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November 2005

Seoul Searching

Economic powerhouse, wounded nation, Buddhist wilderness sanctuary, and this year's guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, South Korea is as various, as traditional and as modern in its literature as in its landscape.

The distinctive stylist Kim Hoon contributes "To the Longbills at Mangyeong River," a lovely slice of wildlife, while Oh Jung-hee portrays a young girl and her fatherless family seeking all sorts of shelter in a rural village during the Korean war in "Garden of My Childhood." On the urban side of the street, Lee Gi-ho's muscular "Earnie" spotlights a young prostitute who finds stardom as a rapper, and Hwang Sok-yong's "Camel's Eye" follows a young officer's dark night of the soul on the street as he returns to Korea from Vietnam. Perennial Nobel nominee Ko Un is joined by fellow poets Kim Hye-soon, Lee Seong-Bok and Hwang Ji-woo. We thank our guest editor, Ha-yun Jung, for assembling this notable selection.

And in memory of novelist Ba Jin, 1906-2005, one of China's most revered writers, Words Without Borders presents again his story "When the Snow Melted."

“I peel potatoes, stroke you on the head, pick up a leaf”
I peel potatoes, stroke you on the head, pick up a leaf off the ground, turn on the light, light a cigarette, grab the doorknob, take out a tram ticket don't be in such a rush, you're greying…
Translated from Polish
“I put off three dreams about father until later”
I put off three dreams about father until later they may come in handy it's already an old tear, an automatic one I always find it in the same place
Translated from Polish
“I lose verbs most quickly, nouns are left”
I lose verbs most quickly, nouns are left, things no more than personal pronouns (a lot of I, more and more I) and names? they vanish, conjunctions vanish three words, two words finally my, my inward…
Translated from Polish
“exactly the forehead, exactly the mouth, exactly the hands”
exactly the forehead, exactly the mouth, exactly the hands with that same dirty stain near the fingernail with little braids in an old-fashioned dress with a dahlia at the cheek, a strawberry at the lips…
Translated from Polish
By Lee Gi-ho
For the rap version of this story, click here.1She's here, she's here. Here at the office to see us. The Big Dog, her manager, comes, too. Comes in a bomb-ass Chrysler, his lackeys tag along.…
Translated from Korean by Yu Young-nan
four drab women Want Hardship Worry Guilt wait somewhere far away a person is born grows starts a family builds a home the four ghouls wait hidden in the foundations they build for the person a second…
Translated from Polish
From: “After the Cry”
you have no name, no place talk to yourself, sand, grass are you crying? who heard the meadow cry? For the next poem in this sequence, click here.
Translated from Polish
from “Towards a Science of Non-Existence”
I. if I only possessed a sunlit room for sure I'd rid myself of my foes aside from the bones of my ancestors prey to lengthy fevers nothing brings me pleasure aside from the bones of my ancestors…
Translated from Polish
“and once again”
"It's past and gone […] Best would be to go mad." (Tadeusz Konwicki, Afterglows) And once again the past begins best would be to go mad you're right Tadzio but our generation doesn't…
Translated from Polish
The blue winter sky like a stone on which angels sublime and quite unearthly sharpen their wings moving on rungs of radiance on crags of shadow they gradually sink into the imaginary heavens but in another…
Translated from Polish
from Three Horses
By Erri De Luca
I’m at Laila’s door again with a bottle under my arm and a thought which I blurt out at the entrance. I tell her immediately that it’s the end of February, and the apricot tree is already…
Translated from Italian by Michael F. Moore
Marked in the guidebook with two stars (in reality there are more) the whole principality, that is to say the city, the sea and a stretch of sky, looks great at first glance. The graves are whitewashed,…
Translated from Polish
Ghost Ship
the day is shorter the sundial stands hourless in the rain the sanatorium emerges from clouds like a vast passenger liner the columns of black trees drip with water and moonlight the sanatorium sails…
Translated from Polish
Angels of Civilization
At the turn of the century it seemed that angels were leaving us forever and that every trace of them would be lost. They were still employed here and there by funeral services. They also held up unfashionable…
Translated from Polish
