The Era of No Farewells
My friend is moving to America for his old age.
He says he will live on emails and telephone calls just like in Seoul
and will die among his children
but there will be no way to meet in Insadong1 on a late autumn evening
with chilly rain dampening the ground
and have a slow drink together
with a side dish of steamy odeng.2
However, it is also good to part while our memories glitter
rather than one leaving this world earlier than the other.
If bacteria have no pleasure at being divided
why is separation so hard?
1 An area in Seoul noted for historic and cultural attractions.
2 Ground fish that is processed into sheets or shapes and used in various dishes in Korea and Japan. It is also a popular street food when skewered and steamed.
Delights of Life
With a radio strapped over my shoulder
I’ve moved several times north and south of the Han
wasn’t lonely till my mid-70s
with no need for a cat or dog
meanwhile I’ll listen to the oldies I put aside
pain patches attached to my back
live like a watermelon seed stuck in red reclusion.
With this in mind
Can I console what’s left of my life?
Some wishes can’t be changed without changing homes.
I’ve lived in several places, always apartments, for nearly forty years
thinking they would be stepping stones to my “home.”
When I lift my foot from this last stepping stone
I will move into a house, tear down the fence
and plant flowers in half the yard.
Hepaticas, mukdenia, lilies of the valley
never seen behind the National Cemetery’s “Stay Off the Flowers” sign.
Yes, I will plant lilies of the valley I saw with awed eyes in Morundae,1
bougainvilleas that lived hard in Kazantzakis’ graveyard
oriental bittersweet growing rubies prettier than rubies.
I will also sow the mustard seed, the mother of the parable.
I will give the other half to grass, which will root by itself
and anonymous flowers that decide to stay after stopping by my minbak.2
Ants, grasshoppers, and curious birds will drop in
while species of bugs will live together.
Yes, give me a yard with which I can exchange my feelings
and a house where I can turn the stereo up as loud as I want
before my ears are exhausted!
With whiskey that was barreled in oak for thirty years
set on the corner of my bookshelf another thirty, reserved from the rest of the world,
gathering wine, makgeolli,3 and liquor, I will call my friends
and text those already gone if their phones still work,
and then I will have a party. That wish still holds valid.
Will it be valid?
The morning after the party, will the void appetite, moving at Mach 0
give strength so my body can endure?
This night for the first time in autumn the ginkgos start flight school
outside the east window
all the windows of the apartments opposite mine bloom at once
in the visual aroma of gold.
A superb scenic trail of golden windows immolating themselves at will!
I like this time of year most
in this apartment where I’m living now.
The meaning of “now” is hidden in “the most”
so is “emptiness” next?
I asked a withering flower about its health
at the building entrance a short time before.
The faded perfume hovering and disappearing in front of my nose
was the flower’s response. Emptiness?
Is the interior of a wish possession or emptiness?
transmute one by one from gold into darkness as sunshine withers
taking turns to pose a question.
Morundae. The fun of hiking there has sharply declined
since the county added a parking lot,
a food stall, restrooms, and straightened and widened the path;
violets and Asiatic dayflowers that once blocked my way are gone,
no trace of lilies that once tried to hide;
rock paths so slippery I had to focus my mind have vanished.
Born in April 1938, Hwang Tong-gyu graduated from the English Department of Seoul National University and went on to study at Edinburgh University in the UK. He was a professor at Seoul National University from 1968 until his retirement in 2003, and now he devotes his time to composing poetry. His father, Hwang Sun-won, was an established novelist. As a sophomore at Seoul University in 1958, the younger Hwang began writing poetry at the recommendation of poet Seo Jeong-ju. From the time of his first collection, One Clear Day (1961), until his most recent, Joy of Living (2013), Hwang has published fifteen books of poetry.
With each successive poetry collection, Hwang Tong-gyu has evoked a different response from his readers. From this we can see that he does not come to anchor at a specific place, but is always casting about in search of new directions. He pioneered his own distinctive style of love poetry and created a body of work that overturned the conventions of lyric poetry in his efforts to use concrete experience as the basis for comprehending the reality of human existence.
After he turned fifty, he devised a new poetic language through which he revealed new angles of perception as he tried to break free from conceptual language to better determine the truth of experience. Hwang’s different forays into the world of poetic expression are imbued with a deep love of people and the world. Even at the age of seventy-seven, he tirelessly continues his variegated poetic creations, releasing close to twenty poems a year. Even given his exalted position within Korean literary circles, it has been said that as Hwang Tong-gyu ages, his poems become ever more youthful.