Saturday, March 18, 2006

I Do Not Know

Whose footprint is that paulonia leaf
That drops softly, rousing ripples in the windless air?

whose face is that blue sky
Glimpsed between the threatening, dark clouds
Blown by the west wind after a long rain?

Whose breath is that fragrance in the sky
Over the flowerless tree, over the old tower?

Whose song is that bickering stream
That quietly flows, starting from nowhere
And making the stones weep?

Whose poem is that evening glow
That adorns the fading day,
Its lotus feet standing on the endless sea,
And its jade hands patting the sky?

Burnt ashes become fuel again.
My endlessly burning heart,
Whose night does this
Flickering lamp illumine?

...Yong-Woon Han (1879-1944)
(translated by Chi-Hwan Yu)

Two additional translations of I Don't Know can be found at Pilgrim Priest, an attractive blog about the journey of life.

This poem was the catalyst for a major dance work by Kim Myung-sook which premiered in Seoul, October 2005, and has been officially recognized for its contribution to Korean cultural life. Kim's dance company, Nulhui, has explored Korean cultural values and aesthetic ideas with stunning success in the past and has projected its work through performances incorporating ancient practices and modern technology. Kim's new work will be described in a later blog, but for now, the poem speaks from its time to ours. Han was a Korean Zen Buddhist whose poetry provides a legacy in the context of the resistance to Japan's occupation of Korea.

The poem's shifting images raise questions of identity, ownership, and belonging. At first we might think we are being led into meditation that awakes us to the source of Being. But there are disturbing images "threatening, dark clouds...the flowerless tree...the old tower...the stones weep...burnt ashes..." This is much more than meditation. There is a confrontation that emerges from the stillness. The past is recycled and renewed, and a core of being burns endlessly, while a flickering lamp illumines the night, but just whose night is this? This emergence of the underlying Korean spirit denying the subjugation of foreign occupation is an eloquent image. Inside is the "endlessly burning heart," the passion and identity of the Korean psyche, while outwardly the lamp may illumine, but its light is flickering... perhaps ebbing ... perhaps yielding to the spiritual intensity within.

The poem celebrates the timeless Korean environment: the "paulonia leaf...the blue sky...the dark clouds...the west wind...the long rain...the stream...the stones...the evening glow...the lotus...the endless sea...the night..." the quiet and awesome wonder anticipated by the title, I Do Not Know.

Who owns this night? Whose footprint...whose face...whose breath...whose song...whose poem...whose night...? these images silently tear the soul...

Underneath the text, the poet seems to be asking Have we forgotten who we are? The underlying answer to each question is that these all belong to and emanate from the Korean Spirit.

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