August marked the 60th anniversary of Korean independence from Japan. Both halves of the country, North and South, celebrated. Remarkably, the two governments joined in displaying the same banner: a profile of the entire peninsula, undivided. That logo, in light blue against a white background, appeared on banners, posters and T-shirts in both parts of Korea.
One of the fathers of the Korean independence movement was Manhae, an important figure not only in poetry but also in religion, culture and politics. An American poet reads with a gasp that Manhae, a monk who profoundly influenced Buddhist thought and practice, was also a coauthor of the Korean Declaration of Independence. As Han Yong-un, he was also a founding modern poet. So here are significant accomplishments comparable to those of Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, all credited to someone born in 1879, the same year as the American businessman-poet Wallace Stevens.
Manhae's poems are sometimes read allegorically; couched as love poems, they are traditionally interpreted as being about Korea as well. Here is "Cuckoo," from the volume of English translations recently published by Francisca Cho:
The cuckoo cries its heart out.
It cries and when it can cry no more,
It cries blood.
The bitterness of parting is not yours alone.
I cannot cry even though I want to.
I'm not a cuckoo, and that bitterness can't be helped either.
The heartless cuckoo:
I have nowhere to return, and yet it cries,
"Better turn back, better turn back."
Regret, exile, discomfort. Manhae dramatizes these feelings by the way his poem expels its own terms in a series of negations: "I'm not a cuckoo," "I have nowhere to return," "I cannot cry." The situation can be understood as personal, erotic, historical or all of the above, but always negation is near the expressive center.
Repeatedly in these poems, longing is expressed by the negative. "I haven't seen your heart" says the refrain of a poem called "Your Heart." "Don't," urges the refrain of "First Kiss." "It's not for nothing that I love you," declares "Love's Reasons." Even a poem of devotion has the refrain "Don't Doubt": "If you doubt me, then your error of doubt/ and my fault of sorrow will cancel each other." And here are some lines from "Don't Go":
That's not the light of compassion from Buddha's brow;
It's the flash from a demon's eyes.
That's not the goddess of love who binds body and mind,
and tosses herself into love's ocean, caring nothing
for crowns, glory or death;
It's the smile of the knife.
The refrain of that poem is "Turn around -- don't go to that place. I hate it."
The negative, in certain ways, is near the heart of poetry itself. By implication of tireless yearning, the art of poetry says to politics: No, you are not all there is, there is also the human body. To the human body, poetry implicitly dissents: No, you are not all there is, there is also spiritual yearning. And to spiritual yearning: No, you are not all there is, there is also sexual pleasure. And to sexual pleasure: No, you are not all there is, there is also politics.
In Manhae's poem "Come," images of a peaceful garden turn into images of death as a refuge. Here is the concluding stanza:
Come into my death, my death is always ready for you.
Should anyone chase you, stand behind my death.
In death, emptiness and omnipotence are one.
Love's death is at once infinite, everlasting.
In death, battleship and fortress become dust.
In death, the strong and the weak are companions.
Then your pursuer won't catch you.
Come, please come. It's time.
The power of death is a familiar, even conventional theme; the mingled calm and ferocity, intimacy and detachment of these lines make it new. In Cho's English renderings, these poems have the power to expand an American reader's notion of poetry. (Manhae's poems "Cuckoo," "Don't Go" and "Come," translated by Francisca Cho, can be found in "Everything Yearned For: Manhae's Poems of Love and Longing." Wisdom Publications. Copyright © 2005 by Francisca Cho.)