‘Poetry & Prose by Poet, Cheolsung Lee’


In Chennai, India, I met a bansuri (Indian traditional instrument) player named Sri Samer Lao, on the campus of Chennai’s Kalakshetra Cultural Academy. At the time, a troupe of Korean actors was visiting the school for a collaboration project with Indian actors and performers. The campus is located in the remote forest off the outskirts of the city, and I had been traveling through India for the past month, tired to the bone. The practice session took place in a small hall, and I was lying with my eyes closed in a corner of the hall, when the low notes of the flute lifted me up, as gentle as a warm breeze in the afternoon sun, tickling my very cheeks with its fine whisper. I was awakened from my sleep, to exit the hall and walk in the forests, my feet already bare of shoes. I walked on, the bare soles of my feet ambling over the ground, grabbing and releasing the warm dirt with each step. The forest, lights and shadows meshed with each other, tickling my skin, and Chennai’s February was filled with generous sunlight, numerous flora and countless flying life-forms. All were dancing to the mild rhythm of the zephyr, and swaying in their blessings.

A month later, Lao, the bansuri player, came to visit Korea. I went to his performance in Seoul, and saw the pamphlet for his show, which read, “Chosen a life of breathing through the bansuri at age 11.” This blurb alone was enough to bring back memories of the forest in Chennai with a vengeance. This was the place that allowed me to walk barefooted and experience the natural breeze and divine breaths of God, all beginning with a bansuri. As he breathed his first breath of air through the bansuri its sounds entered my body and to breathe new life into it. It was thus how I was able to come alive, stand up, walk, dance, and welcome Mother Nature and God into my own self, and it was this breath of the bansuri that not only produced two different breaths, but also allowed Lao, the bansuri, and nature itself to synchronize into a single symphony. Music is magnificent. Likewise is the musician. Lao’s instrument came to include my own body, and it turned out this was not too shabby an instrument for the performer.

What is a breath, and what is to breathe? Genesis described man as being created from dirt, which God brought to life by breathing into it. Through God and his breath, humans gained life and the soul itself. Breath is therefore sacred. Though it cannot be seen with the eyes, it can be felt. The sweet breath of a child, the hot breath of a young person, the tragic breath of a crying woman, and the smelly breath of an old man—the mere word itself suggests great significance. A key illustration of this can be seen in the body that has already taken its final breath. How miraculous and amazing is breath itself? Listening to the steady breathing of a sleeping child proves just how it carries the very essence of life itself—breath. In fact, the body without breath is no different from a piece of wood, stone, dirt, or even waste that is infested with maggots. It is through the breath of air that the body clears itself of toxins and may find energy again. The body wakes and finds things to eat, fruits to pick, streams to drink and cool winds to breathe, because the world is full of God’s scared breath and its fruits. Thus, the body sits and hums in a relaxed manner, as this is God’s manner of playing the instrument of our bodies through breath.

I learned to truly breathe late in life. When I was much younger, I didn’t even realize that this would become a problem for me. As a child, I breathed as I climbed on trees, on the hilly graves upon where I sat, in the arms of my father and mother, and those of neighboring men and women who picked my tired form up to give me shelter in my sleep, after which, upon awakening, I would have no clue as to my whereabouts. On warms days, I breathed warmly, during the monsoon season I breathed heavily like the rain, in the streams I would breathe naked and under water, and in the winters, after eating the raw snow, I would take ragged breaths, between my coughing and crying. Even earlier, when I used to grab and spray chunks of dirt into the air, I would breathe the earthy aromas of the dusty air. But as I became older, this simple activity became more difficult for me, through middle school, high school, college, the military, the working life of my late twenties, and into my early thirties… In my early twenties, I could breathe through the occasional poetry that found its way to the surface, and during the few romantic relationships I had, I took explosive breaths as my body felt it was about the pop. But these were the rare exceptions, and the majority of my time in the military or in the workplace stole my breath away, to which my body, deprived of air, rebelled. I became angry and violent, and one time I even attacked a close college senior of mine during an argument. I remember he could only stare back at me in surprise, the poor soul…

My breath had left me to be somewhere else: in the trees, on the moon, and amidst the mountains and forests. So I could not breathe with those things, for I didn’t know how. I needed the breath that could give my life new meaning, to unblock the passageways for my breathing and allow my breath to mingle with those of others.

