Ten Thousand Lives
Translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony of Taizé,
Young-moo Im, and Gary Gach
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Ten Thousand Lives
Green Integer Series No.: 123
ISBN: 1-933382-06-6, Pages: 263
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Born in 1933 in a small rural village in Korea's North Cholla Province, Ko Un grew up in a Japanese-controlled
land that was soon to experience the horrors of the Korean
War. He became a Buddhist monk in 1952, and began writing
in the late 1950s.
Ten Thousand Lives is his major,
ongoing work which began during his imprisonment with his
determination to describe every person he had ever met.
Maninbo, as it is known in Korea, is now in its 20th
volume, and he has plans for five more volumes before its
completion. The selection in this volumefrom the first 10
volumesrepresents one of the major classics of 20th
century Korean literature, published for this first time
in English. Ko Un has been nominated several times for the
Nobel Prize for Literature.
KOREAN QUARTERLY, Vol 9, no. 2 (Winter 2005/2006)
by Heinz Insu Fenkl
I cry out my poems, the way an insect cries out. -Ko Un (at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 2004)
When Ko Un sang the folksong Arirang this fall at the Frankfurt Book Fair, at which Korea was the featured guest nation, his rendition was so poignant that it made the Germans in the audience noticeably uncomfortable. Ko Un was a nominee for the 2005 Nobel Prize in literature, and although he did not win, he has succeeded in bringing Korean literature into the international spotlight with the release of three most recent volumes in English.
The first of these, Ten Thousand Lives, takes its title, from an allusion to the "10,000 Things" in the Tao Te Ching, the number 10,000 also traditionally meaning "every" (it has also been translated as Every Life). Ko Un had been sentenced to life in prison in 1980. He said in a 1999 interview with Tae Yang Kwak:
There were no windows in my cell. It was so dark you couldn't even
see the urine bucket in the corner of the cell when the lights were turned
out. The darkness was like a dream, and in that darkness and isolation
people from my past came to visit me-my parents, grandparents, friends,
people I'd met in passing, people I had never met at all, historical figures…
I spoke with these faces that came to me. I wanted to record every one of
them as a poem. At the time I thought that I was going to die, but I swore
if I should live I would write a poem for each of them. It was this mission
that gave me the strength to carry on.
The project is now past its 20th volume, and the recent translated version of Ten Thousand Lives presents a selection from the first ten.
Ko Un is fortunate to have Gary Gach among his translators for this book. Gach, also a poet (and editor of What Book?, a seminal anthology of Buddhist poetry available from Parallax Press) has done an excellent job of lending a natural and colloquial tone to the poems. Among the three translators, they have managed to maintain a level of lexical accuracy and a recreation of voice that is rare to find in English translations of Korean poetry. Gach is especially good at suggesting the original bluntness and sheer mundane-ness of the original Korean while maintaining a sense of the poetic. The subjects of the poems seem sometimes to be trivial or entirely typical-the sort of people who fade into the background of everyday life like the table seller, from the poem of that title:
Once or twice every year
the table seller visits our village.
The winnowing basket seller's a
the table seller has to carry ten or twelve
tables about so of course
it's got to be a man,
a man with a face like a brigand,
a man with a straggly beard.
Such poems sneak up on you. By the time you have read quickly through several of themand this is easy because they are so matter-of-factyou begin to feel a sense of familiarity and even nostalgia. For readers unfamiliar with pre-contemporary Korea, the poems also serve as a kind of closely-observed ethnography. After a while, the small details create a tremendous emotional response and a turning inward toward one's own recollections of the 10,000 lives in one's own past. (Having grown up during the Chung-hee Park era in Korea, I found myself getting teary-eyed, as if I were reading my own forgotten memories.)
