A Song of Melancholy Youth: Black Leaf in My Mouth by Ki Hyongdo

  • onNovember 2, 2014
  • Vol.8 Summer 2010
  • byKang Gyesook
Black Leaf in My Mouth

The year 2009 marked the 20th anniver-sary of the death of Ki Hyongdo. Anthologies were published in his honor, and memorial services were held. It seemed that to those who gathered at a small café mourning him, Ki Hyongdo was more of a historical symbol representing an era, and the name of youth that was to be remembered forever, than a deceased poet. It’s not just a handful of readers who remember him this way. Twenty years after his death, Ki Hyongdo is one of the poets most beloved by Korean readers, especially the young.

Born in 1960, Ki Hyongdo died a sudden death at age 29 in a rundown theater in a big city. He published ingenious poems during his life as a journalist, but was unable to gain recognition in his lifetime. Black Leaf in My Mouth, published in 1989, is a posthumous collection. The collection, however, created a great sensation. It set an unprecedented sales record for a collection of poetry, and has sold over 400,000 copies thus far.

Why do Ki’s poems continue to be popular among the public today? First, the untimely death of the poet becomes one with his poems, becoming poetic in itself, a dramatic event. The physical death of the poet, however, is not the root cause that turned his poems into legend. His poems create a delicate inner space in which the melancholy lamentations of the youth, faced with the abyss of death, come together with a modern sensibility. His poems captivate the allusion of one’s fate and infect readers with an ominous silence with their gloomy tune, which brings to mind the darkness of modern civilization. In addition, they are laden with the sad modern history of Korea, with its past military dictatorship, and sharp criticism on the absurdity and corruption of the modern world that lie hidden in a big city.

The title piece, “Black Leaf in My Mouth,” illustrates the traces of massacre in this way: “That summer, people disappeared in heaps/ and reappeared suddenly before the silence of the shocked/ the streets overflowed with the tongues of the dead.” Such indiscriminate violence is depicted to have taken root even in daily life. The fear felt has its peak where the phantom of the dead is overlapped with confession: “I pass this wilderness, this twilight, for the first time/ I’m afraid of the black leaf sticking stubbornly in my mouth.” If the “black leaf” refers to the deaths of nature and humans, the “black leaf in my mouth,” a metaphor for a stiff tongue, signifies that the life of the silent is no different from death.

It’s not the poetic warning criticizing modern life alone that makes Ki Hyongdo a living, breathing poet today. He was a poet who sang of despair, not hope, in the midst of his youth, and felt the gloom of the streets to be the advent of death. The desperation of his poems rose from the scene where an era of history came to an end; it was a painful elegy dancing the dance of death, and a longing for truthfulness that refused all pretentious poses. His poetic language tells us that modern civilization, running towards an unpredictable future with its systemized power and its underlying hidden violence, and our souls, complacent in a sick reality and coming to ruin, are dying an even more miserable death. Unless the “mist” before us is dispelled, and unless the history of crisis that has continued in the “mist” is overcome, Ki Hyongdo will forever be remembered as a poet who embraced despair, born of an era as the fundamental pain of life; and his poems, unlike the poet who died young, will continue to carry on that fate.