Dark Hour

37 strings
2 hands
Loneliness slips through these faded floorboards.
I hope that it never comes back.

Somehow your Mother Maybelle voice seeps into the
room and then into my skin.

You sing an old tune – one that is close to your
heart and one that you tried to teach me many
times but that I never quite learned.

Perhaps I shall plant roses and lilies come springtime.
Would you like that?

Goodbye Betsy Brown

Red and white gingham quivers in the twilight
breeze as two tired legs mosey beside surly steel.

We are surrounded by this rosy sky
and those noble rolling green hills.
This valley is a paradise to me,
but to you – a provincial prison.

You shiver – even though we are now shrouded
under ginger hued mantles
 – because you
accidentally abandoned your shawl on that wobbly
peg in your haste to catch the 6 o’clock train.

It’s not coming, is it?

Trees are Watching Me: Flowers of a Moment in Translation

On October 9th, it was announced that French author Patrick Modiano will be the recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature.  In the wake of this news, many in South Korea’s literary circles are once again asking themselves when a Korean author will claim the coveted prize.  Since 1901 the Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to 111 Laureates, yet a Korean author has never collected the honor.

In discussions with foreign publishers, Korean literary agent Joseph Lee discovered that Nobel Prize winning authors generally have two things in common:  Usually, their works have been translated into at least 15-20 languages AND they have a “loyal readership in their own country.”   Journalist Chung Ah-young has reported that over the last five years the average Korean spends only 26 minutes per day reading.  How can Korea promote their literature to a global audience if they are having a hard time doing so at home?  Fortunately, the quantity and quality of translations of Korean literature are improving every year, something which has often been a stumbling block in gaining more recognition and a larger readership from the global community.

Ko Un (81) is frequently mentioned as a favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  So much so, that reporters usually camp outside Ko’s home ahead of the yearly Nobel recipient announcement.  Ko is a prolific poet and novelist whose career has spanned over five decades.  His work has been influenced by the traumas which he experienced during the Korean War, his involvement with the Democracy Movement of the 1970’s and early 80’s, as well as by the ten years that he spent living as a Buddhist monk before he began writing in earnest.

Almost every article I read on South Korea’s prospects of receiving a Nobel Prize in Literature mentioned Ko Un, yet I had never heard of him and his work before last week.  Moreover, I didn’t know any of the other Korean writers who are also considered to be strong contenders for the Literature Prize, authors such as Hwang Sok-yong and Lee Seung-u.   2008 Nobel Laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio has mentioned both Hwang and Lee as possible future recipients of the Nobel Literature Prize.

After learning about who South Korea’s most esteemed authors are, I had a strong desire to investigate their work.  My Korean language study has now progressed to a point where reading Korean books without translation can realistically be used as a learning tool rather than as an exercise in frustration and dictionary hopping.  I am not yet at a stage where I can pick up any book and read it from front to back without a translator, but I am certainly able to read for pleasure with occasional rest stops for clarification and meaning.

Due to Ko Un’s standing as Korea’s most promising bet for the Nobel Prize in Literature, I decided to start with his work.  I didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew as I am currently engaged in several other time-consuming writing and Korean study projects.  I elected to begin with a collection of 185 short poems entitled Flowers of a Moment (순간의 꽃), put out by Munhakdongne Publishing Company.  It is a slender volume of 118 pages and most of those pages only contain between six and eight lines of verse.  Ko sets the tone for the collection with the following brief introduction:

해가 진다

내 소원 하나
살찐 보름달 아래 늑대 되리

the sun sinks.

my only wish
is to be a wolf under a corpulent full  moon.


As I delved further into Ko’s poems, it occurred to me that I could kill two birds with one stone by using them to study for the TOPIK II Korean Language exam, which I hope to take in the Spring of 2015.  On account of Flowers of a Moment’s slim size, I believe that it is ideally suited for translation practice and because I write poetry myself, I feel that the translation work will hold my interest for the duration of the project.  This morning I began with the volume’s first four poems.  At this rate, I expect the translation to be completed by the end of December.

In 2006, a translation of Flowers of a Moment by Young-moo Kim was published by BOA Editions Ltd.  For me, the exciting aspect of this translation project is that an English translation already exists.  You see, I am not a translator by trade.  I don’t have a degree in Korean Language or a certification that would qualify me to do this kind of work professionally.  Yes, I did pass the Basic Level Korean Language Exam, but so have many other language hobbyists who share my interest in Korean.  After I finish my work, I plan to compare it with the BOA edition in order to see if the essence of my translation is truthful.  I will be curious to examine how my work holds up, if it does at all.

I am still learning Korean and translation is not an exact science, therefore if my version of Flowers of a Moment falls short of being a passable translation, I won’t judge myself too harshly.  During this journey, I may occasionally post a snippet of whatever poem I happen to be working on at the time.  In January, when the work is finished, I will update the blog with an analysis of the project.

For now I leave you with the first poem from Flowers of a Moment.

today was spent in somebody’s story

on the path home,
trees are watching me


From May to December

It was love at first sight.
I was at the Debec Mart buying mouthwash
when I noticed you from across the room.
Slender and fresh, dressed in the deepest of
purples and wearing a green beret,
you were the loveliest Melongena Ovata on the shelf.

At first you were shy, not wanting to speak with me.
I was a stranger after all!
But when I began to talk of a life of ratatouille
and parmigiana di melanzane you saw
that I wasn’t a run of the mill hack chef.
You saw a future with me – there was possibility – and
I couldn’t have been happier!

You came home with me that night.
You trusted me too much.
You were so innocent.
Can you forgive me?

I introduced you to the olive oil and
to the various spices and salts in the pantry.
You were especially fond of the large
cast iron skillet – that cad!
I knew he would take you away from me
if I wasn’t careful.
I made a mental note to not have him out
when you were around.

The next day we enjoyed pasta together for dinner;
You were more comfortable in your skin and
I knew that you would soon be ready for more
complicated dishes.

When we parted ways, you lied down in the
crisper and I retreated to the bedroom.

Then life got busy and we saw less and
less of each other until one day I couldn’t
remember the last time that we had talked.
I figured that you had left me sometime during the summer.
I missed you but knew that it was for the best.

I found you today.
I was looking for a shallot but found you instead – oh the agony – oh the despair!
You were shriveled and rancid; your purple cloak now a dull squishy brown,
…….a mere shadow of your former self!
What had I done?

Cast Iron and I buried you with the compost.
I sang taps; he beat himself against the stove.
Clang!  Clang!
He had always loved you more than I – I understand that now.

There would be no ratatouille or
parmigiana di melanzane for us.
We just weren’t meant to be.

Now when I go to the Debec Mart, your friends and family glare at me.
I have no words for them.
I am too ashamed.

Morning Injury

This morning I was retrieving the newspaper when I
accidentally stubbed my toe on a broken dream that
some hooligan had carelessly discarded on the lawn.

After mumbling a few choice words under my breath,
I bent down to look at the dream and saw that it had
once been quite lovely and well cared for.
It probably had been very handsome in its prime,
but even the most resilient dream can snap in two 
if it has been excessively agitated.

Now, in my day we didn’t dump our disappointments 
over another person’s property like rubbish.
Women of my generation had propriety; we kept our
crushed hopes inside of the house, away from prying eyes
and we certainly never made a public display of them.

I still keep my broken dreams in a small powder
blue box at the back of my underwear drawer.
I haven’t see the key to that box in years.

I wonder if I lost it?