The Tongue by Moon Tae-jun

Translated by Chae-Pyong Song and Darcy Brandel

The Tongue by Moon Tae-jun

Woken up at dawn
the thought of Mother who is ill
cuts me

As a child
when a speck blew into my eye,
Mother cleaned her mouth with cold water
and licked
my eyeball
my soul
with the softest flesh
with her tongue

And when I dozed on and off
while tending  the burning fire hole
in her eyes
fire flashed with worry
from the hole to the chimney

Celebrating the seventh day of the seventh month
she prayed tenderly with both hands
becoming a stone Buddha
The stone Buddha now sits
as her eyeballs

In what life
not inheriting the life from her
could I become an indifferent
fine-tooth comb for her hair?

In what life
could my tongue
wash out
her stone eyeball?

Slowly stretching out my neck to her
I cried and cried
The wet morning

moontaejunphotoMoon Tae-jun (1970-) has published four collections of poetry: Chattering Backyard (2000), Bare Foot (2004), Flatfish (2006), and Shadow’s Development (2008) as well as other essays and commentary. One of the most popular poets of the younger generation, Moon uses deceptively simple poetic language with profound lyricism, commenting on the struggle of daily life. Grounded in Buddhist philosophy, his poems speak with reverence for all forms of life and emphasize the necessity of emptying oneself. Moon is a recipient of many prestigious awards, including the Dongseo Literature Award (2004),  the Midang Literature Award (2005), and the Sowol Poetry Award (2007).

Mother Still Wears Flowery Underwear by Kim Kyung-ju

Translated by Chae-Pyong Song and Anne Rashid

Photography by Hye Hyon

Mother Still Wears Flowery Underwear by Kim Kyung-ju

Only as I hang out the laundry
after returning to my hometown
do I realize that Mother still wears red flowery underwear.
One snowy day, she kept me near her
as she diligently chose underwear for her family
from a cart at the market.
As the speaker boomed
into the expansive sky, ample like her bottom,
Mother picked up a pair of light panties
and rubbed the warm cotton on her cheek
till the fabric became a damp red.
The flower pattern that she rubbed with her fingertips
made Mother still feel alive as a woman.
Today, cheeks flush with the memory of that red flower pattern.
As Mother proved whenever she started over again
with her newly washed underwear,
those flowers won’t wither easily,
just as the underwear in the market was still new
no matter how many handled it.
Onto her hanging underwear, one by one
a few flying snowflakes descend and gently take on the red color.
From the wrinkled flowers, a clear flower water drops, drip drip—
a pair of Mother’s old panties
that might have felt shy within the drawer
next to a snowball-sized moth ball.
Into the mossy smell of skin, the sunlight softly settles.   

(Originally published in Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature and Culture, Volume 5 [2012])

Kim Kyung-Ju was born in Gwangju in 1976. He studied philosophy at Sogang University. His poetry collections include I am a Season that Doesn’t Exist in This World, The Strange Story, and Calming the Parallactic Eyes. He was awarded the Today’s Young Artist Award and the Kim Su-young Literature Award.

Cold Rice by Moon Jung-hee

Translated by Chae-Pyong Song and Anne Rashid

Painted by Hwang Soon-ok

Cold Rice by Moon Jung-hee

Rousing my sick body, I eat cold rice alone—
the ice in the cold rice pokes my throat.
We live in a world where people can cook hot rice so easily
just by pressing a button
on one of the kitchen appliances.
It’s not easy to have cold rice,
but today I eat it alone.
The woman who ate cold rice
made hot rice for the family.
The woman who scrubbed cold rice from the chipped-off bowl,
picking at the radish remnants someone left,
and licking off the fish bones,
radiated the warmest love from her body.
Longing for the hand that rattled alone
even in the deep night,
I rouse my sick body
and eat cold rice.
They say, a god couldn’t be sent to every house,
so she was sent, in lieu of a god.
In the cold rice I eat alone today I meet her,
becoming the cold rice of the world.

