Spring Days Are Passing (봄날은 간다) - The Poem By Ki Hyeong Do

Mountain Verdure

Ki Hyeong Do (기형도, 1960-1989)’s Spring Days Are Passing (봄날은 간다) is a sad and dreary work. It is an ennui-ridden lament in which the author sees helpless beings’ struggles set against an indifferent nature perpetuating its endless cycles. Here, springtime is nothing more than a mechanical arrival of a stage in a process, a meaningless cog in a forever repeating machinery, which makes the ephemeral creatures in it all the more pathetic because of its unchangeable and impersonal constancy. It is bleak yet compelling, as it faithfully depicts not only a profound aspect of our world but also the very realities that the poet had to grapple with for much of his life.

봄날은 간다


햇빛은 분가루처럼 흩날리고
쉽사리 키가 변하는 그림자들은
한 장 熱風에 말려 둥글게 휘어지는구나
아무 때나 손을 흔드는
미루나무 얕은 그늘 속을 첨벙이며
2時着 시외버스도 떠난 지 오래인데

아까부터 서울집 툇마루에 앉은 여자
외상값처럼 밀려드는 대낮
신작로 위에는 흙먼지, 더러운 비닐들
빈 들판에 꽂혀 있는 저 희미한 연기들은
어느 쓸쓸한 풀잎의 자손들일까

밤마다 숱한 나무젓가락들은 두 쪽으로 갈라지고
사내들은 화투패마냥 모여들어 또 그렇게
어디론가 뿔뿔이 흩어져간다
여자가 속옷을 헹구는 시냇가엔
하룻밤새 없어져버린 풀꽃들
다시 흘러들어온 것들의 人事

흐린 알전구 아래 엉망으로 취한 군인은
몇 해 전 누이 얼굴을 알아보지 못하고, 여자는
자신의 생을 계산하지 못한다.
몇 번인가 아이를 지울 때 그랬듯이
습관적으로 주르르 눈물을 흘릴 뿐
끌어안은 무릎 사이에서
추억은 내용물 없이 떠오르고

小邑은 무서우리만치 고요하다, 누구일까
세숫대야 속에 삶은 달걀처럼 잠긴 얼굴은
봄날이 가면 그뿐
宿醉는 몇 장 紙錢속에서 구겨지는데
몇 개의 언덕을 넘어야 저 흙먼지들은
굳은 땅 속으로 하나둘 섞여들는지

Spring Days Are Passing


Sunlight scatters like a compact's powder
The shadows readily stretch and shrink back
Warping into arcs in the heat of a scorching wind gust
It's a while since the 2:00 pm inter-city bus left
Lumbering through the shallow shades of the poplars
Which wave their hands at inopportune times

A woman sitting for hours on the Seoul home back porch
The raging midday that closes in like unpaid bills
Billowing dust and dirty plastics on the new thoroughfare
Columns of pale smoke rising from the empty fields
Offspring of what forlorn shrub are they all

Each night countless wood chopsticks are split up in two
With them chaps gathering up like the cards of a deck
Then parting one by one off on their split ways
By the creek where women wash their underwear
A bunch of wildflowers disappear overnight
Then a round of greetings from new arrivals

Under a dim bare bulb the soldier is hopelessly drunk
He doesn't recognize sister's face after these few years
She on her part cannot figure out her own life
All she does is habitually shed tears, just as she did
In those few times she had an abortion
On the scrunched up knees wrapped in her arms
Hollow memories bubble up vacuously

The small village is eerily quiet; who could it be
The face immersed in the wash pan like a boiled egg
Spring days are passing and that's that
As the hangover goes rumpled with a few bill notes
How many hills will that sand dust have to fly over
Before it's matted into the hardened earth in its turn

* Korean readings of hanja (chinese characters): 熱風(열풍), 2時着(2시착), 人事(인사), 小邑(소읍), 宿醉(숙취), 紙錢(지전)
* The paragraph arrangement is mine. The original work is in single contiguous block of text.


Spring In Korea

Ki is not particularly known for ornate style. He is often blunt and brusque for a poet when he makes a point or pours out his emotions. In this work, though, he appears to be more deliberate and meticulous in relating his thoughts. The opening description of the landscape in the opening sentences is a sheer jaw-dropping masterpiece to me. The powder-like sunlight and shadows warped by the heat, the bus lumbering through the shallow shades all combine to evoke the languid, sun drenched afternoon so effectively. And of all this, the poplars which wave their hands at inopportune times (아무때나 손을 흔드는 미루나무) just grabs my heart for some reason. It is stunningly beautiful, in a melancholic and sad way.

Next he goes on to show the pathetic ways of the human creatures. Guys gathering to have a good time knowing all too well they’ll soon disperse off on their ways to who knows where; women who have to deal with the unflattering side of life like washing their underwear, squatting next to the innocent shrubbery that is replaced overnight - all under the heartless and relentless law of this world.

Spring In Korea

Then it gets even sadder from there as he relates the story of his sister. Her drunken soldier lover fails to recognize her (sigh!), and she can’t stay on top of her own life, shedding tears going through multiple abortions, and alas, she’s lost in such a cruel reality where there is nothing to remember about with fondness. This is the nadir of it all, not only in terms of the extent of the stark cruelty but also because it is about the poet’s sister, be it symbolically or realistically, whose unexpected death traumatized him. As seen in the tear inducing outcries in Forsythia My Forsythia (나리 나리 개나리), the fate of his sister appears to have been the deepest of the scars he carried in his soul. Although we do not know how much of what is said is directly from real life, it is poignant and heart rending all the same.

The final paragraph takes a more contemplative tone. In the eerily quite village he sees a face in the wash pan. He wonders who is it, looking at his own face. He appears to be at the lowest point of his existence. He goes on: spring days are passing, so what in effect, as the usual notion of spring as a life giver is alien to him. There is only this endlessly continuing cycles of reincarnations as he turns his gaze amid a hangover on the billowing sand dust, which will travel over hills after hills before it is matted into the hard surface of the earth, taking its turn in the big unfathomable plan of things on the earth.

It is a sad and bleak work, but at the same time it rings true and compelling as it arises from the depth of his being. It is like a page of a diary in which he recorded every important juncture of his life, a far cry from an intellectual work one might have fancied up in one’s brain. Many of Ki’s works have this real and desperate existential angst to them, which is probably why they touch the hearts of so many people.

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