Translated by Jake Levine
A CITY OF SADNESS
since I can’t be buried with everyone side by side, here I record the rule of my death
Have you ever whistled at a girl on a rainy street?
No matter how good you whistle, a human is a type of sheep that won’t come. Speaking from experience, you shouldn’t whistle at your mom. Don’t whistle at the battalion commander. Never whistle at the nurse to stop. These are the details of how I arrived here. The feeling of slowly becoming music is something nobody else can know. It’s a lonely thing. Lonely people whistle lots. If the sun rises and the book shuts, I go to the corner of the garden filled with trees and, like a milk cow, I slowly munch the grass of thought.
I am in exile. Whether in a memory or the distant future, I am in exile.
If you are exiled from humanity, you can easily become diseased. I know my death will be accompanied by severe agony. I will die here writhing in pain. Huns, Scythians, Magyars, Gokturks, Uyghurs, or Mongols like Turkmen are all nomadic people. All their lives they live in exile. The main principle of their life is to go where they please. Part of the order of their life is to remember the light that fades in the eyes of the beasts they raise. At daybreak many were born. At dawn many died.
In my previously life I was not human. I was music. My favorite music is composed of the man who composed me. In his past life he was a man, but he was reborn as music. Whenever I listen to the sound of that music, I repeat my previous life like I am living this life in the past. So again I slowly become music. This is my story.
Music is also a premonition. The alchemy that composes the self is made of a music you haven’t yet heard. However, that music is also the thing that is closest to your being. Just now I had a premonition of a time that flew past my side. Whenever I think these kind of thoughts my mind becomes music, and while I drink the music that is called water in a cup, in a far Spanish field my thought grazes on the hair of a herd of sheep.
Will the moment ever arrive when I can acknowledge my entire being? I said I’m thirsty. While living with you I spoke just 8 times.
The sandfly born on a rainy day only knows a world filled with rain. Then it dies. On a rainy day, as soon as the fetus is born, it is thrown in the sewer thinking to itself that the world is a sewer of death. That’s only human. On the side of a hill the mother of the fetus looks into the sky while she washes the blood out her womb in the rain. The sun rises. Ants take the umbilical cord that stretched between the mom and the fetus and haul it into the ground. I pull out my binoculars and closely observe. After the rain, if you put your ear to the moist ground you can hear the Gospel of Luke. I listen to the evening worship of the ants. I skip dinner.
The thing that allowed me to endure this long is a thing I can no longer endure. To not understand these things, an announcement: there is no intimacy between the time I lived and me.
The time I lived was a secret alcohol no one has ever tasted. Easily, I got wasted on that milieu’s name.
Childhood is the renaissance of life. If I were a muslim, I would bow to the Mecca called childhood six times a day. When I was a child I almost drowned in the reservoir. In that moment of almost death I experienced many feelings at the same time. Drowning in the middle of the water, I saw the light distancing itself from me. Can you imagine? Afterward, I stopped going to school. Instead I went to the middle of the water and spread out my palms and picked up dead birds and recollected that moment of pleasure, feeling close to death. When I entered middle school I couldn’t remember the taste of my mother’s milk. At daybreak, to remember, I bit my mother’s tits.
My pain doesn’t have subtitles. Unreadable.
In all pictures there remains a bit of the air leftover from the time each person lived. Like in any warm greeting a cheerful mold blooms, the facial expression flowing into the photo used for your obituary is the same air you are breathing now. While looking at someone’s obituary photo, if you feel remote, it is not because you are feeling the person in the picture, but that the pictured person is feeling you, trying to remember this place. And so this is the place where his effort is delivered, but I wonder, what kind of air will flow in the photo of my obit? With this thought, my two eyes become red air.
From inside the picture I get dizzy looking at myself on the outside.
Time difference. Time lag.
The moment I think I am dead, it is like I can’t even remember my face.
Because we need a lot of death, I am walking into an order that even you cannot see.
The candle in my room burns up all the air in my eyes.
A candle light can’t stand in another light. This is why candle light burns only at night.
I believe there is a planet that shares my birth and death, a planet that shares the same lifeforce as me. 1976—? That is my ether.
While I masturbate, I age thousands of years.
While I masturbate, I am a sad civilization called myself.
If we warmly embrace and suddenly die, thousands of years will pass and we’ll be fossilized. Our descendants will touch us and feel strange. In its rough and hard texture the sadness of the fossil cannot be expressed. This is my wrath. After thousands of years, when people touch us, I will be a stone flowing with tears. That’s the savage custom that exists between us.
