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.
At Sapyung Station
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.
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.
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.