In Search of the Mountain
- onJuly 16, 2015
- Vol.28 Summer 2015
- byKim Kwang-Kyu
I’m a late bloomer whose poems first appeared in the summer issue of Literature and Intelligence in 1975. I was a professor of German literature in his mid-30s with two kids under my care at the time, so I’m not exaggerating when I call myself a late bloomer. My debut work, Tht Last Dream to Drench Us, carries a poem titled “Spirit Mountain,” written on the subject of mountains. Three-quarters of Korea is mountainous. Baesan-imsu, literally “a mountain in the back and a river in the front,” is the guiding principle behind all forms of settlement and dwelling here. Even the capital, Seoul, has a mountainous terrain, unlike most other capital cities that are located in flatlands.
Seochon, west of downtown Seoul, seat of the government for 600 years, is my hometown. I spent my childhood in Inwangsan Mountain’s shadow in a tile-roofed house in Tongin-dong, west of Gyeongbokgung Palace. I grew up looking at Inwangsan through the window behind my home’s daecheong hall. A sickly child, unable to scale the mountain myself, I’d simply gaze at it through that window. On days the mountain was shrouded in dense fog, I’d even feel anxious for no reason.
Unable to escape down south during the Korean War, I experienced bloodshed, terror, and starvation under the occupation of the North Korean People’s Army. In the last week of September, after the long, humid summer had passed, UN fighter jets secured air command and bombarded the North Korean anti-aircraft positions on the mountain. Just before Seoul was recaptured on September 28th, our home’s daecheong hall collapsed from the naval bombing during the amphibious assault on Incheon. The mountain that was the object of yearning in my childhood became the site of fratricide in my boyhood.
According to Pungsu-jiri, or Korean geomancy, this imposing stone mountain is U Baekho, the White Tiger flanking the guardian mountain on its right. I went to a high school located in the Gyeonghuigung Palace grounds at the southern foot of this mountain. I spent my college days at the foot of Naksan Mountain, the Jwa Cheongryong or the Blue Dragon flanking the guardian mountain on its left. Dashing down Bukhansan, you come to an abrupt stop at Bugaksan, where you see Naksan and Inwangsan stretched out on either side. There in Seoul’s bosom was where I spent my teenage years. From my early thirties, I’ve lived in Hongjecheon Stream’s basin at the foot of Ansan Mountain, behind Inwangsan. This means my life has revolved around Inwangsan for nearly all of the seventy years that I’ve lived north of the Han River in the area called Gangbuk. It’s only natural that my first book should include a poem about mountains.
Apart from “Spirit Mountain,” I’ve composed several other poems about mountains, including “Mount Inwang,” “The Heart of K’unaksan,” and “High Mountain.” Unlike the popular trend of the time, I avoided deconstructing sentences and using abstruse metaphors, trying instead to delineate reality in straightforward, everyday language. Admittedly, it’s difficult to translate this into poetry. Even if the poem makes for an easy read, it’s hard to come up with a model answer type interpretation for it. In the case of “Spirit Mountain,” the mountain is real and then again it’s not, or maybe it’s both real and unreal. Despite its utterly ambiguous form and deliberately dry prosaic narrative, the reason this simple poem has caught the attention of readers everywhere is the multiplicity of its meanings. Dreams and life, ideals and reality, the self and the world, the natural and the artificial, the mysterious and the ordinary, literature and society— no matter what meaning you infer from the poem’s semantic web, the imagery evokes the original form of an achievable universal existence. The existence or nonexistence of this mountain, cherished by all yet invisible to the naked eye and unscalable even in hiking boots, is an oblique representation of my poetics. This mountain has its origins in Inwangsan but transforms into the imaginary K’unaksan in my later poems.
I usually write in my study on the second floor of my home. Outside my window, I can see the silver magnolia’s rich foliage and a little of Ansan’s peak. Not long ago, I could see this southern offshoot of Inwangsan in its entirety. Whenever I had a case of writer’s block back then, I’d read a book or use the computer till my eyes grew weary or I’d become lost in reminiscence and contemplation, but my eyes would always turn to the mountain in the end. Now, however, the layers after layers of skyscrapers that have sprouted up block my view. Only Ansan’s tip with its tall TV transmission tower sticks out. Arrays of apartment windows stare back at me, peeking right into my study. At least I have the cover of the silver magnolia and my neighbor’s pine tree acting as a screen, but the mountain is lost to me forever.