The speed of memory is faster than the speed of light.
Breaking up with a lover is like suicide. Like being ripped apart from everything you were accustomed to. The reason you fear the afterlife is that it is absent from everything I love. In a strange place, sleep won’t come. Sleeping in a strange place is like one night in hell. Because a person is not different than the life he lived, breaking up is like an act of suicide. My friend Kahn said it like this, sometimes that moment arrives faster than the speed of light.
Wind passes the face of a page and leaves. The eastern wind is reticent. Anxiety is a straightforward expression for the self. Daily I receive an injection like eastbound wind.
Last night I came out the base to exhume a grave with my military friends. When the shovel touched the skull, it reminded me of a camel—a camel that collapsed like sand across the desert. After about 4 kilometers it began to smell human. We grilled a bone we found in the grave and told fortunes. The body belonged to the age of the empire of Un. The body wrote poems. The body was a painter who wandered the world painting cliffs. Nowhere can be found a map that expresses the exile of a dream.
If grave robbing our inner self is what we call a dream, then it is possible that everyone is sentenced to a prison called their dreams. Even though they know it is dangerous, everytime people visit their dreams they erect a tombstone. They bring with them an epitaph called memory, place it in the ground, and it becomes history.
Memory is the second life of humans. Because all memory is handicapped, we must wait. Memory is a thing we cannot possess.
Right now the sky is a pink stream. Like Sunday worship, every evening people in the hospital open their windows and dump a sunset in their heart. Written while staring at sunsets through the bars of the penitentiary window, no poetry is more beautiful than the death row inmate’s memoir. That’s because it is the music of human death. I once confessed that Beethoven is the sound of music that plays out of the dead. Beethoven didn’t compose music. Beethoven was music. What he recorded was only his desperation.
Humans are either born and become ghosts or are born as ghosts who don’t know they are dead already. This I believe. The ghost that doesn’t know it’s a ghost disappears without knowing that it disappeared.
I dedicate my primitivism to music. I want to write a poem that begins like that.
Before their death, a vampire couple whose fate was that they couldn’t see the light of day crawled and embraced underneath the sun, shattering to pieces. To see just one fragment of light, all that blood was necessary.
No matter what they say, I’ve lived thousands of nights.
I was born at night (True) and I was raised at night (True) and I wrote poetry at night (True) so from just this fact, from the earth I must be remote (False) A=A-
You can’t see the poet’s star from earth. However, you can watch the earth from the poet’s star.
My mother’s brother stuck a handful of earthworms in his Sprite and chugged it down and said “I’m from Jupiter.” Even today, if we go to Baek Hospital in Naju my uncle is still throwing the individually wrapped packets of Asian medicine my great aunt gave him in the sewer saying “These are going to kill me.” As soon as my uncle turned 40 he scarily became the kind of person that only devours food. He told me the only thing he learned after he came to earth is whistling. My uncle, who entered Chonnam University’s astronomy department ranked #1, was a person that whistled well. When I was a kid, after we watched Robocop 2, I have a memory of us in the bathroom side-by-side peeing together like Robocop.
Every morning when I open my eyes I grab my dry crotch in pain. If I get rid of the suspicion called my dreams, then, in a general sense, I am innocent. There’s no reason why I have to be here. While I am having this thought, I walk around the corridor and it’s like the end of my life. “Sonuvabitch, did you call your mom?” In my military unit, my beautiful junior # 99-71002665 got his ear exploded after he called his mom to request a visitation. Ever since that day, no matter who he’s talking to, he lies.
On a moonlit night while I was sitting on the sill of the dormitory window, an unfathomably beautiful girl who nibbled and ate soap was delivered to the room beside me. That girl turns into a rat every night. When she was discovered in the sewer like a rat no one gave her mouth-to-mouth. Between the white of her revealed waist and the white ankle, a jungle of black hair. Her pants, now soaked, could no longer conceal that atrocity. Her face was egg white and she was shi-shi-shivering. Like a rumor, even the power of her beauty could not overshadow the color and texture of the thick hair on her thighs.
My room is too small to call for more flocks of lamb. My drawers and wardrobe are stuffed with sheep. All my sheep have webbed feet.
