Imagine: a young man is forced into compulsory labor while the war that kills millions of his compatriots rages around him; as that war concludes he turns his back on the world and spends the next decade as a Zen monk; he returns and, salving his despair, lurches toward alcoholism and then suicide; he fails (several attempts), but is energized by a surging democratization movement and becomes a leading dissident; over two decades he is imprisoned four times for para-political activities; he is finally accused of treason, and sentenced to twenty years in prison; he is tortured by a cadre of jailers, beaten so badly his eardrum ruptures; he is eventually pardoned, released a final time, and becomes a father at fifty; all the while, prodigious numbers of his books are published – over 150 at last count – including the sprawling, thirty-volume Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives), which chronicles the life of every person the poet has ever met.
Who is this ‘demon-driven Bodhisattva’, as Allen Ginsberg once called him, this hero who strides through the epic poem of his own life? With its Chronological Record of Former Lives, the poet’s website enumerates an elaborate mythology: this ‘friend of Dionysus’ claims to have first entered the world as a mare, somewhere near the Caspian Sea in 1125BC. Human lives followed, and after stints as a Siberian shaman, ‘an innkeeper in an unknown land’, a Mongolian shepherd boy, illiterate firewood gatherer and deaf farmhand on a remote island, in 1933 the mysterious personage of Ko Ŭn wandered into his current incarnation, fated for greatness, the eldest son of a farmer from the south western Chŏlla region of Korea.
Ko Ŭn is a literary giant who has gathered together a suite of folk stories, anecdotes, vignettes and asides in order to construct the monumental edifice of his Maninbo. The title translates literally as the ‘family records of ten thousand lives’, and the poet seems compelled to record the details of those who might otherwise be erased from history. Maninbo is part historical account, but it is also a funereal ode which adumbrates all who remain, all who have existed – an ontological stocktaking, if you will. Rather than an accretion of archetypes, these poems contain a procession of individuals who represent the gamut of human experience, but the inflection is clear: so many of these people disappeared without trace during Japanese occupation (1910-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953), and the ensuing rule of successive military dictatorships (1948-1987) in the newly-formed South Korea.
Brother Anthony of Taizé, the foremost of Ko Ŭn’s English-language translators, calls Maninbo an ‘immense mosaic narrative of Korean history’. These poems are haunted by their subjects; by retracing the identities of ordinary people caught in the flow of all-too-human and ideologically-driven events, Maninbo memorializes the palpable absence of the many that disappeared:
At the end of the Japanese period we had nothing to eat. There were no trees on the hills. Springtime was dreary without azaleas. Ch’ung-jo, my little brother, born when I was already a big boy, chose that wretched time to come into the world. (from ‘Ch’ung-jo, My Little Brother’)
What’s a ghost? I know. It’s starvation. (from ‘A Ghost’)
And for the crime of having served the Reds was abused by this man and that man, and the police. She was obliged to bite off her tongue and end her life. (from ‘Im Yŏng-ja’)
His baby son died of malnutrition. His wife went missing. (from ‘Oh Sŏng-ryun’)
Perhaps these few examples suggest Maninbo as a litany of horrors; certainly, the poet refuses to avert his gaze from terrains of the starving, the traumatised, the dying and dead. But many of the poems in Maninbo are startling for their pragmatic hope, resilience, and their refusal to despair:
Swept away in the flood, far out to sea he came across a plank, a narrow escape if ever there was one, … Su-kil dug up the tomb retrieved his tools, fitted them with new handles, stuck one into the ground and said: ‘You’re alive, and I’m alive, and as ever, there’s a lot of work to be done.’ (from ‘Tomb of Tools’)
In Chammi-dong, Kunsan, several blind people live together several blind people good at massage living happily together. … Amidst all the world’s evil there is this goodness too: even darkness can be a blessing! (from ‘Two Blind People’)
When Wu-sik went back down the hill after crying his fill, he felt full of new energy. The world might be too much for him, still he had the energy to burrow down and make a shelter for them all. (from ‘Wu-sik from Arettŭm’)
Despite everything Maninbo is triumphant, and testifies to human tenacities. These are poems loud with sounds that have ‘served this land, sounds alive and dead’, and the harmonies are made by a motley gathering of monks, teachers, dogs, babies, peasants, dissidents, soldiers, merchants, prostitutes, spouses, great-aunts, snake-catchers, poets, murderers, politicians, mountain climbers, et al: in short, all the turbulent and cacophonous tunefulness of a nation fighting to survive.
Throughout ManinboKo Ŭn remains sensitized to how ‘language is home for every human being’, and his poems serve as unofficial histories in the struggle for a cultural identity. As Charles Bernstein has written (for his own programmatic reasons), ‘language control = thought control = reality control’, and what is clearest in Maninbo is the poet’s enduring refusal to accept the imposition of any version of reality other than his own. Indeed, for Ko Ŭn, to be a poet is ‘freedom itself’. The impulse to think in his own ways and in his own language manifests early when, as a child, he learns the forbidden Korean language while his peers accept Japanese as their mother tongue:
Taegil, the farmhand for Kwan-jŏn’s family in Saetŏ, a first-rate farmhand, … Under the lamp I learned from him our language, I could recite the story of Changhwa and Hongryŏn fluently, like rain pouring down. So my eyes were opened to the world as a child. After thirty-six years under Japanese rule, I was the only kid who knew how to read and write our language: ka-kya-kŏ-kyŏ. … When there were snowdrifts in icy winter, the wind would pass freely through the sleeves of his thin clothes. He said: People who live in too much luxury know nothing about anything else. In this world we live with others. … He was a light for me, a light burning all night long, whether I woke or slept.
Where in a child does the impetus to learn a banned language come from? A temptation is to suggest it arrives from some intuitive belief in the rightness of the act; despite those realities imposed by successive ideologies, Ko Ŭn appears to have been getting things right for most of his life. Beginning with learning ‘ka-kya-kŏ-kyŏ’ (those first building blocks of the Korean language), it is through listening, observing, experiencing and then writing that Ko Ŭn’s vision not only survives but prevails. As the poet avows, ‘reality has certainly imposed a mission on my writing’ and, despite the blacklistings, the threats and torture, disappearance and deaths of friends around him, amid the suffering Ko Ŭn knows how much work is to be done. His canon-building project can be defined by two broad priorities: resistance to imposed cultural identities, and belief in speaking out and speaking truly.
Indeed, Ko Ŭn has consistently been spurred into action by the normalized atrocities surrounding him. The poet describes his as ‘a poetics of experience’, and the idea to write Maninbo was conceived during an extended period in solitary confinement – his third stint in prison following the assassination of military dictator Park Chung-hee. In the aftermath, demonstrations and uprisings across South Korea were bloodily put down by new dictator, Chun Doo-hwan, who killed unknown numbers of pro-democracy protesters and swept many thousands more off the streets and into prison. In the preface to his translation of Maninbo, Brother Anthony describes the subhuman conditions faced by Ko Ŭn and his fellow inmates in prison:
” … a labyrinth of tiny, windowless cells lit only by one small electric bulb. Completely isolated from the world and, most of the time, from one another, they had no way of knowing if they would come out alive or be summarily executed and disappear without trace.”