Delights of Life

  • onMarch 28, 2017
  • Vol.35 Spring 2017
  • byHwang Tong-gyu
Delights of Life

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.
No floating clouds seen from the plateau;
green houses fill my eyes.
Ah, Morundae has been liberated from “Morundae”!
I wanted to get a house near there
and sometimes stop in stealthily when, while driving in Gangwon,
I feel less like living.
To let go of my troubles
climb the plateau in daytime and cast my eyes on nothingness
get more mosquito bites at night around a smudge pot—the long long dream—
Will it be alright not to be free from it?
Will there be no way to be free from it forever?



Five trees stand, toenails driven between gaps in rocks
a low straw-thatched hut behind them is empty.
Water spreads wordlessly wide behind as if flowing or not flowing
a gigantic mountain immaculate casts no shadow across the water.
So refreshing and lonesome the landscape4 of Ni Zan, a Yuan Dynasty artist,
was where I wanted to stroll as if I were a mountain sage
leaving all behind me after waiting for the traffic light to seclusion to turn green.
As I study this painting again today, I realize
I had never entered the landscape before,
just looked for people and animals,
a meadow bunting flying.
If I wish to enter, must I leave even my shadow behind?

Leaving the book I am reading exactly as is,
forgetting where I left my cell phone,
should I sling a jug of kaoliang5 from my hip
and row slowly after untying the boat hidden at the waterside?
I would aim for the opposite shore,
but since the mountain is large and life giving
should I just drift around, tossing feelings and dreams overboard
with an empty mind and time out of mind?

The wind rises. At once herds of clouds swarm from place to place
water columns soar here and there, twisting torsos,
a blazing sun transparent as ice rolls to the center of the sky.
Trees with toenails into rock sway like tongues of fire
birds with sharp beaks shriek and gather.
The end of a life that should be closed, emotion and imagination thrown away
how could it not be fierce!
Ni Zan, if discarding pain and yearning is the path
to live immortal in the mountain,
then I fall short, stammer in this place
where children’s laughter is sometimes heard.
The delights of life are trivial and itch like insect bites
I’ve tried and tried to escape but cannot
so please forgive me.



1 There are s eve ra l locations called Morundae (“invisible plateau in the clouds”) in South Korea; this poem refers to the Morundae in Gangwon Province.
2 Minbak are traditional inexpensive, no-frills lodging for travelers or tourists.
3 Makgeolli is a traditional Korean low-alcohol drink made from rice or wheat.
4 “The Rongxi Studio,” (1372).
5 Kaoliang is sorghum liquor.







The End of Boyhood


It was maybe the second autumn since the government resumed after the war,
an evening with air like a fully-drawn bow.
Zinnias withered beneath the wall
fallen leaves rolled and rustled amid
droopy-headed asters.
A guest is coming, kill a chicken, said my mom
and handed me a knife as I went to the coop.

Among the chickens scurrying every which way, I grabbed the one
Mom selected, a young cock with a vivid comb,
and knelt in front of the masses of zinnias to draw the knife across his neck
at that moment, like Rodin’s John the Baptist, his body walking
with his half-severed head flopping against his neck,
he squirmed out of my grasp and escaped, flapping with all his might;
we made several breathless turns together around the narrow yard.

I caught the chicken by his neck in front of the zinnias and
a fluttering light flared in my hands
diminished, darkened, dimmed, then flickered briefly to reignite;
it was gone.
Exhausted, I wanted to slump weakly to the ground,
but resisted. Sensing mom’s eyes aimed at the back of my head,
I wanted to turn around, but clenched my teeth and resisted.




Translated by YoungShil Ji and Daniel Todd Parker

Author's Profile

Hwang Tong-gyu is a professor emeritus at Seoul National University and chairperson of the literature department at the National Academy of Arts. He was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley and NYU, and participated in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. He has received the Lee San Literature Prize, Daesan Literary Award, Midang Literary Award, and Eungwan Order of Cultural Merit. His books of poems have been translated into English, German, French, and Spanish.