Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Mountains Belong to The People Who Love Them:
Slow Journeys in South Korea and Eastern Australia
by Lesley Synge
ISBN: 978-1-921214-87-5, 126pp, AUD $24.95
There’s an old Buddhist proverb that when the student is ready, wisdom comes. I like to think of Mountains Belong to the People Who Love Them as the wisdom. Though the writing is simple and at times sparse, it always comes back to the lesson of mindfulness and living in the present. The book is split into what, at first glance, appear to be two quite disparate sections. The first is a series of poems around a teaching visit to South Korea in 2002. The second is more of a travelogue, tracing a walk (or ‘Dharma Yatra’) in the northern rim of the Caldera rainforested ranges of Australia’s Gold Coast. However both sections have much in common, from the ‘pilgrimage’ approach to each journey that Synge takes, to the respect for observation, diversity, and the natural change processes that underlie our lives, including those that go along with mothering, a key theme in both stories. Both sections too are underpinned, even when at their most prosaic, by a kind of meditative poetry – a quick, insightful observation that expands in the reader into something symbolic.
The first part of the book is titled “South Korea: Slow Days on Rumpled Mountains,” and takes place in 2002. In this section, Synge’s son Declan is twelve years old, and joins his mother as she goes to the Ghandhi School in Duncheol, the mountains of South Korea, to teach English. This part of the book is written primarily in poetry form, with a series of moments recorded in verse form – some haiku and some free or acrostic verse.
These delicate, quiet poems take us from the discovery of arrival at the school, to the slightly melancholy moment of departure. Though the poems are often quite brief and simple, prosaic even, they bring in an extraordinary amount of detail, emotion, and sensation. Throughout the poetry there are a series of ‘behind the scenes’ activity occurring – a walk up the mountain, the relationship between a mother and her son, the relationship between the poet and her peers, and the usual round of hunger, fear, longing, and acceptance:
Where am I, son of mine? This templte … this mountain …
a job that requires me for only ten hours a week
no housework …
Has the world of suffering
forgotten me for once? (13, “To Jungchiam”)
Throughout both sections are black and white photos which are also quiet, usually people-less, which illuminate some aspect of the text. Each poem in this section is a kind of pearl, delicately calling to mind an experience in the poet’s life that is also mirrored in the reader’s:
Today I cried.
Felt so without love –
but I was wrong. (17, “Rain suite”)
Some of the poetry is humorous, such as “Classroom drama” (21) which calls to mind the impact of a bug in the classroom:
No lessons for you, dear bug
now for the screamers …
‘Everybody! After me!
“I like bees!”
“I like flies!”
“I like bugs!'”
The simplicity of these poems belies their power, as in “After the Typhoon”, where the rock cycle is explored:
I contemplate rocks:
how the large become not-so-large
how the not-so-large become small
how they in turn
become the grains of soil
from which the farmer grows rice. (48)
The second section, titled “Eastern Australia: Slow Days on Old Pathways”, takes us closer to the present, and closer to home too as Synge and her now grown-up son do a wet walk in native lands in the hinterland of the Gold Coast (a long cry from the theme parks and tourist laden beaches that usually characterise the Gold Coast). Although still peppered with snippets of poetry, this section is more of an essay. The section reads quickly, presenting a powerful journey of self-discovery as Synge revisits a journey that has been difficult for her in the past: “my boots/always the last to find the campsite.” Declan comes across as a wise, capable adult now, supportive of his mother and her lifestyle, and the warmth and respect between them is obvious.
The multinational group walking creates its own powerful dynamic, functioning almost as a single organism through support, challenge, strophe and antistrope as they work their way through the often muddy track, through meditations, pain, and peace. The natural world is a key feature of this section, with birdsong, fireflies, forest foliage, and caves functioning as a kind of ageless character. One of the key links between both sections are mountains – the linked chain between the past and present; between Korea and Australia. There is always, a great deal of respect for the native landowners – the Yugambeh people whose stories and artwork are present throughout the narrative. Again there are lovely black and white photographs throughout, and brief poems that draw out the learnings with humour and delicacy: “yo! boots/you’ve sung me/into my fifty-seventh spring.”
Overall this is a delightful and surprisingly rich book, full of beautiful poetry, personal insight, and a great deal of beauty and pleasure. To read it is to become wise like Synge, learning to slow down and simply observe in the present moment. This is a lesson that, in our fast paced, stress-laden world, we all need.
Watch a YouTube clip to complement the book here.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, Repulsion Thrust, Quark Soup, and a number of collaborations and anthologies. Find out more about Magdalena and grab a free copy of her book The Literary Lunch at www.magdalenaball.com.