The Air Club & Other Poems

  • onSeptember 4, 2018
  • Vol.41 Autumn 2018
  • bySong Kyung-dong
I’m Not a Korean


The Air Club


When Kim Jin-suk broke the Guinness record with her hundreds of days of a high-altitude sit-in on crane number 85 in Busan’s YeongdoHanjin Heavy Industries, Park Jeom-gyu, who has many good ideas, suggested creating a “High Altitude Club.” His plan was that they should carefully select just one hundred people who, unable to live on level ground, had gone climbing up to a high altitude.

During the irregular workers’ struggle at Kiryung Electronics, I climbed up onto a mechanical digger, so I naturally assumed I would be a member, but I was excluded. When I protested that I had even fallen off while demonstrating and been taken to a hospital, I was told that I had only gone less than 5 meters up and that it was considered a travesty for a “High Altitude Club.” The fellow who climbed the highest was a temporary worker in Hyundai Hysco who had gone up 130 meters. If I was dissatisfied, I could organize a “Low Altitude Club.”

The reason for failing another candidate was really ridiculous. He had been hanging from the railings of a Han River bridge as an irregular at Bupyeong GM-Daewoo, then jumped into the river. “Hey, I covered more than 30 meters, so why exclude me?” The answer was a masterpiece: that had merely been empty air, not a high altitude. If he was dissatisfied, he could organize a separate “Air Club,” and everyone sniggered.

Thus, times that could not be considered without tears of blood came together to create a club of beautiful people that had never been able to exist on earth before.




The Day I Learned a Lesson


After I fell from a mechanical digger
I crawled back up, saying I wasn’t going to the hospital,
and spent seven hours in the tent,
a piece of wood wrapped in a handkerchief between my teeth.
Detectives from the information division came running belatedly,
worried they might lose their prey,
and remained lingering round the digger.

At midnight, preceded and followed by squad cars,
I was taken to a hospital in secret. My heel bone
was broken in bits like a biscuit.
It was so swollen they said they could not operate,
just gave me a painkiller, then I had to endure a whole day.
I was sorrier still at not having been able to continue the sit-in to the end.
It hurt more than I could endure,
but they said I had done my best.
Unable to sacrifice a school record or anything like other people
belatedly I had at least sacrificed one foot
and I promised that once I got out
I would be properly active.

But the goddam worst was still to come,
hiding black inside my body.
As part of the sit-in protest I had been fasting on and off
and now, for the first time in 20 days
the order came for me to empty my bowels
so I struggled onto my wheelchair alone and tried several times
but my stool, hard as a cannonball, would not come out
and my blood-gorged legs ached as if the stitches would snap.
Then, once opened up, like a stake pulled from the ground,
my behind, torn open, refused to close.
Oh, that struggle was a first for me,
that night spent writhing all alone, nose running, tears flowing.

For the first time
I came to learn what action is.
Real action is not done with the mouth
but with the behind,
it’s not done by a noble soul
it’s done by an aching, messy body.
As my anus was torn, that’s what I learned.

Ever since that day
I have never been able to say too glibly
that action should be done with one’s whole body.



Our Christmas

Thinking of Samsung Electronics irregular worker-martyr
Choi Jong-beom’s daughter, “Star”

Is there a road that leads to heaven?
Is there a road that leads straight there?
Can I get a ticket if I go to that Catholic church with its red ivy?
Will it be enough to go to that imposing fortress-like Protestant church and wait?

Can ten million irregulars go in as regulars?
Can a laid-off worker kicked out of the factory go in without a pass?
Can those evicted, and street vendors who keep getting carted off,
and immigrant workers, too, get in easily without discrimination?

Is there a road that leads to heaven?
They say Heaven’s a good place,
but do they practice real-estate speculation there?
If so, common folk like us won’t be able to go.

Is that road also blocked by police buses in rows?
Is that road too controlled by government power?
Are hired thugs camped along that road, too?
Without having to hang myself,
douse myself in oil, without gassing myself with a coal briquette,
or climbing up a watchtower or pylon and jumping off,
is there a road that leads to heaven?

I mean to say,
without picking up stones again,
without forming a scrum again,
is there a road that leads to heaven?


Note: “Working at a Samsung service center is too difficult. Too hungry to go on living, everyone having such a hard time that I cannot bear to look at them. So even though I cannot burn myself to death like Jeon Tae-il, I’ve made my choice. I only hope it will help.” On October 31, 2013, Choi Jong-beom, who had been working at the Cheonan Samsung Electronics service center, committed suicide with gas from a burning coal briquette. It was just a few days before the first birthday of his baby daughter, Star. To this day, Samsung, that so-called “leading company,” employs some 10,000 service engineers in its 160 service centers, all of them on an irregular basis without basic rights.




99% Versus 1%

A street-vendor in Greece,
fifteen-year-old Alexandros,
was killed by a bullet shot by the police. 
Red flowers bloomed throughout Greece.

In Tahrir Square, Egypt
Ahmed Hara walked about wearing
an eye-patch inscribed “January 29,”
the day he lost one eye.
Now he sits there with a patch over the other eye, 
inscribed “November 20,” the day he lost the other eye.

The gales of unemployment having affected
twenty-eight-year-old David in Madrid, Spain,
he sent his CV by mail
to 200 European companies
and in Korea a migrant worker from Vietnam failed the naturalization test 
because she could not sing the second verse of the national anthem.

On Wall Street, the heart of multinational finance 
the Occupy movement arose,
99% against 1%,
and across the globe in 1,500 cities in 80 countries 
international collective action was organized

With my neck and leg injured
I'm stuck in a Korean prison
in a solitary cell, unable to meet anyone, yet 
somehow I don’t feel that I’m living alone.



The Sea’s Interrogation Room

I hear there are people who work at night,
waves breaking beneath their feet as if calming them. 
I say I know nothing about it.

Tonight, too, there are turning lines, I hear,
waves from all sides opening mouths and biting. 
I say I do not know, do not know.

Tonight, too, people are being dragged away, I hear, 
waves rising abruptly, reaching their eyes,
so what about it?
I say that now I only want to forget it all.

Still all at a loss
as the waves strike my face,
I ask, What did I do wrong?
I just want to weep, rolling like gravel.

I pursue, saying I was a labor activist for 20 years. 
On a shore I visited without any dreams
that was the waves’ night-long interrogation.


Translated by Brother Anthony

Author's Profile

Song Kyung-dong has authored the poetry collections Sound Sleep, Answering Trivial Questions, and I’m Not a Korean. He has received the Shin Dong-yup Prize for Literature and the Cheon Sang-byeong Literary Award. In 2014, he was sentenced to prison for mobilizing what he called the “Hope Bus” movement in which some 200 buses swarmed the site of an industrial protest in a show of solidarity. He is part of the investigative committee examining the blacklisting of artists during the past two administrations in South Korea.