Kim Kum-sun
Catharine Savage Brosman

In fifty-eight, five years after the war,
French visitors, the first group from the West,
arrived in Pyongyang to spend five weeks—
a long discovery of North Korea.  They
were well-received, if absolute control
of movement, contacts, time, and questions asked
(interpreters glued fast), and whirlwind hours
of banquets, speeches, factory tours are viewed

as welcoming.  Claude Lanzmann, brave enough
to challenge the routine (a journalist,
he’d fought in the Resistance), feeling sick,
not only of le monde totalitaire
around them, but from starving—he could not
endure the dish of honor, “fairies’ pot”—
demanded to remain in his hotel
one day, and asked his handlers for a nurse

who might administer a shot of vitamins
(he’d brought with him some phials of B 12,
almost a cure-all).  Kim Kum-sun arrived,
accompanied by half-a-dozen men
in uniform.  No words could be exchanged,
since neither knew the other’s tongue; she kept
her eyes averted.  The next day, she came
again, surrounded.  By some ruse, perhaps,

at last she came alone—rouge lips, blue lids,
in Western dress, with “comrade’s braids” undone,
her hair cascading down.  A sentinel
was posted, mute, but did not interfere.
With passion, Claude and Kim embraced.  By signs
and drawings, they agreed to meet, at two,
along the river, where a tow path led
toward one of Pyongyang’s few pleasures—boats

for rent.  He managed to outwit his “guides,”
and found her waiting.  People stared—they were
conspicuous—but Kim got tickets anyway.
Shoes shed (the rule), toes locked, they got the skiff
into the current.  No one was allowed,
however, past a line upstream; a guard
screamed loudly, gestured, threatening.  Downstream,
the same restriction; all that one could do

was wander in a circle, fitting form
of a despotic rule.  Finally,
they spied a sandbar; in its bend, they moored
and kissed again, with violence, desire
the wilder for its shackles—politics,
no common words, short time, since he would leave
for China soon.  As they returned, Kim lost
her balance, toppled, and fell overboard;

she nearly drowned before Claude pulled her out.
Confusion, accusations, reprimands
ensued.  He got her, though, to his hotel,
insisted she put on dry clothes—his own—
then walked her out, accompanied again
by uniformed security.  She turned
into a doorway, climbed eight flights of stairs,
with him behind, and rang a bell; her look
 implored him—fear, despair—to leave her there,
renouncing love.  He saw her only once
again: a crazed escape from his hotel;
a dash along a road where—miracle
of memory that day—he knew he’d find
the Red Cross hospital; a door; and Kim
a moment in his arms—viaticum
for journeys in the dark.  He left a note

with his address, but dared not write from France.
At Christmastime, an envelope arrived—
a postcard picturing a temple, half-
concealed by trees in bloom; on the reverse—
—Korean, with translation—words of peace.
The red lips he remembered seemed to bleed
against the snowy boughs—the wound of love
impossible beneath a scarlet star.

N.B. Claude Lanzmann (b. 1925), a journalist (chiefly with Les Temps Modernes), is most famous for his film about the Nazi extermination camps, Shoah.  The information on which this poem is based comes from his memoirs, Le Lièvre de Patagonie (2009).

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