Korean literature in English – Poems of the Korean War
A collection of poetry, “Brother Enemy – Poems of the Korean War,” with entries spanning professional writers enlisted into the army through to common soldiers yet all writing about the Korean War, was translated and published in English in 2002.
Sometimes somber, morale-boosting or even showing compassion for the enemy, the poetry tells of the moments just before the war, its start and then its conclusion, all with different perspectives and writing styles.
Like brothers sharing the same bloodline, the concept of a “Korean race” is generally seen as being indivisible from time immemorial. For many, it is seen as something that cannot be divided into a South or a North based on the timing of where the current frontline lies, or purely by chance, tragically determining who is a friend or a foe. Peaceful moments during war, compassion for the enemy and individuals that have less concern for ideologies all show the true irony of war.
Coming to Tabuwon after the month-long siege is lifted,
I see autumn clouds dappling its hills.
After the cannon roar raged for a month
Attacking and defending,
I realize how Taegu
Tabuwon is located.
To keep this small village
As part of our free republic
Even grass and shrubbery
Had to die
Oh, do not ask
For what Cause
The land had to suffer such ruin.
The head of a war horse
Severed while rearing toward heaven.
The corpse of a Communist soldier
Seeming to weep in remorse.
We were brothers under the same sky
Until a short while ago.
Now, though cooled by the autumn breeze,
Tabuwon stinks like rotting fish.
If there was no Fate governing life and death
And we had no faith in Fate’s purpose,
What rest could there be for these pitiful dead?
The Tabuwon I survived to see
Offers no response to the living or the dead.
Only the wind stirs it.
(by Cho Chi-hun, September 26, 1950)
Cho Chi-hun (1920-1968) is better known to the public through his poems included in middle and high school literature textbooks. “Seungmu” (僧舞) draws the sentiment of a Buddhist accord and religious aesthetics from the description of the solitary dance, or “Nakhwa” (落花 ), that draws sympathy for a lost country at the sight of a falling flower. Cho wrote war-struck poetry, like his “Journal of Despair” series, which tells of the surrealistic start of the war, and “At Tabuwon,” which describes the aftermath of the war. His poems create a driven trail of obsolete horror from a perspective that withholds emotion.
His poem “At Tabuwon” uses visual, audio and olfactory senses to bring the readers to the site where war has left nothing but desolation, an insufferable odor, the transience of life and the corpses of the enemy.
At Onjong-ri Station at the foot of Diamond Mountain
some of the early arrivals have fallen asleep
In the empty station filled with pure silence
After the train whistle ceased and the enemy fled.
Standing in the autumn sun of the cosmos-filled station yard,
I gaze at the gorgeous Diamond Mountain,
And the hellish war seems utterly senseless.
Eight howitzers are showering rounds
At the fleeing enemy nine thousand yards away.
Explosions tear the earth, profaning the divine peaks
And the heavens far above.
But the mountain still stands,
White clouds, like a scarf of karma, curled round its top.
(by Yu Ch’i-hwan)
Yu Ch’i-hwan (1908-1967) is known for his poem “Gitbal,” literally meaning, “Banner,” as it flies in the sky reminding him of yearning for ideals and disappointment in their pursuit. His book of poetry, “With the Foot Soldier,” includes a poem of the same title, translated as “Diamond Mountain.” It tells of an enemy-cleared beautiful Geumgansan Mountain and its unshakable nature, despite man’s wartime destruction.
Another poem, “To a Deceased United Nations Soldier,” a tribute to a sacrificed U.N. soldier who had joined the tragedy of the nation, offers consolation.
This collection contains other poems that address the many participants in the Korean War, fellow combatants, U.N. soldiers, Communist forces, mainland Chinese soldiers, fleeing civilians and more.
As an enlisted doctor, a woman and the only Communist participant in this book, Yu Ch’un-do revealed her personal story of spending four months in the war in her autobiography, “Beongeorisae,” meaning, “Mute Bird,” published in 2005. Her poetry captures the suffering of war as seen by a doctor. Her words flit through allies and foe alike, who only differ in battle uniforms.
“Brother Enemy” contains poems from a total of 21 writers, including the three mentioned above, capturing the thoughts of many of the people who experienced the war in all its aspects.
Translator Suh Ji-Moon is a professor emeritus in the English literature department at Korea University. She has spend time at the SOAS, University of London, at the Harvard-Yenching Institute and at Stanford University. Her publications include “Learning Analects in English” and “Confucius, Loved in the West and Admired in the East” in Korean, and “Faces in the Well” in English.
By Paik Hyun
Korea.net Staff Writer
*Recommendations and books provided by the Literature Translation Institute of Koreahttps://eng.klti.or.kr/e_main.do