찬밥/ 문정희

아픈 몸 일으켜 혼자 찬밥을 먹는다
찬밥 속에 서릿발이 목을 쑤신다
부엌에는 각종 전기 제품이 있어
일 분만 단추를 눌러도 따끈한 밥이 되는 세상
찬밥을 먹기도 쉽지 않지만
오늘 혼자 찬밥을 먹는다
가족에겐 따스한 밥 지어 먹이고
찬밥을 먹던 사람
이 빠진 그릇에 찬밥 훑어
누가 남긴 무 조각에 생선 가시를 핥고
몸에서는 제일 따스한 사랑을 뿜던 그녀
깊은 밤에도
혼자 달그락거리던 그 손이 그리워
나 오늘 아픈 몸 일으켜 찬밥을 먹는다
집집마다 신을 보낼 수 없어
신 대신 보냈다는 설도 있지만
홀로 먹는 찬밥 속에서 그녀를 만난다
나 오늘
세상의 찬밥이 되어

(Originally published in The Gwangju News, January, 2012)

Mun Jung-hee (1947- ) was born in Bosung, Jeollanam-do. She received her Ph.D. from Seoul Women’s University. She made her literary debut in 1969 in The Literature Monthly. Her poetry collections include The Baby Brier, For Men, Now Following the Rose, I am the Door, The Joy of Love, and The Prolific Virgin. She received such prestigious awards as the Modern Literature Award and the Sowol Poetry Award. 

Oh, My Mother By O Yŏng-jae

Translated by Chae-Pyong Song

"A Hometown Slope" by Rhee Gil-nam, a North Korean painter

Oh, My Mother by O Yŏng-jae
— Upon Hearing after 40 Years that My Mother Lives in the South

Still alive,
And almost eighty
Even today Mother is still alive.
A sun suddenly rises
In the middle of a black night
A heavy shower of joy at once fills,
Overflows, and gushes out of my heart.
A heavy joy crushes me.
Collapsed, I cry,
This son wails.
On my knees, my senses . . . gone,
I bow over and over again.
What has kept Mother going
Till today,
Is not the grace of God,
Nor Time’s sympathy.
It is Mother’s faith
That kept her head high up to the world,
Because she will not close her eyes
Till she embraces this son once more.
To her faith,
I bow on my knees.
Mother, thank you.
Oh, Mother, thank you.

, 나의 어머니 – 고맙습니다/  오영재
– 40년만에 남녘에 계시는 어머니의 소식을 듣고 –

생존해 계시니
생존해 계시다니
팔순이 다된 그 나이까지
오늘도 어머님이 생존해 계시다니
캄캄한 밤중에
문득 솟아오른 해님입니다
한꺼번에 가슴에 차고 넘치며
쏟아지는 기쁨의 소나기입니다
그 기쁨 천 근으로 몸에 실려
그만 쓰러져 웁니다.
목놓아 이 아들은 울고 웁니다
땅에 엎드려 넋을 잃고
자꾸만 큰절을 합니다.
어머님을 이날까지
지켜 준 것은
하느님의 자비도 아닙니다
세월의 인정도 아닙니다.
그것은 이 아들을 다시 안아 보기 전에는
차마 눈을 감으실 수 없어
이날까지 세상에 굿굿이 머리 들고 계시는
어머님의 믿음입니다.
그 믿음앞에
내 큰절을 올립니다.
어머니 고맙습니다.
어머니여, 고맙습니다.

(This translation of North Korean poem was originally published in Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature and Culture, Volume 2, 2008)

O Yŏng-jae was born in 1935 in Jangsung, Chonnam Province of South Korea. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he was selected for the People’s Volunteer Army (at the age of 16).  He has lived in the North ever since. He is the author of several epic odes, including “The Daedong River” (1985) which is well known for initiating epic odes as a representative of the North Korean poetic style. To South Koreans he is best known for “Mother, Please, Don’t Get Older,” which he wrote when reunited with his mother in 2000 for the Reunion of the Dispersed Families of the South and North Koreas.