Origami in Verse: Fifteen Seconds without Sorrow by Shim Bo-Seon

  • onJanuary 4, 2017
  • Vol.34 Winter 2016
  • byLoren Goodman
Fifteen Seconds without Sorrow
Tr. Chung Eun-Gwi and Brother Anthony of Taizé

Only the rarest of poets could possibly have the ability to revel in the motion lines and reverse Doppler of the fleeing kid who has vandalized his or her house. Perhaps only the greatest wandering poets of classical China and Japan, the ancient Roman civic poets of highest virtue and acclaim, or the most aware and accomplished of the Modern Imagists were in this world so sensorily and socially engaged. Yet it must be an even more remarkable poet who can feel and express genuine admiration for the aspiring juvenile graffiti artist’s literary power and subtlety of expression:

The kid had really been putting all his strength into writing. I bend over and smear my fingers
with the powder. Asshole. Mi-yeong’s mine.… Such gentle hatred. (“Escape Route”)         

Only a poet who puts all his own strength into his writing—Shim Bo-Seon, a one-of-a-kind poet-critic trained in sociology—could perceive, appreciate and inscribe it all so wonderfully.

Shim, who earned his doctorate from Columbia University, is, like Lorca, at least an honorary member of the New York School of poets, and one can detect their presence in him. The conceptual wittiness (Ron Padgett), everyday ecstasy (Frank O’Hara), humor and pleasure in play of language (Kenneth Koch) are evident in “A Poem in –ing”: 

God is a DJ mixing into an infinite version every kind of human feeling. And we human
beings just dance as the rhythm’s dictating.…That’s a blessing. How are you doing? I have
recently once again taken up poetry writing. The fact is, I just call it a poem whenever
I write anything. The other day, I attached a photo to an application  form and claimed
it was a poem, not an application form, or something.          

That said, Shim’s closest New York affinity—in method if not sensibility—is Ted Berrigan, who above all aimed to proceed line by line: 

As a poet, I try to keep going on, straight ahead, without thinking of the end. Poetry
helps me to keep going forward without retreating backward…I get some comfort
and energy from the process of making newness. (“Translators’ Preface”)

The method of linear progression they share is fundamentally one of opposition, often achieved through inversion: 

Passing many times through the same confession,
life produces colorful spectra.
Boredom is my rainbow.
My shadow is the exact opposite of light.
My language is the exact opposite of the exact opposite. (“Delusion Bus”)

There is great joy in such a method, for with it the poet’s progress is never impeded. The steady accretion of such lines—often lines of inquiry—can produce decidedly non-linear effects, including the rippling circularities of moiré fringe patterns Shim likens to “Life’s perfection.” Shim plays the language game flipping and folding, by turning language in upon it-(and him-)self.

And this is where Shim’s lineation departs from Berrigan’s. Berrigan cuts and splices; Shim folds—creases, but never cuts. In Shim’s folding practice, each rhyme, each refrain, each metaphor overlaps:

Darkness is spreading like wine spilled onto a table. (“The Last Dessert”)

This line, from a poem whose title is a play on The Last Supper and the “dessert” in the prodigal son/Exodus sequence of the previous poem, “On Religion,” evokes both the ninth plague and the Passover ritual of spilling wine for it. Still other lines express internality and meaning, which can be felt but not known: “dizziness in full bloom,” “memory like crushed beer cans,” “I am a rumor about myself,” “The wife inside my wife grows sadder still,” and “A sweeper with ears blocked is sweeping up failed metaphors.”

Rhymes reappear from one poem to the next, and various forms and turns of phrase blossom into sequences—especially near the end, where series of elegies and apostrophes (to The Wind, Youth, Nature, Memory, The 18th Century, etc.) bloom, the modular nature of Shim’s art evident in its tessellations and overlays. At times the creases rise to the surface, as apparent in form as in content:

Memory! While I went wandering down dark alleys in search of you, you were already
leaning at the end of the cul-de-sac inside me. (“Song of a Golden Sleeve”)

Amidst the balancing of what sound like sentential logic equations arise outer and inner realization, inversion as introspection:

A friend who fell into despair after joining the army killed himself but a friend who
joined the army after experiencing despair survived. Even if I fold the inside dozens
of times, the outside does not get crumpled at all. (“Song of a Golden Sleeve”)

Shim thus achieves remarkable depth through internal surfaces. When he says he tries to walk into a mirror, you believe him. Shim’s intricately folded poems recall J.M. Coetzee’s natives who have no concept of the internal: for them, man is all surface; even the deepest reaches of the brain and intestines are elaborately furled surfaces:

On the inside there is no outside, or rather, there are too many outsides.
(“Song of a Golden Sleeve”)

In their preface, Chung Eun-Gwi and Brother Anthony of Taizé—accomplished translators to be admired for preserving every facet of this Rubik’s tesseract—describe Shim as a poet of “wit and deceptive simplicity.” Shim’s folds may seem simple at first—but they accumulate in ways that leave us marveling at his mastery. 



by Loren Goodman
Associate Professor, UIC, Yonsei
Author of Famous Americans

Author's Profile

Shim Bo-Seon made his debut when he won the Chosun Ilbo New Writer’s Contest in 1994. He has authored the poetry collections Fifteen Seconds without Sorrow, Someone Always in the Corner of My Eye, and Today, I’m Not So Sure and has co-authored the essay collections Today’s Progressive Ideas and Smoked Art. He has received the Nojak Literary Prize, Kim Jun-Sung Literary Award, and Kim Jong-sam Poetry Award. He is a professor of culture and arts management at Kyung Hee Cyber University. English translations of his books include Fifteen Seconds without Sorrow (Parlor Press, 2016) and Someone Always in the Corner of My Eye (White Pine Press, 2016).