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Poetry of life’s paradoxes in ‘Belly Button Disc’

“Whether the cow is brown, black or spotted, its milk is all white,” Kim Dong-ho muses in “White Milk,” included in his newly published compilation of translated poems “Belly Button Disc.”

The book comprises 56 selected poems originally written by Kim in Korean and co-translated into English by Kim Won-chung, professor of English literature at Sungkyunkwan University, and poet-translator Ko Chang-soo.

In his work, 82-year-old poet Kim examines life’s mysteries and the world from a Taoistic perspective, the Chinese philosophy emphasizing harmony among beings.

He has been heavily influenced by the theories of Lao-tze and Chuang-tze, two monumental Taoistic philosophers, according to Homa & Sekey Books, the book’s US publisher, which specializes in books on Asia.

Poems such as “Cotton Shield” and “A Tattoo Engraved in My Brain” ponder the depths of the philosophers’ ideas while looking back on life’s lessons. “Let us not keep a forced youth / like spring fruits in the fridge,” he writes in “A Noble Lady Poppy.”

Cover of “Belly Button Disc,” by poet Kim Dong-ho (Homa & Sekey Books)
Cover of “Belly Button Disc,” by poet Kim Dong-ho (Homa & Sekey Books)

“A belly button disc is smaller than a coin / But if you spread it inside and outside / it’s the largest disc in the world,” Kim writes in “Belly Button Disc,” a contemplation of the relationship between man and the universe.

“New Eden Park,” written in a near-prose style, describes the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, the paradox of its aching history and thriving natural scenery. “Here lies every kind of flora and fauna. All rare fauna and flora, which had disappeared in the meantime due to war ... I would never have imagined that the world’s most cruel battlefield would become the world’s largest place of peace,” Kim writes.

Other prominent themes in Kim’s verses include overturning prejudices, erotic imagination and the Taoistic sense of balance within polarity -- Yin and Yang. Often times, Kim refers to “the wind” as a metaphor for his imagination, which “caresses all the flowers of the world” and “uncovers all the breasts of the universe” (“Flowers 62”).

Ultimately, Kim strives to marry opposing elements -- isolation and togetherness, life and death, the abstract and the concrete -- in an equally diverse poetic world encompassing modernity, nature, history and individuals.

Kim, born in Goesan, North Chungcheong Province, in 1934, studied English literature at Sungkyunkwan University and worked as a professor of English poetry. He has published 12 volumes of poems since 1975 and received the Sungkyun Literary Prize and the Poet Selected by Poets Prize. “Belly Button Disc” is available for purchase on

By Rumy Doo (