The unbearable, endurable love of an imperfect soulMy Husband the Poet by Mok Sun-ok is, in its simplest form, a love story about the author and poet Chon Sang-pyong.
It begins near the time of Chon’s death in 1993.
Years of heavy drinking in his youth had tapered off to a few glasses of beer a day by 1988 when Chon’s belly swelled up to the size of a basketball as a result of liver damage caused by cirrhosis.
Unwilling to accept what others saw as an inevitable death sentence, Mok sought effective medical treatment for her husband and prayed he would live for another five years.
Her prayers were granted and Chon began a five-year convalescence period in the care of his wife, her mother and his wife’s niece.
Chon spends his time traveling to and from Kwichon, his wife’s tearoom in Insadong in Seoul, and calling her on the phone to ask permission to drink another cup of beer.
Chon began his career as a poet in high school when a mentor recommended one of his poems for publication. He went on to graduate from Seoul National University’s business school before assuming the life of a young artist. With few ties to the material world, Chon spent his time at coffee houses and bars living on borrowed money or proceeds from the occasionally published poem. Mok met the poet around this time through her brother and the two began a friendship that turned to romance after several years.
In the mid-1960s, Chon began living on nothing but makkeolli, a traditional alcohol, and bean curds and adopted a crazy, sideways walk as he moved between the artist haunts in Myong-dong. Mok tried to help him change but to no avail.
Chon’s life took a turn for the worse in 1967 when he was arrested in connection with a North Korean spy ring operating out of Berlin. He went to college with a figure in the ring and the two had remained friends. Thereby he became a target for the police.
He was held for around six months, during which time he was tortured as police sought a confession. Chon maintained his innocence, however, and later wrote a poem about truth being stronger than pain called “Like a Shirt Under the Iron,” which described the electric-shock torture he underwent.
Chon’s reproductive capacity was compromised by the torture, introducing a unique element into his marriage. Mok paraphrases her husband as saying: “If the people at the security agency had only shocked me twice, we could have had children, but they did it a third time, so we can’t.” Mok says they were husband and wife, but without any sex.”
After his release, Chon’s drinking got worse. He went in and out of hospitals before eventually disappearing. His friends, believing him dead, published a memorial volume of his poems. A news article about the book alerted a doctor at a psychiatric hospital who made it known that he was caring for the poet.
Mok began to visit Chon and he improved under her care. Along the way, the friendship they enjoyed blossomed into love. When he was discharged the doctor told her Chon would perish unless she went on caring for him. She and Chon began living together after he was discharged.
“The only way for us to live at peace was for me to be beside him,” Mok writes. “Just as he would lose his peace without me beside him, so I could never live quietly if I abandoned him.
“For the rest of my life after that, whenever I was sad, I always found new courage as I recalled the promise I had made to myself.”
Mok and Chon were poor for years until, through Mok's efforts, they reached a degree of financial stability. Brother Anthony of Taize, who translated Mok’s memoir, writes in a preface, “I translated it because there are people outside of Korea who ought to be able to read it. This is a very Korean voice, recording some very Korean experiences in a truly Korean way.”
Seen in this light, Mok’s story warrants reading. It includes a sprinkling of poems Chon wrote in the periods corresponding to those Mok describes. The special aspect of this story is that it shows how love can triumph over hardships.
By Christopher Carpenter Business Editor [email@example.com]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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