Microreview: Ko Un, Ten Thousand Lives
May 4, 2006
May 4, 2006
1 Min read time
Poems chronicling the lives of everyone the poet had ever come into contact with.
Ten Thousand Lives
Ko Un, translated by Brother Anthony of Taize, Young-moo Kim, and Gary Gach
Green Integer, $14.95 (paper)
Sentenced to life imprisonment for opposing South Korea’s military dictatorships in the 1970s, the poet Ko Un decided to write a series of poems chronicling the lives of everyone he had ever come into contact with. This Green Integer paperback, with a wonderful introduction by Robert Hass, brings together a selection of these portraits, most of them about a page in length. But the most striking portrait is the first: a photograph of Ko Un himself, whose expression of implacable and jolly fortitude sets the tone for the collection. Alert, bracing, immediate, and folksy, Ten Thousand Lives is a gathering of people—mostly village folk—that does not discriminate between riffraff and bigwigs. The exclamatory and often tinny voice of the speaker is never brutal, but consistently achieves a brightness of tone that exceeds clarity and teeters on the brink of the surreal. In “The Wife from Kaesari,” the culturally situated restraint of a village woman is treated to such brightness: “Knowing no eloquence in her lifetime, / she was incapable of any decent last words. / She was more or less heard to say / the lid of the soy-sauce jar up on the terrace / ought to be opened to the daylight / and also, it seems, / that the lining in father’s jacket ought to be replaced.” There is no way of getting around the deeply moral impulse that governs these compositions, but a poem like this one doesn’t allow judgment to be its focus. Conscience, especially in the earlier poems, acts more as a structural principle than one that makes the poet—or the persons he memorializes—reflective. Meeting a handsome murderer in jail, Ko Un writes, “That bright smile / those graceful movements / undoubtedly the star in some movie / only it was as if somewhere in his life / the seed of that dreadful act had sprouted / and grown up, taking his body for humus.” Indeed, each person in Ten Thousand Lives seems both excruciatingly present and terrifyingly absent. More than, or at least different from, a collection of poems in the traditional sense, Ten Thousand Lives is an uncanny testament to the brutalities of history and a nervy attempt to remind us that individuals are worth dignifying.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
May 04, 2006
1 Min read time