If he was sent salted fish roe from home
far north in Hamkyong Province,
he would ask someone to look after it
and savor it little by little as he wandered about.
In the chaos of the late 1940s,
the days of chaotic poetry, [End Page 171]
days when only flowers of sorrow bloomed,
he turned his back on every kind of vice--
every kind of trickery,
every kind of wickedness.
Those were days he could not endure.
With the Thirty-Eighth Parallel
cutting across our land's rivers and hills,
how could he remain safe?
Such was his destiny.
He left a few lines of poetry, then
went to China, and farther, to the wild far north, to Russia,
or so his elderly neighbors reckoned--
to dreadful places anyway.
A man of poetry who knew no lies,
he shines out, a distant lamp
down a long night road.

Oh Song-Ryun

A revolutionary can't live by his own name alone.
In each place he goes, he's someone else.
But certain revolutionaries
in the end earn...