The Korean woman, to whom I am going again this spring and this spring, because we are translating together short poems by former Korean courtesans, lives in a building on the outskirts of the city. His housing estate is not large, it is old, and sparse forest and flowering forsythia grow between the barracks.
Short prose in magazines
I wear tulips for our translation I always wear them because when I first bought them my Korean turned off the kitchen heater because of them and said tulips need cold to last . But that was only February and winter outside. She said nothing and decided not to turn on the heating anymore – so I wear new and new colorful tulips so that the morna in the kitchen has a reason.
But we translate the three verses of the Korean geishas in the living room.
She never says “morna”. That’s what I use. She says “Siberia”.
My Korean is almost ninety years old, has overcome three covid infections, and for the day she accurately predicted the start of the war. “I have a hunch that you crazy bastards are going to start on Thursday,” she wrote to me on Sunday, “you should discuss the back-up plan at home, because war is a mess. We won’t translate not rather our troubled old beauties.”
But for now, we continue.
My Korean is weak, changing water for tulips, planning a “last or penultimate” spring trip, reading “short prose in magazines” and not talking about war. Only sometimes, between translating and speaking the Korean language, he tells of animals in zoos in bombed Ukrainian cities. About the elephant Horáček, who had to be taken underground to the zoo, where he stands in the dark, and receives heavy doses of sedatives several times a day. About herds of zebras rushing for fences in a panic of explosions until their scratched heads turn into bloody stumps. About Lemurian mothers leaving newborns. About lizards and snakes that do not warm up in terrariums and die. Exotic animals, he says, flee through broken glass to cities and eat the meat of dead dogs. My Korean remembers the names of the directors of Ukrainian zoos and parks, as well as the killed nurses and the living ones who do not leave the animals. He knows all about them.
We translate the love poems of a former courtesan, but they intertwine with a nurse standing in the middle of six lions and six tigers on the road and phoning because she had just seen tanks on the horizon. He will not bring the animals to Poland, he will have to come back.
Toucans fly over the burning colony.
“How do you know all this? ” I ask.
In the short Korean poems called sijo – my Korean doesn’t answer – there are almost no animals. From time to time, geese fly overhead, a mandarin duck or a magpie announces the arrival of someone who will not arrive in the end. Sometimes the rooster crows and wakes the courtesan, who notes with sadness that she has only dreamed of her lover, that she has not been with her for a long time. Are the herons flying in these triplets? May be. Not very often.
We always translate.
The spring poems of Korean courtesans are nostalgic. The essential that is supposed to be near is always distant in them, although everything around indicates otherwise. The blanket as light as the spring wind is slightly warm or hopefully wavy, but the darling did not come, did not come or left after all. Courtesans describe deceptive things and things around them, they draw them in detail and gently so that the loneliness in which everything ends seems bottomless. These women have beautiful nicknames Clear Jade and Plum Blossom, and their aloof men have no names at all. My Korean and I are looking for long hours of rhinitis that would emphasize desire, demonstrate skill and not damage the exact curves of objects, plants, spring trees, wind. She tells me – as quickly as if she were unfolding an old lacquered make-up box in front of me – that the search for a cold brings her a real slowing down, but at the same time it is a busy period and therefore an acceleration. He says that in search of a rhyme, he always turns around the possibilities he digs out of the language – but the rhyme, like a monster, often comes as from elsewhere, as from “some height”.
But then she is tired. She will be ninety years old. The triple covid let her take over. And now this. We have to finish.
“What else are you going to do today?” I ask every time, because I know he will measure me strictly after this question and answer me with a phrase that I like.
She knows it too.
“Read short prose in magazines,” he says.
“Satisfied?” he adds.
No. I would love to stay with her, I would love to. I would like to read the short prose with her. Until the end.
© Petr Borkovec