Gray Zone
"What makes gray a neutral color? Is it something physiological, or logical?" "Grayness is situated between two extremes (black and white)" –Wittgenstein my gray zone is starting…
Translated from Polish
She was doing her hair
She was doing her hair before going to bed and in front of the mirror it lasted an infinitely long time between one bending of the arm at the elbow and another epochs passed from her hair soldiers of…
Translated from Polish
On Translating Poetry
Like a clumsy bumblebee he alights on a flower bending the fragile stem he elbows his way through rows of petals like the pages of a dictionary he wants in where the fragrance and the sweetness are and…
Translated from Polish
Taklamakan Desert
Washing her hair as the sun rises a thighless one pours a dipper full of sand over her hair and lowers her head into the sand pit with a splash. The footless one tosses her hair in pendulum as she rinses…
Translated from Korean
Poetry is useless, it serves only to behead a king or seduce a young woman. Perhaps it serves also, if water is death, to part the water with a dream. And if time grants its unique matter, it serves possibly…
Translated from Spanish
Fetishists Anonymous
By Cristina Peri Rossi
On Saturday afternoons, I’m the only woman at the Fetishists’ Club. Otherwise it’s just men.We meet on the weekends, before Sunday, stupid old Sunday, the gloomiest, most depressing…
Translated from Spanish by Tobias Hecht
The Moon and the Feather
The moon gave me a feather. In my hand it felt like singing. The moon laughed and told me to learn to sing. For the next poem in this sequence, click here.
Translated from Spanish
Note: This poem was originally written in Yucatecan Maya. And the ants that sing, laugh, dance and play in circles, began to cry. She was born a woman, one on whom they threw boiling water when she appeared…
Translated from Spanish
Six Variations on Love
Note: These poems were originally written in Zapoteco. I Love comes heavy like a weight one cannot long carry without cursing. II Love is a feather in the air. Although it is also the sun. It rises and…
Translated from Spanish
Note: This poem was originally written in Mazateco. I Four hundred zontles in the distance. Four hundred leagues toward infinity, light, darkness, shapes. The voice of the wise man reaches far, the singer,…
Translated from Spanish
What Darkness Was
By Inka Parei
The building stood at Frankfurt’s western edge, near a river, the Nidda. The old man had never expected to inherit it, he’d been shocked when the news came to him. At first he’d found…
Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky
By Sayed Ragab
Translator’s note: Shooq means “longing” and is also a woman’s given name. Following custom, Shooq’s mother and father are referred to in the story by the honorifics Umm…
Translated from Egyptian Arabic by Humphrey Davies
Arcades: steps toward the sun. Stone crossbeams with figures of griffins and nereids. Saint James shoulders up a prison tower and Saint Anthony stands in the door of a café where you have just…
Translated from Polish
Peat bog, fossilized air, loops of an evening sky. Words close themselves against other words, and there is only a burnt-out path, a pipe in ether with after-voices and after-crackles whitened and beaten…
Translated from Polish
I find the trace of your teeth in the foreign town. I find the trace of your teeth in my arm. I find the trace of your teeth in the mirror. At times I'm a hamburger. At times I'm a hamburger.…
Translated from Polish
Good Later
"Uh huh" says the streetcar, or it seems to say. When did the clock with the tune get here, it's getting harder to hear. Wrong: tremors should be caught, fixed, accommodated. How far we've…
Translated from Polish
The landscape is effective. We're calling out the hills. Echoes want untwining. We're drawing water from fountains. A half-open window. The half-closed sea. The rest just flickers and we are taking…
Translated from Polish
Weeks spent. a month devoted to the study of a detail in a magazine ad. The guide tells us there are two kinds of people: creative and not. Soap washes off, milk washes down. Push the cart. For the next…
Translated from Polish
Paints and Smears
Her house in the middle of spring. Ribbons in girls' hair, a smell of starch. The wind distributes words, puffs out curtains. The house is on flowery fire, a sparkling stream. How many times has she…
Translated from Polish
Feverish Activity
Good night, one-night flies. Bye, bye.
Translated from Polish
The Prelude
