On Visiting the DMZ at Panmunjom: A Haibun

By Robert Hass

The human imagination does not do very well with large numbers. More than two and a half million people died during the Korean war. it seems that it ought to have taken more time to wreck so many bodies. five hundred thousand Chinese soldiers died in battle, or of disease. A million South Koreans died, four-fifths of them civilians. One million, one hundred thousand North Koreans.

The terms are inexact and thinking about them can make you sleepy. not all “South Koreans” were born in the south of Korea; some were born in the north and went south, for reasons of family, or religion, or politics, at the time of the division of the country. likewise the “North Koreans.”

During the war one half of all the houses in the country were destroyed and almost all industrial and public buildings. Pyongyang was bombarded with one thousand bombs per square kilometer in a city that had been the home to four hundred thousand people. Twenty-six thousand American soldiers died in the war. There is no evidence that human beings have absorbed these facts, which ought, at least, to provoke some communal sense of shame. it may be the sheer number of bodies that is hard to hold in mind.

That is perhaps why I felt a slight onset of nausea as we were moved from the civilian bus to the military bus at Panmunjom. The young soldiers had been trained to do their jobs and they carried out the transfer of our bodies, dressed for summer in the May heat, with a precision and dispatch that seemed slightly theatrical. They were young men. They wanted to be admired. I found it very hard to describe to myself what I felt about them, whom we had made our instrument.

The flurry of white between the guard towers

        — river mist? a wedding party?

is cattle egrets nesting in the willows.

ROBERT HASS ’63 is the author of literary essays, translations and poems. His recent collection of poetry, Time and Materials, won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. A MacArthur Fellow and two time winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Hass was poet laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997. He currently serves on the Saint Mary’s College MFA Advisory Board.

From Time and Materials, Poems 1997-2005, Ecco/HarperCollins, New York. 2007.