Asking the Way

You fools who ask what god is
should ask what life is instead.
Find a port where lemon trees bloom.
Ask about places to drink in the port.
Ask about the drinkers.
Ask about the lemon trees.
Ask and ask until nothing’s left to ask.

— Ko Un
(Trans. by Suji Kwock Kim and Sunja Kim Kwock)

Korean poet Ko Un joined the democracy movement in South Korea in 1972. As a result of his activism, he was imprisoned three times in the 1970s. In prison, he was beaten and tortured. In May 1980, during the military coup d’état led by Chun Doo-Hwan, he was arrested again, charged with treason, and sentenced to twenty years. He was released in 1982 as part of a general pardon. He was denied a passport until 1990.

[Research note: Nicholas D. Kristof, “Voice of Dissent in South Korea Speaks in Verse,” New York Times (July 31, 1987)]

The Condemned

Where people gather,
there are always gunshots.

Today, someone else
is publicly executed.

You should never sympathize;
Even if he’s dead, you must kill him again.

The proclamation is cut short.
“Bang bang,” the gun speaks.

Why is the silence of the crowd heavier today?

For the crime of stealing a sack of rice:
90 bullets.

And his extraordinary occupation?
A farmer.

— Jang Jin-Sung
(Trans. by S. N. Johnson-Roehr)

Jang Jin-sung (Jin-seong) was a state-appointed poet under Kim Jong-il in North Korea. In 2004, Jang defected to South Korea by way of China to escape arrest and probable execution for lending a forbidden book to a friend. He wrote this poem about a public execution he witnessed in his hometown.