I believe that one day if I pop my retina like a cork, thousands of canisters of film will roll out my eyes. Because no light enters the inside of my eyes, this is where the film is alive. Because they are a deep, dark castle, light pains the eyes. In the morning I don’t open the curtains. My room is always dark.
I have never played with those who don’t fly kites in a sky frozen stiff.
I don’t sing with people that know more than 100 religious hymns.
I don’t do business with those who have memorized their parent’s national registration number.
They are the kind of people that won’t fulfill their filial piety.
A person who has masturbated to the fiery prologue of Rilke knows this
love is entering the castle of your lover and writing there for your entire life. It’s true—I have never tried to live that way.
As far as I know, my friend Kahn said that in his novel he would use sorcery in order to save his lover. Every day Kahn lived his life like a scream. Poetry is what we called the mistakes we made in our lives spoiled with desperation. It’s been a long time since I visited Kahn’s yurt. There have been several times after waking in the same room as Kahn that I’ve wanted to strangle him. Proof of our lives was that we could feel pain, however, pain was not something that could exonerate us. After we admitted this fact, we felt wonderful. Kahn and I have a habit of sleeping crouched like hermaphrodites. If we wake up under the blanket like the leaf of a cabbage, then together we become SAM. Without crime, reality is a police report we live by writing everyday. Stuck together, side by side, we crouch our heads and file the report. If I say it like this I feel guilty.
Maktoob! Memory of the pyramid, stand firm!! Whatever I am, if I dig wrecklessly I am sure to be buried. If you decipher the entirety of your memory, immediately, you have to escape. Immediately after, the stone will crack. The wall will fall. Because everything will collapse, my spiritual station scares me.
The people exiled inside a time I cannot know send me a floating letter made of wind. On nights when sleep won’t come I open the window and under the bed I read the letter that arrives. In the lobby the girl would like to see the calendar. The wind that is the letter that flies inside and inflates the girl’s gown, from where does it originate?
Whenthemoonwasfull,alone,thegirldeliveredababyattheentranceofthestairs.WhenIquietlyapproachedthe girl,shewassoexhaustedshecouldn’tmove.Becauseitwassodark,shecouldn’trecognizemyface.Limplyinherhandhungafruitknifethatshecutherumbilicalcordwith.Iwasashadowthatapproached,andsheliedholdingashadowIhaveneverseen.Thebabydidn’tcry.Embracingthebabyinmyarms,Islowlywalkedtowardmyroom.ForaminuteshestretchedherhandouttowardsomethingIcouldn’tsee,andmumbledsomethingintheAltaic language,thenshequietlybegantotouchmyshadowhanginginthereflectiononthewall.Insteadofhermother’smilk,Ifedthebabyitsmother’sblood.Atdawn,thecow’steet.Andfromthebaby’sbodyradiatedthescentof lilac.Toavoidtheeyesofothers,inthemorningIswallowthebabybyitshead,atnightIvomitthebabyup.Atnight Ifeedthebabywiththeteetofarat.Inthedaytimethebabysleepsinsidethecaveofmybodyhangingupsidedownlikeabat.AtnightIrecitemypoetrytothebaby.Mybaby’seyesgoblind.WhenmybabygrewupIgivemybabythesoulofaseagullandmybabyborrowsthebodyofahorseandrunstothegreenpastureinsidethecalendar.Beforemybabyleftme,itsaidmypoetrywasbelowfreezing.IwassadsoItriedtolearnMongolaftermybabyleft,butsoongaveupaftersnowthatfelloutthecalendarfrozetheroom.
Like a sword that leaves a flash while finding the direct path to the bone, tears are what melt from the glacier of the self. If you want to be cold, first you have to learn to be warm when you swim. Because the sword is both hot and cold, it can glide to a far place. Although the tears that flow out from my body are warm enough to the cut the mind of a stranger, because the tears that flow inside my self cut within me, they are cold. Tears are a species of fish rotting inside the self.
The sky flows like Scholasticism. All clouds are the third wave. The wind is as strong as Bacardi 151. Trees are as quiet as a Romanian legend. The forest is as silent as an out-of-date gynecologist. The fog is illogical, the sun is praxis and the lake is cynical. The pill I have to swallow is Francis Baconish And the existence I haven’t experienced is still equal to my future And I pray better better than Hegel And my prayer is more metaphysical than Hegel’s prayer And the stone staircase is colder than sergeant Lee who was electrocuted to death in Jinhae harbor in June 1999. God is not allowed to embrace concepts And even though I wasn’t born in Copenhagen While listening to music called Copenhagen I am Copenhagen And because I am irrational I can’t explain anything I believe in And because I can’t explain I write And in order not to explain I cry And what I can’t explain will be my inheritance. I am a foreign tongue nobody knows, so those who say they can properly say my name and communicate with me are only deceiving themselves. I was wounded by sorrow and I was tortured by poverty and I was assassinated by religion and I survived by touching sergeant Rim’s penis every night. Instead of continuing my life like that, everday I committed suicide by poetry, and I seduced beauty with poetry.
