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Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2000

Beautiful poetry from the ashes of Hiroshima

BLACK FLOWER IN THE SKY: Poems of a Korean Bridegroom in Hiroshima, by Chong Ki-Sheok. Katydid Books, distributed by the University of Hawai'i, 2000, 79 pp., $20 (paper).

As the war generation grows older, casting glances back on life, poetry of witness has become increasingly urgent. Perhaps time and distance have brought freedom, or a desire to delve into the past and express one's history as a way of both lessening and sharing the burden.

One can't help but feel the weight of history when reading Chong Ki-Sheok's "Black Flower in the Sky," a series of poems that maps Chong's journey as a forced Korean laborer in wartime Japan and back again.

Chong Ki-Sheok was born in southern Korea in 1923 and studied at Yahata Middle School in Fukuoka from 1935 to 1940. He came to Japan as a kind of exchange student, in much the way a student might go to the United States to study English today. In 1943, he was brought back to Japan as a forced laborer, and worked at a rayon factory in Ujina, near Hiroshima.

The book is divided into eight sections that map Chong's journey to manhood. The story is real, but it reads like a novel.

It begins when Chong was a young Korean bridegroom in Japan at the outbreak of war, separated from his new wife. Amazingly, she was able to sneak into Japan to join him, but the joyful reunion quickly turns tragic with the events of August 1945.

Struck by the atomic bomb, Chong's wife suffers critical radiation burns and takes her own life. The poet is left to wander in the destruction. Eventually, he returns to his homeland, alone and broken. Finally, he makes a pilgrimage back to Hiroshima.

This history, although personal, belongs to us all. The poems are incantatory, almost ritualistic, like an act of purification.

This poetry is essentially romantic and tragic, first celebrating physical and spiritual love, then embracing a romantic yearning, then deeply mourning loss and consumed by rage and despair, and eventually, moving toward healing.

In the first section, "The Way to Love," the poet paints an image of his new bride on their honeymoon: "You open your heart a bit at a time,/ dissolving into nature,/ looking up at the sky." To the poet, his new wife stands "Lighting up a nobler reason/ for living."

Then the lovers separate, and thus begins section two, "Correspondence," in which the husband melds with nature, "becoming a river/ flowing toward the moon" seeking to connect with his distant wife. The injustice of wartime Japan leads the poet to ruminate, not without irony: "When a country is not a country/ humans are not human,/ but are led by horses and cows."

Section three heralds the arrival of the bride, who "slipped out from under the eagle's eye, out from under the eyes of the hounds, and into the midst of masses of people, wearing the uniform of a mobilized worker."

Perhaps the most powerful section is the fourth, "That Day in Hiroshima," a lyrical testament to the destructive flash of light that seeded the "black flower" in the sky. This stanza from the title poem of that section echoes the city's chaos and despair:

The day breaks, and the morning sun appears. / I set out to look for my burned rooming-house. / Pushing aside the debris, I look for my wife./ I straighten up to look over the sea / and see a wrecked warship, / Dead, its head sunk into the water. / I tear off a piece of my clothes / to bandage my injured leg. / My body will not stop trembling. / In the world where no medicine is to be had, / people annihilate other people. / In this place I endure, / and turn my gaze back to the blue, deep sea.

The poet strives to keep his faith while questioning the God who would allow such a thing.

Chong's verse describes his wife's anguish from radiation burns, and his act of "cutting off a finger" and letting her drink the blood, as if his sacrifice could save her life.

Section five, "My Bride," is written from the wife's point of view. Interestingly, she remains unnamed as she "closes her door" and the flowers of life turn black in her eyes until she takes her own life.

The highly emotional poems in the next section, "Bridegroom in Hiroshima," map Chong's search for a place to bury his wife as he roams the burned city, surveying the destruction. He digs a hole "in the earth of a crumbling cave" and puts her body there, lying down beside it until rescue crews pull him away and bury her in a real grave, which he tends lovingly.

Chong returned to Korea in 1945, and braved the task of telling his wife's parents what had happened to her. "Bridegroom in the Homeland" describes his return and the solitude and despair that greets him. Dream and reality merge as the poet tries to find a reason to live, tries to "blot out time and space" and begs his wife to "lash me with a whip/so I can forget you."

Chong seems to have endured this loss: He eventually remarried, and that marriage continues to this day.

The last section of the book, "Hiroshima Revisited," charts the poet's return decades later, when everything has changed but the wails and shouts of memory. In "The Water Fowl Revisits Hiroshima," Chong writes:

Shaking the cenotaph / I wake up the souls, / I stop by the hospital ward / of the atomic bomb victims. / I visit the little log house where you slept once, / Remembering our dreamlike honeymoon. / The lights are bright in the red-light district, / like a nebula far beyond the Milky Way. / Hiroshima is the color of a river of fresh blood. / The alive are alive, / And the dead are not here.

The poet Ihara Goro attended the 17th World Congress of Poets in Seoul in 1997, where he met Chong, who was looking for an English translator. Ihara asked Naoshi Koriyama, who asked Elisabeth Ogata to co-translate it with him.

Ogata and Koriyama have done a wonderful job, receiving a translation grant by the Daesan Foundation in Seoul, Korea in 1998. The committee compared the translation against the original Korean. After making some slight changes, the English edition was published by Katydid Books, a press that has long been committed to bringing Asian poetry to the West through its high-quality translations. The translators and publisher are to be commended for bringing this important work to light.

In addition to writing 12 books of poetry, Chong is also a novelist and has received every major poetry prize in South Korea. He has received the National Medal of Honor twice in South Korea. He also taught and was principal at several middle schools and high schools.

In a postscript, he writes that he would "be happy if his book gives readers the world over a chance to think about what actually took place in Japan a mere 50-some years ago . . ." He welcomes comments from readers and adds, "in closing I can only offer my prayer for lasting peace on earth and for the welfare of all the world's people."

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