The Black Leaf in My Mouth (입 속의 검은 잎) is a poem by Ki Hyeong Do (기형도, 1960-1989) posthumously published in 1989. It is a montage of the bleak and dreary landscape of Korea in the tumultuous 1980s as well as his own anguish of fear and unease in it. As was often televised to the world in foreign news briefs, all this came to a boiling point in June of 1987 when the struggle between the dictator regime and the grass roots movement of students and citizens escalated into daily clashes amid eye searing tear gases and flaming molotov cocktails. It was a turning point in the travails of Korea’s long road to democracy.
입 속의 검은 잎
The Black Leaf in My Mouth
Ki Hyeong Do was a university student, an enlisted serviceman fulfilling the mandatory military service, and then a reporter for the Joongang Daily Newspaper during this critical period between 1980 and 1987. He must have witnessed the sporadic anti-government activities that went on among the radical students while at school and as a reporter. What transpired in the better part of the 80s was a remarkable turn of events. It was literally history in the making.
In 1980 a large scale uprising in Guangju, a major city in the southwest, was ruthlessly put down by the military forces, bringing about hundreds of deaths and leaving a long lasting scar in Korean national soul. The underlying tension and occasional flaring of confrontation between the government and the people continued on and off until 1987 when president Chun’s term was coming to a close. The Korean people were resisting the attempt by those in power to carry on with the third world style indirect presidential election, which was a thinly veiled ceremonial passage with a guaranteed result for them by way of the cleverly manipulated electoral representatives. The citizens were finally fed up with these ongoing shenanigans and the monopoly on power perpetuated by the few military thugs. An increasing unrest brew, spearheaded by the students demonstrating on the streets. Then came the trigger event which set the history making forces in motion.
Lee Han Yeol (이한열, 1963-1987), a student of the Yonsei university, a major school which happens to be the alma mater of Ki as well, fell into a coma (and later died) during a student rally, after being struck by a tear gas canister launched by the anti-riot police. The indelible image of Lee slumped unconscious in the arms of his friend was captured by a news photographer. It fueled the already escalating unrest, leading to unprecedented large scale protests that brought many ordinary citizens who would normally have stayed passive out onto the streets. Sensing the ominous signs of catastrophic uprising of a national scale, the government relented and acceded to the people’s demand for direct and fair election of the next president. This chain of events in June of 1987 is now called the June Democratic Resistance (6월 민주항쟁) in Korean history. It ushered in the founding of the present Korean political system.
Ki’s poem deals with his sentiments and experiences in this period which were closely intertwined with with this historical backdrop. With good helping of metaphors and symbolism, it captures with a strong sense of immediacy the political and social climate as well as the ensuing significant events.
He is passing through an unfamiliar barren land driven by a cabbie that he fears, signifying the unease of people at the time mired in the unprecedented political turmoil as they confronted the echelon of power. He thinks about him, presumably Lee Han Yeol, from the same school he went to but whom he had never met, who had his head bowed in that famous newspaper photo. He has a certain amount of guilt in his heart for not having participated in the student movement more actively, for having been reading books far away from where the action was. People disappeared in droves and then cropped up before those who stayed put for their own safety, as Ki apparently thought he had done.
The funeral is a momentous scene. After Lee Han Yeol died, his public funeral was held on the 9th of July starting at Yonsei university and progressing through downtown Seoul, where an estimated million people turned out to commemorate this historical occasion. They sang Kim Min Gi’s Morning Dew and Evergreen together and followed the hearse forming a sea of people overflowing the wide thoroughfares of Seoul. Ki’s words seem to follow these events, with a surreal backdrop of paranoia sprinkled with fear and guilt. Throughout, he is never out of the uncertain and fearful mood of unease, as one would have been in those circumstances. The poem almost reads like a novella, or even a suspenseful movie in some parts describing what when down in that particular time and place. The image of black leaf serves as a strong motif, a fixation representing the fear and guilt that Ki’s mind was going through. He uses this black leaf metaphor in another poem as well, leading one to believe it symbolizes the ultimate insurmountable obstacle that plagued him - a foe, a nemesis throughout his life. His collective work unmistakably shows that he struggled and agonized most of his adult life fighting this demon in him, and in the end it might also have been responsible for his tragic end.
Ki had several dozen unpublished poetry transcribed in his notebooks at the time of his death. The then influential literary critic Kim Hyun, who had been in communication with Ki, got a hold of the notebooks and compiled them into a posthumous publication. It appeared Ki had not decided on the title for his poetry collection, so it was Kim who chose the title The Black Leaf in My Mouth for Ki’s first book of poetry, an apt title since it symbolized the agony that underlied the better part of his life.
One feels astounded reading Ki’s poems at the relentless, deep rooted anguish he fought in his mind. Rarely do we see such agony in the lines of poetry. And it appears that it is these torturous and too real struggles he had to grapple with throughout his life that resonate in the readers’ mind, making him one of the best loved Korean poets even to this day.