I cut the throat of another mosquito that spispispit in my room. There is a Chinese legend of achieving longevity by eating the brain of a mosquito that I believe in, so I collected the heads of mosquitos inside a bottle and placed it in front of the girl’s door. Through the keyhole, I had the feeling that the girl watched my back.
If I die, make sure you dissect my body. As is hearsay, if you cut open my chest, there are millions of people floating in blood.
There are several poems I want to kill.
Because I wrote a very beautiful poem, I want to kill a poem and because all poetry is so beautiful, there is a poem I want to kill. The life of a poet who is sympathetic to shame must become a book and the book, a hospital made of the self.
That is my poem.
All poets are prisoners of war lost by God. However, all prisoners of war are professional prisoners.
The only ability I have is the ability to be different than you. The reason I write “I lost!” is not only because I can’t win. The reason I live here is because I am different than you. This is a thing that seems very important to you.
I know that while I sleep, from outside the window thousands of red eyeballs look down at me.
In the night I slept after I exhausted my fingers I understood that the self that completely escaped my body mounted my belly and plucked out my eyes. In order not to be robbed, I developed a habit of not opening my eyes until late in the morning. When the self that completely escaped the body goes back inside, when I feel a river of blue blood flow between the floor and my back, at that exact moment, I open my eyes just barely.
I am a soldier fighting in a war without countries. I know the climax is in July.
Because I was born in July, while I listen to the music of July I will die. My will consists of a single line of poetry called “myself” that I wrote on the surface of July. If I die, all the Julys of the world will be buried at sea.
This is how I feel.
Hundreds of miles away, tears flow from the statue of Maria.
Hundreds of miles away, a man hit by a car on the ground slowly closes his eyes.
Hundreds of miles away, air shoots out the tires of a hearse.
In a swamp hundreds of miles away, a zebra slowly enters the alligator’s mouth.
On a power line hundreds of miles away, in between the birds, one person sits, burying his head into his wings.
Inside a window hundreds of miles away, at the moment the writer finished writing his book, he let out his final breath.
Hundreds of miles away, the angel of death rides here on the subway and hundreds of miles away, nervously pacing back and forth in the living room, a mom wants to get rid of a visiting son who figured out the truth of his birth.
In front of the gate of an alley hundreds of miles away someone like myself hangs about
and today, music is like a play.
One night I dreamt a dream.
In the dream, from a distance, a group carrying a coffin came toward me while I sat next to some lake. However, strange enough, the people carrying the coffin began to enter the cold, blue water of the lake. For sure, if they entered the lake, they would all die. I, while feeling inexplicable horror, shouted “Don’t do it!” However, they couldn’t hear me. No matter how hard I screamed, my voice could not pierce through the music that spread out from them like a smell. One by one while they were buried in the water, I suddenly had a realization: the people entering the water that were carrying the coffin all had same face as my own. Well, almost the same. They had my face, but all the eyes were missing pupils. But then, I wondered, in the coffin whose body was laid? I ran and ripped away the flowers covering the coffin. I pulled up the lid. There, laid to rest, was my mom. Like the root of a single tree she lay stiff without voice. Instead of her head, my head rest in the arms of my decapitated mother’s corpse. My face had my mother’s smile. Outside the lake, a group of people were crying. For the first time in my life I heard myself cry out of a stranger’s mouth.
Kim Kyung Ju is one of the most decorated and popular younger writers in South Korea. He writes poetry, poetic dramas, plays, essays, and translates poetry and fiction from English into Korean. He opened up an independent school for aspiring word artists. It is called Penguin Rhyme. His first book of poems I AM A SEASON THAT DOES NOT EXIST IN THE WORLD was translated into English and just came out with Black Ocean.
Jake Levine is working on his PhD in comparative literature at Seoul National University (but will he ever finish?). He is the foreign correspondent for Spork Press. He dabbles in translation theory.