The truth is that all three of Ko Un's books are actually the same book. While he tells the story of the young pilgrim in Little Pilgrim and weaves together a vi
BOSTON REVIEW, XXXI, no. 3 (May-June 2006)
by Katie Peterson
Sentenced to life imprisonment for opposing South Korea's military dictatorships in the 1970s, the poet Ko Un decided to write a series of poems chronicling the lives of everyone he had ever come into contact with. This Green Integer paperback, with a wonderful introduction by Robert Hass, brings together a selection of these portraits, most of them about a page in length. But the most striking portrait is the first: a photograph of Ko Un himself, whose expression of implacable and jolly fortitude sets the tone for the collection. Alert, bracing, immediate, and folksy, Ten Thousand Lives is a gathering of peoplemostly village folkthat does not discriminate between riffraff and bigwigs. The exclamatory and often tinny voice of the speaker is never brutal, but consistently achieves a brightness of tone that exceeds clarity and teeters on the brink of the surreal. In "The Wife from Kaesari," the culturally situated restraint of a village woman is treated to such brightness: "Knowing no eloquence in her lifetime, / she was incapable of any decent last words. / She was more or less heard to say / the lid of the soy-sauce jar upon on the terrace / ought to be opened to the daylight / and also, it seems, / the lining in father's jacket ought to be replaced." There is no way of getting around the deeply moral impulse that governs these compositions, but a poem like this one doesn't allow judgment to be its focus. Conscience, especially in the earlier poems, acts more as a structural principle than one that makes the poetor the persons he memorializesreflective. Meeting a handsome murderer in jail, Ko Un writes, "That bright smile / those graceful movements / undoubtedly the star in some movie / only it was as if somewhere in his life / the seed of that dreadful act had sprouted / and grown up, taking his body for humus." Indeed each person in Ten Thousand Lives seems both excruciatingly present and terrifyingly absent. More than, or at least different from, a collection of poems in the traditional sense, Ten Thousand Lives is an uncanny testament to the brutalities of history and a nervy attempt to remind us that individuals are worth dignifying.
THE NATION (September 18, 2006)
by John Feffer
from the Other Asia
Ko Un, Korea's most renowned
living poet, remembers the privations of the colonial era. Figuring prominently
in his poems is the "barley hump" of the spring, when the winter
stores have been eaten, the new barley crop has yet to ripen and the annual
starvation sets in. As a young boy during the Korean War, Ko Un watched the
deaths of friends and family and could do nothing to save them. At the end of
the war, he worked as a gravedigger. Fertilized by all this death, his poetry
Mow down parents and children
This, that, and the others,
Knife them in the dark.
the world is piled with death.
Our chore is burying them all day
and building a new world on it.
During his varied life, Ko Un
has been a youthful scalawag, Buddhist monk, drunkard, teacher, political
activist, jailed dissident and, now, Nobel Prize contender. He has published
more than 100 books of poetry and prose. But his greatest claim to fame is Maninbo,
or Ten Thousand Lives, which the American poet Robert Haass has
described as "one of the most extraordinary projects in contemporary
literature." Ko Un conceived of this project holed up in a military prison
with other prominent dissidents. He vowed to write a poem for every person he
had ever known, from his closest relatives to historical figures he'd only met
in books. Green Integer has published a one-volume selection of this vast work
for the first time in English, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé,
Young-moo Kim and Gary Gach.
Missing from the collection,
unfortunately, is Ko Un's original introduction, in which he issued a
declaration of independence from all foreign literary influence. No longer
would he be seduced by graceful Chinese evocations of nature or the cryptic
modernism of the West. In their place, Ko Un has constructed a rustic
vernacular, a poetry of the Korean countryside as earthy as the mountain
vegetables that deepen the flavor of Korean food. In these poems, a woman has
"a laugh like cold bean-sprout soup," a man is so dull that he is
"cousin of water,/or of watered-down soy-sauce." Each poem resembles
a miniature folk tale, expressed with koan-like simplicity, cautious of metaphors
or abstraction. Much of South Korean history is poured into this folkloric
mold, from the partisan fighter who gave birth in her cell before being hanged
at the scaffold in the early 1950s all the way to dissident Kim Dae Jung,
"the embodiment of suffering/at a time when suffering was needed,"
who became president in the 1990s.
This commemoration of Korean
history and countryside, freed from strictures of form and diction imposed from
the outside, follows in the tradition of minjung, or
"people's" culture. Ko Un has "gone to the people" for his
inspiration, much like the narodniks, the Russian radicals of the
nineteenth century, and the South Korean student movement activists of the
1980s who emulated them. But Ko Un has not summoned up some ethereal concept of
the People. Maninbo, his masterpiece, is the People made flesh. Thanks
to Ko Un, they continue to walk among us, all 10,000 of them.
Kyoto Journal, 2007 Number 67
by Patricia Donegan
Ko Un's Poem Portraits
That aunt of ours
who married the man at Sorae Ferry
a laugh like cold bean-sprout soup
that cold aunt who had wept her fill.
