The Poet Who Longs to Be a Sinner
- onApril 20, 2015
- Vol.27 Spring 2015
- byKim Nam Jo
Is this how Jean Valjean felt as he stole the bishop’s silverware? Or is this what passed through Faust’s mind as he made the pact with Mephistopheles? When my mind is familiar less with lofty words such as love or life and more with words of pain such as despair and futility, how am I to look into the fortress of the poet Kim Nam Jo who is revered as the “poet of love and life?”
That fortress, where peace overflows, is filled with a sublime hymn. At its essence it is symbolized by water, fire, and flowers—a blinding brilliance. At any moment when I steal a glance into the fortress I could be rendered blind. And yet, it is not entirely impossible for me to safely take a glimpse. Try as I may to conquer the poet Kim Nam Jo in the manner in which she has done—and still struggles to do—I must confront Mary Magdalene.
A woman with a heart in flames,
burning like a brazier for two thousand years:
with long, black hair,
a Jewess, barefoot,
she follows the Lord
Above is a glimpse taken from Kim’s poem “Mary Magdalene 3.” Mary Magdalene whom Kim refers to as her “ultimate textbook”—someone she will never manage to reach—is the manifestation of the absolute values Kim pursues as a woman of faith; a person one would find in the final stage of enlightenment. If she were to achieve the status of Mary Magdalene, Kim would become one of God’s perfect creations, made to fully serve the Lord. That effort of overcoming the futility of life, a dominant tension of her own spiritual constitution, is an act that fulfills her reason to exist. Therefore, the path along her arduous journey toward those absolute values is a path as clear as day. This is because Mary Magdalene endured during her journey “with her soul seared by burns,” thus clearing the way for Kim to follow on her own journey in life.
Then, what sin has poet Kim committed to feel the need to repent, as Mary Magdalene did when she anointed the feet of Jesus with pure nard, a fragrant oil, on the streets of Capernaum? Of course there is none. In other words, Kim herself desires to be a sinner.
The sin of a person without sin—such a sin is not of this world. It is also not a sin of the flesh. It is rather a sin committed in the world of souls who strive to reach closer to the heavens, and therefore a sin that longs for more punishment and penitence. Here, the expression “longing for punishment” refers to atonement, an act like self-immolation, in which one tries to prove one’s true heart by taking the extreme measure of setting oneself on fire. So then, what does Kim mean when she speaks of practicing the art of true love through which she will prove by setting herself on fire? Without a doubt, it is the act of overcoming Mary Magdalene.
And so it is. Overcoming Mary Magdalene must be a journey of desperation that culminates at the side of Jesus; to get there, it is necessary for a ceremonial ritual to take place which transcends the limitations of human faculty—that is, there needs to be excruciating pain as in self-immolation.
For most, Kim Nam Jo is considered a poet of love, or a poet of life. Here, “life” refers to the essential elements that constitute the universe, where “the universe” refers not to the astronomical or scientific concept but rather to the universe of suffering embraced by the heavens. The characteristic of this notion of life makes it a life conceived in the womb of the “mother of life who arrived with her cold body,” and is a form of life (like the budding of spring) that becomes polished during the painful process of trimming its own body with a cold blade as one would cut a winter tree. Even truth, the willful form of all phenomena, has become refined only after significant bloodletting. In that sense, Kim’s notion of winter deviates with Christian imagery. If the ordeals of Jesus as he climbed to Golgotha carrying the cross to which he was later nailed, were a suffering in darkness, then his blissful resurrection emerges as the manifestation of a bright life. From Kim’s perspective, the former is a process of hardship such as self-immolation, while the latter could be seen as the resolution of longing in which Mary Magdalene is overcome through that hardship. Here, the resolution of longing must refer to the fruits of practicing true love, so the nature of Kim’s love becomes that much clearer. On Kim’s notion of love, the poet Ko Un once said, borrowing the medium of poetry, “To the poet who remains unchanged for a lifetime, however, love is not a mere plea for love. It is an act of penance, and another word for refinement.”