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.
Spring Days Are Passing
* 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.
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.
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.