Looking away from the war-torn images of bombings and horrific violence on my TV screen, out the window I see the vast blue sky, the primordial empty space beyond concept or thought. In the Buddhist tradition this is called ‘Buddha nature’, our natural state of mind which is luminous, open and compassionate. A magnificent reminder of this “sky mind” in the midst of the world’s chaos is the Korean poet Ko Un’s book, Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives). It is a monumental work of twenty-five volumes containing short poetic portraits evoking, one by one, the many people Ko Un has encountered in his life, beginning with his childhood village and expanding out to figures in literature and history. Ko Un is widely acknowledged to be Korea’s foremost contemporary poet; yet he is not “the literary poet” using his art to put a grid of order unto chaos (which is ultimately too simplistic and dualistic a perspective), but rather he is able to see from a bird’s-eye view, all perspectives, without superimposing any judgment, pity or revulsion. He is able to be Chae-suk, ‘the girl from the house by the well, a brimming crock of water perched on her head, gazing into the far-off distance as she walks; he is able to be Uncle Man-sik, ‘someone like watered wine, so insipid he even bows down before kids’; he is able to be six-year old Pyong-ok, ‘rushing out to the rice-paddy foraging for snails half a day who drank lye by mistake and died.’ He is not just ‘able to be’ but rather ‘he is’ that person, for he has stepped beyond duality into the realm of feeling one with other. This is a direct result of his early life of extreme poverty and hardship during the oppressive Japanese Occupation and horrific Korean War, plus his later years of confinement & torture as a political prisoner, but most of all a result of his living as a Zen Buddhist monk for many years before settling into a married family life. He has expressed his passionate political & humanistic views through his prolific works of more than 100 books.
He told me in an interview [see Kyoto Journal 60], of the epiphany he ‘saw’ in his mind while in prison: “The idea of Maninbo came at a very difficult point of my life. In May 1980 I was arrested and going to be court-martialed by the emerging dictatorship, accused of “rebellion”… in the military prison if the single weak electric bulb went out, it was a black room, so we were full of fear, for we felt we might be killed at any moment — and the thought that really sustained my life at that moment was that if I were to get out of there I would have to write these poems [of the images of the faces of everyone he had ever known]; I thought even if I didn’t do that thought in itself would be a source of strength…
These poems represent my ‘other-centered’ poems. So much modern Korean poetry is centered on the self … I have many other kinds of works, but if Maninbo were not in my body of work, somehow I would have failed in my task, not only in the matter of depicting others, but also in the way of somehow transcending self. ” So far he has done twenty volumes of the intended 25 of these portrait poems; more are in process, most likely continuing to the poet’s last breath. This particular collection in-translation contains selections of poems from the first ten volumes, published for the first time in English; thanks to these fine translations, we now can read some of this most ‘ordinary-extraord
OYSTER BOY REVIEW, Summer 2012
by Jeffery Beam
"Ko Un's Ten Thousand Lives"
This remarkable volume selects from the first ten volumes (there are now 23) of the South Korean former Buddhist monk's life time project to describe every person he has ever known through poetry. Imprisoned during the Korean War, beaten by police, tortured by having acid poured into his ears, and imprisoned four times during South Korean's democracy movement, Un is Korea's greatest living poet, assumed to one day win a Nobel Prize, and a leading figure in Korean politics and culture.
Robert Haas in his superlative introduction to this volume which places Un in world literature describes how Un, while in prison facing a 20-year sentence that began in 1980, in pitch-dark solitary confinement, conceived of this project. Released in 1982 as a result of a general pardon, he has continued to compose the Lives, but also translations, a narrative poem, novels, criticism, and small Zen Buddhist poems. In 1999, I reviewed Un's book of Korean poems, Beyond Self, here.
No one, from village water carriers to fellow prisoners, to former president Kim Dae-jung, is exempt from Un's loving eye, and as to be expected he finds the core of goodness in each of his subjects with a bracing wit and lucidity. Here's one poem:
In early morning Pun-im carries two buckets of water
on a yoke, her face bowed toward the ground,
Pun-im with her eyelashes so long.
Pun-im. There's no way of knowing what she's achieving
ten fathoms down deep in her heart,
as the hem of her black skirt soaks up the dew
and below it her busy feet soak it up too.
Pun-im, who never loses a drop from her water buckets.
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