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.


The Poet with his wife Chong He Yong


Downtown Seoul has long lost its privileged access to the vistas of the four mountains: Inwangsan, Bukaksan, Naksan, and Namsan. Even in smaller towns, it has become difficult to get a good look at the local mountain. Mountains, rivers, and fields once visible in the distance while riding the train, bus, or car have disappeared behind apartment blocks and factories. Urbanization has turned us into a republic of apartments. It’s no wonder that foreigners who travel to Korea often ask why this country has nothing but high-rises. Not far in the future, people might even ask why this country has no mountains.

The days when you could see mountains in Korea no matter where you looked are long past. Now we’re forced to go in search of a mountain. You jump into your car, pay an entrance fee, follow a designated mountain trail, and snap pictures with your smartphone. Technological advances have enabled us to produce almost anything, but 3-D printing has yet to replicate mountains. We have only one option—hike up the mountain and cherish the view. My poem “The Heart of K’unaksan” portrays exactly this situation: “Since I cannot be born again, / on days when my heart grows grim / I leave my quiet house / and go away to the mountains. // On the day I return from Mountain K’unaksan, / now a nameless little hill, / in house and the village / I am reborn.”

Creative writing is often said to be the fruit of fabrication. Even a poem’s text isn’t comprised entirely of a direct confession made by the lyrical self. It’s possible to have fiction in poetry too. Fabrication here, doesn’t imply making up something entirely, rather it means that experiences of life and reality are weaved into the text. I can’t point straightaway at Inwangsan when a reader asks me about the location of K’unaksan. Even a lowly hill can be a “Spirit Mountain,” if you’re taken back to your childhood every time you look at it and if the simple fact that it exists, quietly moves and comforts you. Wandering in search of this mountain is precisely what I do by writing poetry. 


by Kim Kwang-Kyu


Author's Profile

Kim Kwang-Kyu grew up amidst the turmoil of the Korean War and its aftermath. He was born in 1941 in Seoul, and was a student at the time of the 4.19 Revolution in 1960. Kim studied German at Seoul National University as well as in Germany. He first developed his poetic voice by translating German poetry into Korean, including satirical works by Heinrich Heine, Bertolt Brecht, and Günter Eich, before ever beginning to write his own poems. He only began to publish poetry in 1975, when he was already in his mid-30s. Owing nothing to standard Korean poetic models, his work enjoyed immediate popularity as a model of new poetics for the new age that began in earnest with the assassination of the dictator Park Chung-hee in 1979.

Less than a week after Kim Kwang-Kyu’s first volume of poetry, The Last Dream to Drench Us, was published, the life of Park Chung-hee was brought to a violent end. Following this, Kim’s book was actively censored in the subsequent security clampdown, which only served to give it legitimacy as a work of resistance. For almost the first time in Korean literary history, a poetic voice characterized by satirical humor was speaking out, pointing its arrows at the evils of dictatorship and the wretchedness of modern city life in subtle, understated ways. Kim’s other early collections, written during the ensuing military dictatorships, include poems that refer indirectly to the brutality of the regimes, which delighted young readers capable of grasping their hidden meaning.

In his work, Kim Kwang-Kyu is not interested in celebrating directly the beauties of nature, in part at least because he is very aware of the way human pollution has ruined them. He is one of the first Koreans to express alarm over looming ecological disaster. The voice of his poems often inspires a sardonic smile, but it is important to recognize in his work as a whole a deeply humanistic viewpoint. Kim Kwang-Kyu never speaks to draw attention to himself, but rather to raise questions about the way life is lived, or not lived, in today’s world. Kim Kwang-Kyu is still almost unique among Korean poets. He writes about topics that should make us want to weep in a way that often makes us smile.