If May Passes by Forgotten by Ko Un

Translated by Chae-Pyong Song and Anne Rashid
Narrated by Melanie Steyn

If May Passes by Forgotten by Ko Un

What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
One midnight in May martial law descended upon us.
We were beaten up like dogs and dragged in.
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
One day in May we rose up,
clenching a thousand-year-old anger, clutching empty hands, we rose up.
We ran to the fresh green street, our street,
to Kumnam-no, the street of liberation, to rise up.
We drove away the pitch dark night,
firing our hearts with democracy, people, and nation
against the division of treason
against the treason of forty years of fascism,
against the tank of martial law we rose.
Sing! Fight! Bury these ghastly bodies!
On this fresh green street, our street,
soon we fell down from bullets,
shedding blood.
We fell, spilling red blood–
collapsed corpses, we were dragged on and on,
covered by gray dust, covered by ash,
we were taken somewhere like dead dogs,
carried on the military trucks that rushed by.
Oh, Mangwol Cemetery is not the only place, the only place.
Seven hundred, eight hundred, or two thousand patriots
are still buried in unknown territory.
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
One day in May we fought to the end,
at Province Hall, in deserted back alleys,
we fought, stepping on the bloodstains of our dead comrades.
We fought proudly in the name of the Civilian Army of the Gwangju Uprising,
against foreign forces,
against compradors,
against the legacies of the Yushin dictatorial reform,
defending the lives of our land who could not be desecrated,
we died with punctured chests.
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
At dusk, in the street outside Province Hall, a high school student tore his clothes
and his cry echoed through the streets:
“my sister was murdered brutally and ferociously–
give me a gun. I can fight.”
Soon after, he too, was shot and killed.
“Your beautiful breasts chopped like tofu.”
Oh, young girls and pregnant women
were stabbed to death.
In the streets, back alleys, and dead ends
young men were killed and dragged away.
One day in May, on the street of democracy, people, and nation,
suddenly the savages descended:
the 20th Division of Yangpyong,
the Special Troop,
the 31st Division.
The martial law troops of the 7th Airborne, the 3rd Airborne, and the 11th Airborne broke in, randomly shooting M16 rifles,
crushing with their gun handles,
stabbing again and again with their fixed bayonets;
reeking of liquor, they shot to death even those who surrendered.
Oh, the screams of this Inferno ran over the streets, like waves.
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
Afterwards, the silence of the tremendous terror, like the steel grave,
extended over the living and the dead.
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
From death we had to start all over again.
Those who survived, even those who forgot their grief had to return
and start all over again in the street of death.
We have died and have no words.
We have lived and have no words.
We were jailed, gagged, without even the sky to look towards,
gnashing our teeth,
every heart filled with a thousand years of bitter resentment,
swallowing this time of shame.
Down the violated street military boots of the 5th Republic marched heavily.
After that May, we carried death on our backs.
One snowy day,
we first came out to Kumnam street and Chungjang street,
and shook one another’s hands once again:
“You are alive.” “You are, too.”
Then we ran to Mangwol cemetery and wept.
Since then we came together every year and rose up.
Over and over we identified the enemies hiding on the dark side,
blowing our hot breath and defrosting the windows.
The star spangled banner flies high over this land–
this land swarms with Japs.
Now Gwangju is not Gwangju—Gwangju is not only a place.
It is the heart of the history of this land.
So many people rose up in every street–
every town, people met whispering:
lives of workers have become lumps of coal,
cows are worth nothing, and farmers have swallowed pesticides and perished.
A taxi driver burned himself up.
Families have been asphyxiated by coal fumes.
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
College students set themselves on fire, falling like flowers,
and tens of others are ready to follow.
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
Billions of Won were spent on teargas, apple bombs, and other god-damn bombs,
which blew up in our eyes and made us blind,
or shocked our chests and we collapsed.
Those who threw a stone were dragged out and beaten up till they vomited blood.
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
The struggle for justice has not ended in the factories or the schools.
Even in prisons the struggle goes on for victory.
But in the cities of deception the flag of blood-ties waves strong,
Japan’s ruling party gleefully enters in and out,
like eunuchs who visit their in-laws.
Even the trash of the Yushin dictatorship has returned to take its part.
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
To break these foreign forces, these compradors, this betrayal,
to sweep up this division and this fascism,
to achieve our independence,
our equality, and our reunification,
to dance a dance of history,
let our bodies terribly rot,
buried deep in this history.
We will fight, dead.
We will fight, feverishly living.
So we live, out of breath.
Oh, May!
Oh, May!
Oh, May of the splendid, green, dazzling days!
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
On a day dense with teargas
we shed tears and cough.
The cuckoo sings; at night it sings mournfully.
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
Oh, dead fighters, friends,
a hundred years of struggle is not over yet.
We have to fight a hundred years more, friends.
We must fight on from generation to generation.
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
What will we do if May passes by forgotten?
No matter what, we will always unite again.
The scattered will meet again.
Blood-boiling May,
the month of struggle that shakes the whole body,
May, you are us.
United, we move on, breaking the waves of the ocean.
Although May has passed,
May is always alive in us.
We ourselves are May.
We are May.
We are May.
Shouts bursting from seven million of our people!
The masses of joy and embracing that will burst
from every corner of this land on that morning!
Oh, that’s our May. Liberation achieved from death.
that day, come quick!

Ko Un was born in Kunsan, Jeollabuk-do in 1933. As a recipient of numerous literary awards, Ko Un is one of the most famous contemporary poets in Korea. Since his debut in Hyondae Munhak in 1958, he has since produced over 120 literary works, including novels and critical writings. In 2010 he completed Maninbo, a now 30-volume poetry collection that had been published in installments over a period of twenty three years.

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