The Art of Emptiness: Love of a One-Eyed Fish by Ryu Shiva

  • onNovember 3, 2014
  • Vol.18 Winter 2012
  • byKim Yonghee
Love of a One-Eyed FIsh

The poems of Ryu Shiva are devoid of color and smell. They are like drinking a bland but subtle tea from East Asia. Although there doesn’t seem to be any fragrance, the last drop leaves a lingering scent as it goes down one’s throat. His poems offer an innocent joy that is akin to the birth of a new vowel that is created by the hidden meaning in his verses.

The proposition that, “There is that which is Oriental,” could carry a subversive undertone, for it suggests an ideological dichotomy. Even if one does not apply the analysis that is entailed by Professor Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” since modernity the polarization of East/West has persisted throughout the world for a long time. This polarization extends to “civilization/barbarian” and “modern/pre-modern” and has been the basis of consistent discrimination and division.

Notwithstanding all of this, when one talks of Ryu’s poetry, there is that indescribable “fundamental” that can only be referred to as son (dhyāna) Buddhist Enlightenment, an “Eastern” intuition that is embedded in his simple and succinct aphorisms and his wondrous discoveries from everyday life.

The first anthology by Ryu, I Miss You Even When You Are by My Side (1993), and his second anthology, Love of a One-Eyed Fish (1996) were both very much beloved by readers in Korea. They have sold over a million copies. His third collection of poems, called My Wound Is a Stone, Your Wound Is a Flower became the number two bestseller on the list of all books sold at Kyobo Bookstore in Korea within 10 days of its publication. In view of the fact that works of literature, particularly poetry, do not sell many copies, it is an astounding achievement. The reason why Ryu’s poems are loved by the public is his awareness of the simple and direct life. And that is closely related to the Eastern concept of “emptiness” (Śūnyatā). The process of emptying oneself, which is different from the idea of “void,” is really about looking into the essence of one’s self. Just as a follower of Buddhism could attain the Tao through a type of meditative practice, Ryu the poet uses scars, yearning, and sorrow as a departure for self-introspection.

In order to forget the world,
I went up to the mountain
But the water is flowing down
Toward the world
Like there is something to toss
As though there is something that must be tossed
I alone am going up the mountain

Like there is something to fill
As though there is an empty place that needs to be filled
The water keeps going down
To the world below

Now is the time to close the outer door to yearning
To close my eyes,
To go inside myself
To gaze at the sparkling water
Undulating in that empty space.

From “Now’s the time to close the outer door to yearning,” “filling” and “emptying” surely must be the two most important acts of our lives. In order to empty himself of everything, Ryu is ascending the mountain whereas the water is flowing down the mountain where there is something to fill. It is about the meditative truth of how one needs to empty out one’s self in order to fill it, and that what has been filled needs to be emptied out again. As part of a philosophical and spiritual journey, the poet poses questions about the most fundamental things in our lives.

The simple and transparent nature of his poems, which are the poet’s inquiry into truth, serve as a mirror for the readers to look into themselves.