In On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, Edward Said explores art that results from “the last great problematic […] the last or late period of life, the decay of the body, the onset of ill health or other factors that even in a young person bring on the possibility of an untimely end.” Said is not interested in the serenity that comes with “ripeness is all,” or in harmony and resolution, but in types of late style that mark “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction” and stand as counterpoint to late aesthetic endeavor as a crowning move, almost a trumping of mortality itself.
The Korean poet Ko Un’s Himalaya Poems falls into this latter category, embracing and exposing his forty-day pilgrimage into the Himalayas in July 1997—Ko was 64 at the time—as self-described reckless foolishness that led him to “see no truth, only vanity” (“On the Way to the Bon Monastery at Menri”)and to ask “For what reason is the horizon at sunset so large and beautiful?” (“Two-Humped Camel”). Ko’s physical ailments at 64 were great—he had found out a few years prior that an undiagnosed tuberculosis attack in his youth had seriously damaged his lungs, but he took to the mountains anyway and almost died in the process: trying to breathe at an altitude of 6,500 meters, along with the dysentery he suffered from as the journey progressed, took almost ten kilograms of weight off his frame. When he arrived in Lhasa after exiting the mountains, he learned that his mother had died in Korea during his absence; of this circumstance, he writes: “Remorse that I had not been present at her death was the end of my pilgrimage to the Himalayas.”
It took Ko three years to start writing poems about his painful journey, and the resulting book is demonstrative of the “deliberately unproductive productiveness going against” that Said cites as a mark of the work of certain great, aging artists in On Late Style. Ko’s life—and in some cases his reaction to the life he was handed—has always been deliberate; his remarkable biography reveals his dedication to making choices that refuse stagnation. Having lived through the Korean War—as many of his friends and family did not—Ko went on to become a Buddhist monk, but left that community ten years later because, as he said in his 1963 essay “Hwansok” (“Returning to Secular Life”), it was time for him to choose between religion and literature. After a seven-year period of depression and readjustment, Ko became a popular militant activist poet and the leader in the minjung munhak (people’s literature) movement. The Korean military regime eventually jailed Ko in an attempt to curb his popularity, but he kept writing while incarcerated, inspired to record the desires and sentiments of the people. Released from jail, Ko was married by the early 80s, ending his long, solitary life. By all recent accounts I’ve read, the poet—who has now published over a hundred volumes of poetry, fiction, essays, translations, and drama, and has been mentioned multiple times as a frontrunner for the Nobel Prize—is, as Gary Snyder writes, “lean, keen, and spry.”
So, I do not mean to suggest that Himalaya Poems marks the end of Ko Un’s career, but I do think the book is indicative of a turn towards his “late style.” In the period just prior to his Himalaya pilgrimage, Ko published a book of 108 Zen poems, Beyond Self (later re-released as What? 108 Zen Poems), which holds a prefatory key to Himalaya Poems—a poem titled “The Path”:
Take this path. It leads to Nirvana.
I’ll follow my own path.
Over rocky crags or under water.
That’s the old master’s path, the corpse’s path.
In the introduction to Himalaya Poems, Ko writes that “there is clearly a path for birds to follow in the infinite sky [….] every kind of animal has its own secret passage. Perhaps I left because there exists such a path for me too. The path was endless […]” On his journey, Ko had hoped to bring along “the buoyant heart [he] had in [his] twenties,” but the Himalaya Poems shows him strapped to the peaks by altitude, by years. This eighty-seven poem book heads into the mountains and does not leave; Ko’s body is the strained vehicle that never allows the mind to reach enlightenment, that longs for the journey to end, as in the poem “The Himalayas”:
I had but one hope:
to stay as far away from the Himalayas as humanly possible,
and from the world of troublesome questions.