A boy stood on a narrow balcony in the afternoon: autumn was moving through a labyrinth of dishwashing and cigarette smoke. Pines and starlings made quick imitations of one another: a long grey zone in…
Translated from Polish
Diary of the Fat Sofa
I got up early in the morning, brushed my teeth, washed my face, and sat at the table. (Not true. To be honest, when I got up late this morning and sat at the table, my wife asked me to brush my teeth…
Translated from Korean
Camel’s Eye
By Hwang Sok-Yong
Note: The narrator is a South Korean soldier who has just returned from the war in Vietnam by ship and is waiting on the dock to be transported home by train. At the urging of a young sergeant who once…
Translated from Korean by Yu Young-nan
the white blood you shed
light, a red button in the sky (body, you tremble with cold a white daffodil smiling inside a glacier) light, dropping thousands of gold threads from the spot where it once jumped (body, what spider weaves…
Translated from Korean
from “A Boy and Death”
By Lojze Kovacic
Father was lying on the table dressed in his usual dark blue suit. He was uncovered, lying on a sheet, and standing at his feet was a vessel of holy water with an olive twig stuck in it. In his clasped…
Translated from Slovenian by W. Martin & Miriam Drev
A Meal in This World
Although Mother survived a crisis and is home from the hospital she's not the same-her mind is hazy. How can I express my sorrow when she insists our guests in black suits are detectives from the…
Translated from Korean
blossoming from the body of another
There remained a few graves at the deserted factory site They were torn up, then there were puddles Yesterday the wind blew all day long like a sweltering cotton quilt Rain this morning-a tall stalk of…
Translated from Korean
The Man Who Sold His Shadow
By Young-ha Kim
Here’s a question we all ask ourselves at least once when we’re young: Where does that starlight come from? It’s been there before I was born, and before my grandmother, and her grandmother…
Translated from Korean by Dafna Zur
To the Longbills at Mangyeong River
From time to time, climbers ascending Mt. Everest or Nanga Parbat stumble upon migrating birds, frozen on snow-capped peaks at 8,000-meter altitudes. The cross-continental flight formation these birds…
Translated from Korean
that dark cold blue
Winter day, under a short tree The quick hurried steps That dark cold blue light Drawn out by a fleeting glimpse The light entered me Stayed and lived in me There are certain lights, so short One can…
Translated from Korean
White Horse
Worrying about a white horse, so white, suddenly barging into my room: What if the horse fills up the room, jamming it, settling in? What if the horse locks me behind its large eyeball, not letting me…
Translated from Korean
Halls of the National Museum
I lost sight of my child in the Yi dynasty hall: Like a forgotten royal concubine, I had been staring at the king's rice bowl, goblet and spoon. I dash back at once to the Goryeo dynasty hall, shedding…
Translated from Korean
My Pond, My Sanitarium
When I remove my clothes in the bathroom, there's something else I'd like to remove. I feel within myself an old crepe myrtle dreaming of transmigration, of changing its body into another life.…
Translated from Korean
Garden of My Childhood
By Oh Jung-hee
Hold on tight. And when I held on to his hair, as he told me to, I got his sticky and greasy hair tonic all over my hands.
Translated from Korean by Ha-yun Jung
Delaunay the Broker
By Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
All things there are the same, but the same as what, I could not say. He walked into my antique shop one September afternoon. I knew right away he hadn’t come to buy. I have an eye for these…
Translated from French by Edward Gauvin
By Ellen Ombre
I was born in Surinam in the district of Commewijne. Some of the plantations in that fertile, once-wealthy district had meaningful names: Mon Souci, Mon Trésor, Peace and Delight, Mutual Care.I come from…
Translated from Dutch by David Colmer
By Lee Gi-ho
This narrative poem is an adaptation of the rap by “El Guante,” Kyle Myhre. Read the prose translation here. she was never here the man shouts as he moves about through the office and I cant…
Translated from Korean by Kyle Myrhe & Yu Young-nan
The Moon
By Ko Un
Every time the moon rose, she prayed.Finally Wol-nam's mother, at forty, bore a son.In dreams before pregnancy,she swallowed the moon.After her son was born, Wol-nam's motherwould lose her mindwithout…
Translated from Korean by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Young-Moo Kim & Gary G. Gach