I do not know how I regained the ability to breathe, when my body became receptive to the breaths of God and Mother Nature. When, or what is probably the more important question, but in that moment, as I enjoy the warm breeze of an April day, I have naught but guesses. Writing poetry allowed my heart to breathe the air of nature, and to be able to detect the hidden breaths in between people. In this day and age, where poetry has lost its audiences, it was rare for my work as a poet to deliver breath to my readership. But then I performed, in all sort of spaces, meeting all types of people. From newborn babies to the elderly, from under bridges to the main halls of famous theaters, it was hard to take in all the breath of those all around me. At the end of performances, my body would be warm and red, as if cooked by the warm air expelled by the hundreds of people watching. Breathing is no longer an act of playing, but cooking! The performer or artist simmers nicely as the audiences eat the aftermath of the performance.

I have been breathing again with the help of humans, though I do not remember specifically who. In my mid-twenties, I became psychologically ill, and so I turned my back on society and kept to myself. It was then I remembered the presence of my mother, something I had been ignoring for a long time, and so I re-entered society and spent my breathless days there, taking the occasional breath as I met women. Even so, at times the both of us would take labored breaths, unable to inhale and exhale as our hearts felt congested, and we cried and cried. It wasn’t until years later, when I married, and the last decade passed, that I learned to share breathing with those around me. I learned to breathe again through a young child, which was easy. I felt it in the times when I held my two children for the first time. The first cry after birth, it reverberates through the whole body, and this is the first breath of a child. With my first child, I was speechless, and in my second try, I laughed along, my own breaths heaving along with the baby’s. Awake, the baby cries, taking deep sobbing breaths, and asleep, it breaths calmly but steadily. Put your ear to the child’s chest, and its quick and noisy heart can be heard beating its regular beat. This is not just a breath, but the shouting breath of the call, “I am alive, and so is my breath!” It’s important to pay close attention to the breath of a child, as it is often give indications of a bigger condition or disease. I hold the child in my arms, and learn to breathe along, in tandem with society, nature, the flora and the rivers. Maybe this is why I keep saying to the kid, “Look at that tree, or that rock. It’s angry at you, it would seem. Oh, look, that cat. It’s asking you if you can hang out today. What’s with the sky today, does it need to pee? How about you, do you need to go as well? Yes you do, don’t you…”

I wrote my first poetry on breathing in Jerusalem, when I was working desperately hard to figure the thing out. It was in the early years of my marriage, and when I was studying abroad, before my children were born. Jerusalem was a battleground, even its climate being a difficult adversary; day after day was a fight against heat, both indoors and outdoors.

Jerusalem, April, 2002
When God created man, 
he created the first breath. 
This is why when humans breathe in and out, 
we feel that sacred connection to God. 
This is why 
the breath of old mothers makes the heart contract, 
or looking at the swollen face of the wife, 
the ticking sounds of the clock magnify. 
It's the same when an old friend meets you, 
and drunkenly spews his hard truth, 
you want to hold his hand and comfort him, 
because of his rough breathing. 
A girl who has fallen in the street, 
she seemed to be breathing hard, 
before slipping away. 
After a while, it is but a cold piece of wood, 
with its breath of life gone. 
The paramedics and police arrive, 
but too late, because God has already 
taken your breath away.
In the April of 2002, Jerusalem was struck by suicide bombers at least a twice a day. Among those responsible was an 18-year-old Palestinian. Today, she took the lives of three others at the entrance to a large supermarket, when at last she detonated her final bomb and killed herself as well.