The self-imposed imperative to find and follow a path seized Ko and extended “The Path” into brutal, lengthy autobiography. In the introduction to Beyond Self, Ko writes that Seon (Zen) “comes alive first by denying speech and writing,” that Seon is “mind and nothing else.” But he also declares that the poems in Beyond Self are “an act of poetry writing, not so much faithful to the history of Seon poetry as trying to get away from it.” Himalaya Poems, in following Beyond Self, isn’t trying to get away from Seon poetry as much as it is demonstrative—in a “deliberatively unproductive productiveness going against”—of Ko’s failure to reach enlightenment through pilgrimage and his desire to get out of the Himalayas and back to his life in Korea. On his own “old master’s path, the corpse’s path,” he learns that “Despair is the honey of despair” (“Wilderness”). Ko’s clarity in Himalaya Poems didn’t come from a gaze—his body had to follow his gaze and sustain it until, as he writes in “After the Himalayas,” “There were dazzling days / when I longed to tear out my eyes / and replace them with other eyes.”
The aging body and the realizations and sensations it provides are central to the book. In the introduction, Ko tells the story of reaching Mount Sumeru, the central-world mountain in Hindu cosmology, and venerated as sacred by Buddhists, Jains, and all the schools of Tibet’s native Bon religion, as well as Lamaism: “I scrambled up and down precipices [and] crossed plains, on the way to the last place we could go.” Having staked camp where “there seemed to be nowhere left for us to go, and nowhere for us to go back to,” Ko wearily left his tent and found himself “so close to the stars,” yet the distance between him and a single star was “already eternal.” In the intense starlight, he said, “My eyes grew brighter, my teeth tingled, my lungs trembled […] you could feel, at heart,” the altitude. And later, in “The Blind Man of Mount Sumeru,” the juxtaposition of physical and spiritual heart, of their ties, appears again when Ko describes his conversation with an old man who had been completely snow-blinded by years of gazing up at the sacred mountain: “So now, he said, he saw with his heart, / he saw with the eyes of his heart.” The man was happy “beyond all happiness,” but the happiness was not Ko’s: “My companion and I,” Ko writes, “walked on.”
The distance at which Ko holds those he encounters is unsettling—his alienation from the living beings in the Himalayas, like the blind man, appears in poem after poem. In “Hope,” after Ko shakes his head in the negative when a self-induced phantom asks him what hope is, he says:
There was nothing following me
but a dog so old it could not bark.
I tossed the creature the scrap of bread I had left.
It didn’t even wag its tail.
And in “A Baby,” in a disturbing turn that could easily be read as misogynistic, Ko writes about a pregnant woman in labor who says only “I’ll come back after giving birth,” and then delivers her child “very soon […] standing up. She gave birth smoothly.” Her next words, after she lays the baby in a basket, are a complaint about the hardening of the dough she had been working on when she went into labor. The similes that follow are dehumanizing, shocking: “It was like a hen laying an egg, / like a horse dumping a load.” Ko can’t identify with the lives he encounters—the woman in “A Baby” has “no need for a name now” and the dog is a “creature.” In several poems he recognizes that he is witnessing a long line of common experience, but he can’t enter it, and so he holds it, in the writing aftermath, at a deliberate distance. There is no illusion of serene unity with his environment: “In the Himalayas,” he writes in “Confession,” “there was nothing but the Himalayas.”
In Ko’s poems, generations fold into each other and disappear in the cold, under innumerable, bright stars until, as he writes in “Himalayan Slopes,” “My one self became ten or twenty selves, / none of us able to move.” And later, in “Snowman,” he says: “you don’t need all the world’s curses. / Back home, you should be mute for the rest of your life.” But he is not mute; he cannot be. Instead of being mute, Ko says: “what has raised me is not the truth but the road.” Broken after his failed pilgrimage, but still writing, Ko realizes that his work proclaims—to cite Said citing Rose Subotnik—that “no synthesis is conceivable [but is in effect] the remains of a synthesis, the vestige of an individual human subject sorely aware of the wholeness, and consequently the survival, that has eluded it forever.” In the book’s final poem “Leave-Taking,” he stops his thirty years of “longing to become something” and “[throws] the mirror away, once and for all.”