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Ten Thousand Lives (Maninbo)

The new English translation of selections from Ko Un's masterwork

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10,000 Lives (Maninbo), by Ko Un
Green Integer Books

Ten Thousand Lives (Maninbo)
by Ko Un
Translated from Korean by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Young-moo Kim & Gary Gach
Introduction by Robert Hass
Green Integer (Kobenhavn & Los Angeles), 2005
list price $14.95 (+$2.00 shipping when purchased directly from the publisher, also available online from the publisher using Australian or Canadian Dollars, Euros, Pounds Sterling or Japanese Yen)

Ko Un is not well known outside Korea, despite his meetings with and the respect he has earned from Western poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder & Seamus Heaney. At home, he is revered, known as an amazingly prolific writer, a nationalist pro-democracy activist, former Zen monk, once a dissolute & despairing drunkard, and now truly the people’s poet of Korea, engaged in the writing of an epic masterwork, Ten Thousand Lives (Maninbo), in which he is putting into poems the faces & lives of all the people he has ever known or known of. Conceived when he was imprisoned in the late 1970’s & early 1980’s for rebellion against the military dictatorships then controlling Korea, Maninbo has been published in 20 volumes in Korean, with five more volumes intended. Now Green Integer has published a selection of these poem-portraits from the first 10 volumes translated into English in a lovely small-format book that has a beautiful compact weight in the reader’s hand, suited to be thumbed through again & again, its characters echoing & reflecting in the reader’s mind.
As co-translator Gary Gach notes, “This first English-language compilation reads like a scroll, unrolling its cast of characters, beginning with the poet’s boyhood then branching further and further out, as wide as the world. Historical figures mingle with fisher folk; contemporary notables (such as Cardinal Kim Su-hwan, and Kim Dae-jung) find their place within a continuum including penny-pinchers, a butcher, a blind family, a compulsive liar, young lovers, a petticoat thief, a village idiot, a local madwoman, casualties of war, traveling salesmen... and on and on....” As Ko Un himself has said, “human nature itself is poetic” and his devotion to the work of remembering & depicting every person who has touched his life is a way of escaping the “I-centered way of experiencing life” that is evident in “so much modern Korean poetry,” a way of transcending the self.
The poems in English are condensed but in no way formal, naturally revealing their subjects in the manner of Chinese calligraphy: the lines simple brush strokes in which the artist’s hand reveals itself subtly, so that you know the poem is handmade, though the focus is entirely on the subject of the portrait. We have no knowledge of Korean, no way of judging the accuracy of the translation, but we can say that these poems feel like poems in English, and this book is a small treasure-box containing an entire world. Here’s a taste:

Chae-sŏn’s Mother

On cold days
icily cold days with hail spitting down,
loveliest in our neighborhood, Chae-sŏn’s Mother
loveliest and youngest in our neighborhood,
Chae-sŏn’s Mother
her tiny face
full of smiles
full or sorrows,
perhaps coming back from her parents’ home
which has not so much as a fence,
carrying little Chae-sŏn on her back
with the carrying-blanket wrapped high around her
and Chae-sŏn waking from sleep in the dark inside,
borne along with the darkness,
.....
Doing laundry in deep midwinter
she plunges her frozen hands into the icy water,
the paddle beating the washing resounds,
echoing in fold after fold.
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