Recently I came across “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a collection of English poems by a Korean-American poet, Yearn Hong Choi. The title intrigued me because I very much admire Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” In the epitaph of the celebrated story, Hemingway wrote, “Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngàje Ngài,” the House of God. Close to the western summit, there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
Like the leopard, Choi, too, climbed up to the summit of Kilimanjaro with his daughter. Perhaps he tried to find the House of God there or the ultimate meaning of life that he had been exploring all his life through his soul-searching poems. Whatever he sought there, he had a soul that was as pure as the perennial white snows of Kilimanjaro.
In the title poem, the poet writes, “No one knew how the leopard reached the peak of the mountain,/ Frozen in immortality.” Then he continues, “The leopard, Hemingway and now, my daughter, have reached the summit of the mountain./ But I am touched by my daughter’s motivation of reaching/ the top to fulfill her dad‘s dream/ He is a poet/ Veni, Vidi, Amavi”
While appreciating his daughter’s effort to help her dad fulfil his dream, the poet reminisces about his father, who wanted to be the father of a poet. In “Name,” he writes, “I look down at/ My name in silence/ I see the youthful image of my father/ Who wanted his son to be a poet.” He goes on, “Whenever I write/ A satisfying poem/ I see my father coming alive/ Knocking on my door/ Before my father, /Who wanted/ “Father of a Poet”/ To be his epitaph/ I am still ashamed.”
I have known Choi for a long time due to his outstanding accomplishments as a poet, translator, and professor. I have also known him as a man of moral integrity. Choi was a defiant critic of Korea’s rightwing military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, because of which he could not return to his home country for a long time. Now, he is a poignant critic of the leftwing Korean government as well, who courageously warns whenever it is leading the nation in the wrong direction. For today’s Korean poets and novelists who conform to the government, Choi indeed serves as a role model for what a writer or an intellectual should do in troubled times.
As a poet, Choi provides us with eye-opening epiphanies of life in his poems. In “Typo,” he writes, “When I type “love,”/ It often appears as “live.”/ When I type “live,”/ It often appears as “love.”/ O and I are located side by side in my typewriter./ My aged fingers made a typo,/ From which I learn a very valuable lesson:/ Loving means living and vice versa./ I don’t mind typo, my dearest.” The poem implies that if we do not love, it means we do not live. His penetrating wisdom makes us ashamed.
Another poem, “Aurora Borealis,” reveals the poet’s pursuit of and fascination with Aurora, which his daughter calls “the Northern Lights.” The poet says, “Science has made the mysterious light no longer mysterious,/ but I still prefer the myth of the Labrador native people’s torches/ lighting a pathway to heaven for fallen soldiers.” Perhaps what the poet laments in the absence of colorful Aurora is the manifold diversity of Korean society, whereas these days everything appears as black and white. Instead of honoring fallen soldiers or lighting a pathway to heaven, today’s politicians rather denigrate them according to their ideological agenda.
Looking back upon his past life, the 79 year-old poet realizes how life is ephemeral. In “The Evanescence,” the poet gives us precious advice, “Don’t miss this privileged opportunity left in your life remaining!/ Life is short, very short./ “I have come to know that better, but too late.” Then he ends his poem: “Well, we came like a Spring flower and go away in the blow of a thousand winds./ In between, I enjoy poetry and music and/ appreciate arts./ I am grateful to my life as given.”
Reading Choi’s poems saturated with profound insights and keen poetic sensibilities, we come to realize that we should put an end to the silly ideological warfare that tears our society apart and pursue a worthwhile life instead. Yet, brainwashed by hostile, inhumane ideology, we hate and hurt others, seeking revenge with grudges every day.
Years later, however, when we become old and lie in our deathbed, we will belatedly realize how silly and meaningless such things are. Before the regrettable moment comes, we should love others, pursue noble things and be pure like the snows of Kilimanjaro. That is what Choi is illuminating for us through his remarkably perceptive poems.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed