The Three Way Tavern offers a superb collection of the poems that South Korea’s eminent poet Ko Un wrote in the 1990’s. His poems take the reader on a creative journey that reveals perceptive insights into the lives of South Koreans still struggling with a legacy of Japanese colonialism, a brutal and destructive civil war that led to the division of Korea, and the opening of their country to genuine democracy. There are also powerful poems of a Zen-inspired beauty that look at the interplay of nature and the observing human mind as well as poems that reflect Ko’s extraordinary life.
The poem that gave the collection its title is indicative of Ko’s poetic vision. “The Three Way Tavern” asserts that, however painful it may be, “understanding is a joy,” once a person wakes up to genuine life. This is a bold statement in the context of Korean history of the twentieth century, which saw much suffering and misery and no end to a painful division of the country rooted in the Cold War conflict between the “free world” and the forces of communism. Yet for Ko’s persona, waking up and understanding life is a joyful moment.
There is also a certain irony in the poem. While the rain-soaked road tells the persona “there can be no sadness,” the road speaks only after the persona is slightly intoxicated after imbibing three drinks in the magical three way tavern. The tavern stands not merely at the intersection of two roads, inviting the traditional Asian philosophical association of the forces of yin and yang, but also at the crossing of three paths. It alludes to the hope that beyond the division of Koreainto a south long ruled by an authoritarian regime and a communist norththere is a third way, leading to full democracy and peaceful reunification.
In a similar fashion, the focus of most poems of Ko’s The Three Way Tavern connects the personal with the historical and nature with humanity. The work is carried by the spirit of Zen philosophy, which the author studied for nine years. There is always a tell-tale irony and lightheartedness. Ko’s poems often reveal a casual, colloquial attitude toward their subjects. His work transcends self-importance and carries an everyday human note which the translators capture quite well.
In the characteristically brief Zen poem “Green Frog,” for example, the paradox that a frog’s croaking coincides with the onset of long-awaited rain leads the persona to exclaim about the presumed magic powers of the creature: “You sure are a mighty dude,/ you little runt!” This is making light, in colloquial language, of traditional superstition that may have its roots in the frog’s biological ability to sense the oncoming rain before humans do and is thus mistakenly credited with causing the event. The poem, nevertheless, shows the persona’s benevolent view of the folly of some human interpretations of causality in nature.
Many of Ko’s poems reveal both an affirmation of the importance and relevancy of human life as well as a Zen-inspired, deep belief in the ephemeral nature of all life. His poem “Today” both celebrates that “We are alive,” but also insists that human life is as transient as “snow flurries.” Life does matter, however, brief and evanescent as it may be. This idea recurs in many of Ko’s beautiful poems collected in The Three Way Tavern such as “Song of Innocence,” in which the persona celebrates that “we had strength to rise up.”
Ko’s poems can be deeply lyrical, such as “A Boat,” in which the persona keeps another person “on the horizon of my heart.” There are also the images of modernism that aptly circumscribe the contemporary reality of South Korean urbanity, as when the persona insists in “My Resume” that “I am alive like the telephone lines whistling in wind.” The same poem asserts that natural beauty can coexist with humanity’s modern cities such as Seoul, when the persona describes gazing at “the phosphorescent glints shining on the sea at night” near the outskirts of the city where he lives.
There are celebrated moments of Zen-inspired insight in the collection that prove why American poets like Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti have long voiced their enthusiasm for Ko. “Empty Field” aptly states that “Asking can be foolish.” The poem “After Stacking the Chopped Pines” expresses the same idea when it asserts that it would be “nonsense to answer that question” of the persona who wondered whether even chopped up blocks of a tree could say they once lived on Earth.
Typical for Zen poetry, Ko’s “The Poem in Last Night’s Dream” invites the reader to “look at the empty nest” left by a departing bird and marvel at and contemplate “the pure emptiness” of it. “A Cenotaph” reflects on the vanity...
(The entire section is 1994 words.)