Ten Thousand Lives, by Ko Un. Introduction by Robert Hass.
In Mexico I read this other book by Korean poet and former Buddhist monk Ko Un. It’s a selection of poems from his vast project, Maninbo, or Ten Thousand Lives. After several years as a leader of the resistance movement against the Korean Republic’s military dictatorships in the 1970s, Ko Un was imprisoned four times, enduring torture and extreme deprivation. As Robert Hass puts it in his introduction, “[D]uring his third imprisonment in 1980, when he had been sentenced to 20 years in prison, while in solitary confinement in a cell so pitch dark he could not see the glint of the coffee can that served as a latrine, he began to make a mental inventory of the faces of everyone he had ever known and conceived a long poem, or series of poems, that would begin in his childhood village and expand to include everyone he had ever met, including figures vivid to him from history and literature. The project, still ongoing, has reached twenty volumes….”
All the characteristics I mentioned in my earlier post are here, woven through an astonishing variety of narrative modes ranging from folk tale to historical anecdote to gossip. Here’s an example:
Old Nam-su used to be good at hunting hares.
Two days after he died,
Ok-sun, his married daughter,
followed the road out of the village for a mile,
hair dishevelled, weeping like she was about to die.
She wept blindly, blinded by tears,
then once she arrived back in the village
all the women emerged from one house after another,
clicked their tongues,
then they all began to lament with her
until the whole village was full of grief.
Now the dead man can lie in peace, satisfied.
it’s good to have fruitful years, even for grief.
This poem leaped to mind when I heard that my friend and fellow poet Murray Moulding is dealing with some terrible grief of his own.
Ten Thousand Lives is just one of several books by Ko Un that have found their way into English recently. You can find several of them listed here.