Flowers of a Moment by Ko Un

Flowers of a Moment (Lannan Translation Selection Series) Flowers of a Moment (Lannan Translation Selection Series)Ko Un; BOA Editions 2006WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
Tonight, I don’t feel like pretending to be a book reviewer. (Does it really matter what I have to say about a guy who’s been nominated so many times for the Nobel Prize?) Tonight I would rather respond to a few of Ko Un’s brief poems as if he were right here, sharing drinks and conversation.

I have spent the whole day talking about other people again
and the trees are watching me
as I go home

Sometimes I confuse the road with the map and everything on either side with terra incognita.

the mother has fallen asleep
so her baby is listening all alone
to the sound of the night train

The spider spends 99 percent of her lifetime waiting, suspended among her knitting, yet will perish before the first of her children hatch.

Outside the cave the howling wind and rain
the silent speech of bats filling the ceiling

Today, I read about a study that found that plants emit and respond to sonic vibrations. With their large ears attuned to ultrasonic sounds, I wonder if bats can hear the questing rootlets of the oaks over their heads?

We went to Auschwitz
saw the mounds of glasses
saw the piles of shoes
On the way back
we each stared out of a different window

Every window has its own fragile truth. Once, in a basement dangerous with broken bottles, a thug threw me against a wall and my glasses flew off. I became half-blind and sober at the same time.

Beneath the heavens with their scattered clouds
here and there are fools

Some of us are expanding, some shrinking, some taking a leak with a beer in one hand.

Crayfish, why are you so complicated?

with your feelers
your jaw legs
your hairy legs
your chest legs
your belly legs
and all the rest

My god! How is it that I missed my calling to be an egg?

In the old days a poet once said
our nation is destroyed
yet the mountains and rivers survive

Today’s poet says
the mountains and rivers are destroyed
yet our nation survives

Tomorrow’s poet will say
the mountains and rivers are destroyed
our nation is destroyed and Alas!
you and I are completely destroyed

Isn’t there some way we can destroy all these pesky poets?

Look at the nose of a baby rabbit
look at the tail of a dog—
that’s the kind of world I’m living in

Look at those three bs in “baby rabbit,” then look at the small g in “dog” — the alert way a prey animal sits, the alert way a predator lies in wait.

A thousand drops
hanging from a dead branch

The rain did not fall for nothing

Today I watched a crowd of mayapple parasols down by the streambank thrown into disarray by one simple snowfall. Some turned completely over, their flower buds like thumbs pointed at the sky.

One spring night, the sound of a child weeping
One autumn night, the sound of laundry being pounded
was a place where people were really alive

As I passed the field fertilized with their shit
involuntarily I bowed my head

I was going to say that I have never grown anything with compost made from my own excrement, but then I remembered I’m a writer.

From across the river
the sound of a bell reached the two of us
for us to listen to together
The sound of a bell reached us

We had decided to part
but then we decided not to part

I remember the big bronze temple bells in Japan, how they boomed rather than clanged, the sound going on and on: the bells of Mt. Hiei that I listened to with a lover as we gazed into each other’s eyes, and the bell at Ikkyu’s old temple in the country where I trespassed one night so I could stand inside it, whispering hello to the spiders and the thousand-year-old bronze.

No need to know its whereabouts

A small spring in a mountain ravine
is like a sister
a younger sister
like a long lost younger sister
now found again

The whole point of drinking, it seems to me, is that moment of recognition. I’ve had brotherly feelings toward mosquitos sinking their drilling rigs into my arm.

The top is spinning
Yesterday the poet Midang departed
today old Oh from next door departed
How can death concern only one or two?
The child’s top is surrounded by every kind of death

The rubber ball, the spinning jacks — how many can you keep in play? Between one bounce and the next they can all fall down.

A warship moves through the sea
near Paekryong Island in the Yellow Sea
Not one seagull’s in sight
The sea
looks as if someone has disappeared in it
I’m carrying an empty soju bottle

When war becomes permanent, who but a poet or a crackpot remembers the kind of peace that doesn’t involve desolation? The deafening howl of A-10 fighter jets can linger for half a minute after they’ve passed from view, the air like a fresh wound that hasn’t yet learned how to bleed. Then, slowly, the whine of cicadas, and this old wrinkle of earth goes back to being a mountain.


  1. Dave,
    I love this tribute, but best of all, I love your comment about writers fertilizing the fields with their own excrement.


  2. I love this tribute too. And the old wrinkle of earth.


  3. *sigh* The vagaries of my WiFi connection…my comment vanished into the ether, so I’ll try again (since tonight’s connection seems stable).

    I’m glad to see Korean poets getting some coverage, although Ko Un is not (despite all the international press) my favorite Korean poet. I preferred your responses, actually; well done! The translations are better than usual, at least in terms of readability in English, enough so that I might give this volume a try at some point.

    Because Korean literature has been both infrequently and poorly translated, there’s not much on sijo in English, although Elizabeth St. Jaques (“Sijo in the Light” has done a lot with the form (in English). Personally, I was impressed with “The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry” (ed. Peter H. Lee), which has sections on not only sijo but other traditional forms as well.

    I wish someone would translate a the sijo and other poems of the Joseon Dynasty gisaeng (a Korean geisha), Hwang Jin I. She is rightfully one of the most famous Korean sijo poets, and one of the Joseon Dynasty’s most colorful personalities.


    1. Thanks for commenting, especially given that it sounds like a bit of a hassle for you. Yes, when I read about Hwang Jin I in the Wikipedia, my immediate thought was, “Wow, Seon Joon should translate this!” :) She sounds a bit like Hồ Xuân Hương. I’ll see if I can get a copy of that Columbia anthology — thanks for the recommendation.


  4. I remember when you reviewed Ho Xuan Huong (sorry, no diacritics right now), and later, encountering several highly fictionalized versions of Hwang Jin I in popular Korean drama, drawing the same parallel as you did between the two women’s lives.

    I’ve wanted to try translating Korean poetry for awhile, but it’s dang difficult and I need to do a lot more reading before I could start work–lots of pacing the room, pages in hand, reciting out loud, and learning the reservoir of associations and common images poets in the Choseon era shared–but I may, at one point, take your advice and give her a try…


  5. This was a wonderful “review.” Both the excerpts and your responses made me want to write, and I did indeed take up the pen immediately upon finishing… Thanks.


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