Pale Shadows of Old Love

  • onNovember 16, 2014
  • Vol.23 Spring 2014
  • byKim Kwang-Kyu
Pale Shadows of Old Love


We met at five in the afternoon –
late in the year of the April Revolution –
clasped hands in glad greeting,
sat in a cold, unheated room,
frosted the air in heated discussion.
We were foolish enough to believe
we would live for something,
something divorced from politics.
The meeting ended without resolution. That night
we downed large bowls of grog in Hyehwa−dong Rotary
and wrestled innocently with the problems of
love, part-time jobs, and military service.
Each of us sang at the top of his lungs:
songs no one listened to,
no one imitated.
We sang without thought of profit:
our songs rose in the winter sky
and fell as shooting stars.
Eighteen years later we put on ties
and gathered again. We were something now:
we were the new generation, afraid of the revolution.
A sub of 10,000 won was collected.
We inquired about wives and children,
asked each other how much we earned,
worried at the rising cost of living,
gladly deplored the state of the world,
gossiped in expertly modulated voices.
No one sang. We left a goodly amount of drink
and expensive side-dishes,
noted changed phone numbers and parted.
Some went to play poker,
some went to dance,
and some of us walked the streets of Tongsung−dong
with empty hearts.
We had come back after long wanderings,
rolled calendars tucked importantly under our arms,
back to where old love once bled.
A few unfamiliar buildings interposed suspiciously,
but the roadside plane trees were in their wonted places.
The few remaining desiccated leaves
made us bow our heads.
Aren’t you ashamed,
aren’t you ashamed?
The wind whispered around our ears.
Deliberately we talked middle-aged health
and took another step deep into the swamp.


* Translated by Kevin O’Rourke
** First published in Looking for the Cow: Modern Korean Poems (Dedalus Press, 1999). Reprinted with permission from the author and translator.

Author's Profile

Kim Kwang-Kyu grew up amidst the turmoil of the Korean War and its aftermath. He was born in 1941 in Seoul, and was a student at the time of the 4.19 Revolution in 1960. Kim studied German at Seoul National University as well as in Germany. He first developed his poetic voice by translating German poetry into Korean, including satirical works by Heinrich Heine, Bertolt Brecht, and Günter Eich, before ever beginning to write his own poems. He only began to publish poetry in 1975, when he was already in his mid-30s. Owing nothing to standard Korean poetic models, his work enjoyed immediate popularity as a model of new poetics for the new age that began in earnest with the assassination of the dictator Park Chung-hee in 1979.

Less than a week after Kim Kwang-Kyu’s first volume of poetry, The Last Dream to Drench Us, was published, the life of Park Chung-hee was brought to a violent end. Following this, Kim’s book was actively censored in the subsequent security clampdown, which only served to give it legitimacy as a work of resistance. For almost the first time in Korean literary history, a poetic voice characterized by satirical humor was speaking out, pointing its arrows at the evils of dictatorship and the wretchedness of modern city life in subtle, understated ways. Kim’s other early collections, written during the ensuing military dictatorships, include poems that refer indirectly to the brutality of the regimes, which delighted young readers capable of grasping their hidden meaning.

In his work, Kim Kwang-Kyu is not interested in celebrating directly the beauties of nature, in part at least because he is very aware of the way human pollution has ruined them. He is one of the first Koreans to express alarm over looming ecological disaster. The voice of his poems often inspires a sardonic smile, but it is important to recognize in his work as a whole a deeply humanistic viewpoint. Kim Kwang-Kyu never speaks to draw attention to himself, but rather to raise questions about the way life is lived, or not lived, in today’s world. Kim Kwang-Kyu is still almost unique among Korean poets. He writes about topics that should make us want to weep in a way that often makes us smile.