At Sapyung Station (사평역에서) - A Poem of A Loving Gaze on Life

Night Train 1

At Sapyung Station (사평역에서) is a poem written by Kwak Jae Gu (곽재구, 1952-) in 1981. It won the 1981 Spring Literary Award of the Joongang Daily Newspaper, one of the annual contests of literary works held by many major Korean newspapers.
Relating the scenes and inner sentiments of everyday common people who by chance found themselves in each other’s company at the small train station, its warm, loving look on people and life made it one of the best loved poems in Korea ever since.


막차는 좀처럼 오지 않았다
대합실 밖에는 밤새 송이눈이 쌓이고
흰 보라 수수꽃 눈시린 유리창마다
톱밥난로가 지펴지고 있었다

그믐처럼 몇은 졸고
몇은 감기에 쿨럭이고
그리웠던 순간들을 생각하며 나는
한줌의 톱밥을 불빛 속에 던져 주었다

내면 깊숙이 할 말들은 가득해도
청색의 손바닥을 불빛 속에 적셔두고
모두들 아무 말도 하지 않았다

산다는 것이 때론 술에 취한 듯
한 두름의 굴비 한 광주리의 사과를
만지작거리며 귀향하는 기분으로
침묵해야 한다는 것을
모두들 알고 있었다

오래 앓은 기침소리와
쓴 약 같은 입술담배 연기 속에서
싸륵싸륵 눈꽃은 쌓이고
그래 지금은 모두들
눈꽃의 화음에 귀를 적신다

자정 넘으면
낯설음도 뼈아픔도 다 설원인데
단풍잎 같은 몇 잎의 차창을 달고
밤열차는 또 어디로 흘러 가는지

그리웠던 순간들을 호명하며 나는
한줌의 눈물을 불빛 속에 던져 주었다

At Sapyung Station

The last train was slow to arrive
Outside the waiting room hearty snow piled up all night
For every window sporting icy white frost of millet flowers
There was a sawdust stove kept afire

Some dozed like on a wee season
Some were coughing from a cold
Thinking of the good old times I missed
I threw a scoop of sawdust into the bright flames

Everyone carried untold many stories deep inside
Yet each was just letting his bluish palms soak in the glow
No one hardly ever said a word

They all knew to leave it unsaid
As when life comes around to one of those moments
Where you find yourself returning to your old home
Part drunk, part blankly fixated on the sensation you get
From some strung fish or a basket of apples in your hand

Amid the chronic sounding coughs
And mouth-puffed smoke bitter like medicine
Flowery white flakes keep landing one after another
Yes, everyone is tuning his ears now
To the harmony made by the snowflakes

Once past midnight
Snow will cover all the awkwardness and festering pain
Trailing its few windows looking like colored leaves
I wonder where this night train is headed now

Ruminating on those sweet old moments
I shed a line of tears into the glowing flames

* The paragraph arrangement is mine. The original work is in single contiguous block of text.

Kwak jae Gu

The poem describes what goes on in the mind of the narrator as he gazes at the fellow travelers waiting for the last train of the night in the waiting room of a small train station. The station Sapyung (사평, 沙平) is a fictitious one thought to be modeled after the South Guangju Station(남광주역) in the outskirts of Guangju(광주), a province capital city in the south western region. The people waiting in the station are everyday common folk faced with tough going reality at a time when eking out a living seemed like an uphill struggle in comparison to today’s Korea (and even today things are not always all that rosy). In the throe of political turmoil and rapid economic mobilization, life was not kind to the people of this region where an anti-government uprising broke out and was brutally put down in the previous year. It was one of the greatest in scale and most tragic of its kind in Korean history, and a great many Guangju citizens had family members, friends or acquaintances perish in it. Kwak Jae Gu hails from the area and his later life course clearly shows he carried a deep scar in his soul as a result of this tragic experience.

Kwak jae Gu 2

The poem is contemplative musings and a quiet, loving eye gaze on fellow human beings who happened to share a brief stretch of the night with him, a snapshot of a pensive moment where the narrator looks back and in himself during the course of a journey that seems to sweep everyone relentlessly in one direction. He observes, ruminates, and savors this small occasion of a lull with great sympathy.

Aside from the overall mood and sentiments, it has several notable expressions.
icy white frost of millet flowers (흰 보라 수수꽃 눈시린 유리창마다) describes the windows covered with white frosty ice which looks like an aftermath of a tiny snowstorm or a bunch of millet flowers mashed and frozen in white. like on a wee season (그믐처럼) portrays an ingeniously vivid picture of people dozing, languid and frail like they are on the end of a waning season. 그믐 is a traditional term referring to the time when the moon wanes and vanishes before restarting a new cycle, that is, the last few days of the moon calendar month. It evokes a nostalgic longing in the minds of the reader as the word is now gradually falling out of use nowadays. Likewise, windows looking like colored leaves (단풍잎같은 몇 잎의 차창) is another visual simile.

Night Train 2

The musing in the middle part is evocative and dreamy.

산다는 것이 때론 술에 취한 듯 They all knew to leave it unsaid
한 두름의 굴비 한 광주리의 사과를 As when life came around to one of those moments
만지작 거리며 귀향하는 기분으로 Where you find yourself returning to your old home
침묵해야 한다는 것을 Part drunk, part blankly fixated on the sensation you get
모두들 알고 있었다 From some strung fish or a basket of apples in your hand

In these few lines the author nicely captures one of life’s sweetest moments. Some people seem to interpret it as a passive, resigned attitude of retreating to one’s shelter when confronted with an adversity, that they are forced to keep silent because they have no choice. However, from the first time I read it, this sentence always left me with a different impression. To me it reads like the people in the room are choosing to keep silent because they relish the moment they find themselves in. That is, because they don’t want this quiet, snug privacy of contemplation shattered by words. Going back to your old home with some foodstuff in hand, and maybe a bit drunk too, is what happiness is all about for Korean people, especially in the old days. I believe it is this precious moment of a small bliss that goes on in the minds of the people that the author is referring to - a sweet and deeply personal moment brought on by the open flames of the stove and the snow falling outside, for which words just have no place.
Whatever the true intention was, this passage says a lot about the people and life itself in just five short lines. It comes off like the climactic point of the work to me.

This work has remained popular to this day, judging from the many references to it I saw on the internet.


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