Welcome to Letters from Quotidia Postscripts Episode 10 – a podcast by Quentin Bega for listeners who enjoyed that Irish phenomenon- the crack! In the Letters, Postcards and Postscripts from Quotidia published since the beginning of 2021. Quotidia remains that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.
Sometimes you compose in a haze. How else can I explain the first song I was able to write after being frozen for reasons I explained in Postscripts 8. Just floating along the winding currents in the ceaseless stream that is the internet, I was snagged by some material on Korea, 20th Century Korean protest poetry specifically, and not the Gangnam-style or boy-band BTS of this century. No, I was reading about two poets, one from North of and the other South of the Demilitarised Zone dividing the two Koreas.
Imu Baek is the name a poet from North Korea hides behind- for obvious reasons. Although she titles her collection of verses a “memoir,” it is really a memorial to all those who did not survive the famine that swept through her country during the 1990s. Like Ko Un, the poet from the South whom I will discuss later, she came close to death herself after her parents died and she lived as a homeless orphan. She now lives in South Korea but hasn’t forgotten what she left behind. She writes I will keep the promise we made that day/I will recall the days of suffering we endured/ I will call to mind each of your faces/As I document your names in this book/A record of our lives together//
The lives she is recording are those of the “flower swallows.” According to a note from translators Hyongrae Kim and Siobhan Mei, the expression derives from the Russian word for nomadic, kochevoy. In Korean, that became kot (flower) and jebi (swallow). Just as there is no such thing in nature as a “flower swallow,” there was nothing natural about a horde of ragged children trying to survive on discarded and purloined food… The hungry range across the land like locusts eating everything in their path including grass and tree bark. Those who protest are “beaten, burned, stabbed, and shot.” The corpses that pile up everywhere provide a brief feast for vultures and crows. The truly desperate resort to cannibalism. I’m indebted for this information to a review by John Feffer in the Spring 2021 issue of Korean Quarterly of Flower Swallows Sing, a poetic memoir by North Korean poet, the anonymous Imu Baek.
This awful scenario reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s poem At Potato Digging and the lines, Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard, / faces chilled to a plucked bird./ In a million wicker huts/beaks of famine snipped at guts. // A people hungering from birth, / grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth, / were grafted with a great sorrow./ So, one morning, groggy after a much-interrupted sleep, I read through copious material I had bookmarked over previous days. I picked up my guitar and started to strum, finding words from- wherever they arise, and I grafted them onto the first draft of original musical material for several weeks. With a bit of judicious pruning, I fashioned something I deemed worthy of display.
But, in the furor poeticus, I got the key phrase of the song…ah, how can I put it – arse about face is the technical term that applies here. I stared at the book title- Flower swallows– and then at the first two words of the chorus- swallow flowers. Oh no! If I reverse the phrase, it will throw the rhyme off. But then, thought the cunning lyricist, I’ll just pretend the whole thing is deliberate- you know, how some Asian cultures reverse the way names are presented (to Western eyes) Finally, I decided since it was composed in a haze, so be it. [insert song]
Now to Ko Un, the greatest living Korean poet, born on 1 August 1933. In the late 1950s, when he was in prison and expecting to be executed, Ko Un vowed that if he lived, he would write a poem about every person that he’d ever met. This monumental project, Maninbo, as it is known in Korea, represents one of the major classics of modern Korean Literature. It currently contains 4,001 poems in 30 volumes. In Ten Thousand Lives, its English translation, Ko writes poems about people forgotten by those outside their immediate families. He also details the sacrifices that so many Koreans made to create the modern democracy of today. He has long been a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but this is likely to be cruelled by a Me-Too-type scandal that has erupted around him in the past few years. But in this post, I will just focus on his poetry. Of the many thousands he has written, I offer his poem,
Sunlight. I’m utterly helpless./ I’ll just have to swallow my spit/and adversity, too./But look!/A distinguished visitor deigns to visit/my tiny, north-facing cell./Not the chief making his rounds, no./As evening falls, a ray of sunlight./A gleam no bigger than a crumpled postage stamp./I’m crazy about it! Real first love!/I try to get it to settle on the palm of my hand,/to warm the toes of my shyly bared foot./Then as I kneel and offer it my undevout, lean face,/in a moment that scrap of sunlight slips away./After the guest has departed through the bars/the room feels several times colder and darker./This special cell of a military prison/ is like a photographer’s darkroom./Without any sunlight I laughed like a fool./One day it was a coffin holding a corpse./One day it was altogether the sea. How wonderful!/A few people survive here./Being alive is a sea/without a single sail in sight.
Some of the imagery here will reappear in the final song of the podcast- but let’s not get ahead of ourselves- who knows where that may lead? So, back to the template: having heard the something new, now for the something old, and it’s John Prine’s Hello in There. The Korean link is tenuous but significant. This was one of my favourite tracks from Joan Baez’s great album, Diamonds and Rust. In the latter half of 1975 I’d bring it over to Australian poet, Kevin Baker’s place in Mangerton, a leafy suburb in Wollongong, NSW, and we’d drink some wine and play some music.
This was one of my tracks for providing inspiration (along with the wine, of course). Prine, in an interview, said that he thought of hollering the title into a hollow log after hearing the reverb on Lennon’s Across The Universe and that was the starting spark of the song. He had an affinity for old people and said, I don’t think I’ve done a show without singing it. Nothing in it wears on me. Almost 50 years after hearing the song and having used it frequently in my teaching career, I will echo John Prine- Nothing in it wears on me. [insert song]
The something borrowed is a song I came across as I was auditioning songs of the Korean War online. None of them appealed to me and not one I recognised as having survived that dismal conflict which is still unresolved today. Until, that is, I came across the B-side of an RCA Victor single from 1951 by country singer-songwriter Elton Britt with lyrics by John Schram and Charles Grean (The latter a writer, composer and arranger who worked at RCA Victor and elsewhere in the entertainment industry for decades). The Unknown Soldier is the name of this song and what struck me was the similarity of the imagery here and that found in the poem by Ko Un quoted earlier, Sunlight. The song questions the sacrifices made by the slain- did they die in vain? [insert song]
While that song is firmly located within the country music genre of mid-20th Century America, might I suggest that most soldiers from every country, across many centuries would agree with these sentiments But I’ll finish with two short love poems to lighten a rather tenebrous post. The first is by Kim Yong-taek, An Early Winter Letter, Lovely leaves/have all been shed/from the mountain ahead of me./ Longing for the empty mountain,/ white snow/might fall/upon the river.//Before the snow falls I would love to see you.// The second is by Moon In-soo, Love: Making a Long Distance Phone Call, So it’s raining over there?/It’s bright and sunny here./Your sadness dries up little by little./I am slowly getting drenched.// What will PS 11 bring? I really wish I knew.
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text.
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition.