Way back when, I read a poem by Korean poet Ryu Shi-hwa. My friend and language partner at the time, Kwang-im, suggested him when I was suddenly struck with the desire to read Korean poetry. Now, I’m not inherently a lover of poetry but through my many years as a student of English literature (which came to an end right before college), I’ve managed to amass a few favorites. Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, T.S. Eliot, to name a few. And, having scoped out as many poems as I can find by him, I can now add 류시화 to that list. His poetry is simple, yet deep and ponderous at the same time. A fellow poet describes Ryu’s poetry as such:
“류시화 시인은 일상 언어들을 사용해 신비한 세계를 빚어낸다. 바로 이 점이 그의 시의 중요한 미덕이다.” – 이문재 (시인)
Poet Ryu Shi-hwa evokes the mysteries of this world using everyday language. This is the most significant virtue of his poetry. – Lee Moon-jae (poet)
When I went to Korea back in September 2014, I was thrilled to finally add one of his anthologies to my Korean literature collection.
The title of this particular anthology translates to The Love of the One-eyed Fish. The titular poem is actually one of my favorites. This is the first half of it:
외눈박이 물고기처럼 살고 싶다
두눈박이 물고기처럼 세상을 살기 위해
평생을 두 마리가 함께 붙어 다녔다는
외눈박이 물고기 비목처럼
<외눈박이 물고기의 사랑>에서
The poet wants to live and love like a one-eyed fish. Why? Because in order to live like a normal two-eyed fish, two one-eyed fishes have to stick by each others’ side and swim about together. It’s a poem about longing for companionship in life.
In this particular anthology, and in most of his other works too, Ryu’s poems are rooted in nature. Trees, birds, rain, fish, etc., sometimes anthropomorphized, nearly always complimented with a very human emotion or desire. Nature and humanity are often inextricable.
여우와 여우 사이
별과 별 사이
마음과 마음 사이
그 사이가 없는 곳으로 가고 싶다
물과 물고기에게는 사이가 없다
바다와 파도에는 사이가 없다
새와 날개에는 사이가 없다
나는 너에게로 가고 싶다
사이가 없는 그곳으로
In this excerpt, the poet laments there being a “distance” between everything in the world – between vixens, between stars, between hearts. But he soon realizes there are some things that are truly inseparable – there is no distance between fish and the water they swim in, between the ocean and its waves, between a bird and its wings. Likewise, the poet wants to exist in a place where there will be no distance between himself and his lover.
What I love about Ryu’s poetry is how deeply I can feel in response to it. Many of his poems are tinged with a wistfulness, a slight melancholy that makes you introspect on your own life, your own mistakes and regrets. Every one of his poems has touched a visceral sadness within me. But at the same time, they are not depressing. Rather, they let you embrace and accept the emotion and move past it in some way. Perhaps that’s just me.
소금별에 사는 사람들은
눈물을 흘릴 수 없네
소금별이 녹아 버리기 때문
눈물을 감추려고 자꾸만
소금별이 더 많이 반짝이는 건
Reading this one makes me think of Le Petit Prince. You know that saying that says the saddest people smile the brightest? That’s what I thought of when I read this poem. This poem is for the people whose eyes shine bright with tears held back, because shedding them would mean shattering the illusion of contentment they’ve worked so hard to build. Ah yes.