The Waves and Particles of Sadness

  • onSeptember 4, 2018
  • Vol.41 Autumn 2018
  • byRa Heeduk

Shin Cheolgyu’s poems show us that a human is, above all else, a being with a heart. Because the physical activity of the heart is inextricably interlocked with the abstract activity of the soul, the poet’s uniquely delicate heart reacts to even small sadnesses with great sensitivity. The beating of the heart and the currents of blood—if this flow stops for even a moment, the body stiffens and begins to grow cold. In order to avoid this, “the heart beats ceaselessly to send the blood to a place higher than itself” (“Higher than the Heart”). This may seem like a natural physiological phenomenon, but for a corporeal being, it is an act of constant resistance against gravity, which pulls the blood down. When the poet said in an interview that he “wanted to show that we still had ‘the ability to be sad,’” he is, in a way, saying that the ability to perceive sadness is a bare minimum requirement for being human. In that sense, I’d like to call him an “appraiser of sadness.”

In his commentary on Shin Cheolgyu’s first book of poems, As Sad as the Earth, the critic Shin Hyong-cheol called the collection “the book of an angel that has lost his wings.” As for the fundamental structure of the poems, the critic points to “a prayer” and “a cry.” But this is not to say that the poems choose prayer as an easy way to transcend reality, or that they sentimentally vent a personal pain. Rather, by taking pains to reign in his emotions and retain an objective attitude in his testimony of this cruel world, the poet secures ample room for the social aspect of sadness. To borrow Ulrich Beck’s term, the poems have what can be called a “cosmopolitan empathy”—they transcend regional, class, and national boundaries to resonate with the sadness of others.

Especially in poems such as “The Gravity of Tears,” “Black Room,” and “Babel,” which deal with the Sewol Ferry disaster, the depression and the nightmares of this era that Korean society is undergoing are made visible. In “Black Room,” which begins with “because of sadness overload, we sank. / Sadness was lopsided, so the world stumbled,” the speaker cannot even call out God’s name in despair. “The two hands in prayer filled to the brim with black water,” and in the suffocating room where “even in my dreams the air was thin,” he cries out in pain. In “Babel” he also says “our hearts / are splintered like the documents shredded in a shredder.”

In severe pain, he “becomes a teardrop as hard as a rock” (“The Gravity of Tears”). Even the waves of sadness stop, and the tears, unable to flow, become a cold, hard particle. And so the poet says “some tears are so heavy that you have to cry facedown,” and that “in a tear, you can flood someone or / a teardrop can make him frozen still” (“Drift Ice”). The moment in which these “feelings that flowed in waves split into particles and scatter” (“Month 11”) is accompanied by the feeling that the “heart sinks down a stretch or so,” causing dizziness.

These moments occur when you experience the discord or distance between “I” and “the world” or “I” and “others.” To borrow the poet’s expression, the discord between oneself and the world causes one to feel “the gap between the enormousness of the world and the smallness of the self,” and the severance between oneself and others makes it impossible for one to garner “empathy, having his sadness understood by others.” Even in this practical impossibility, the poet sings the lamentations of his generation against the fundamental pain of sadness and loss.

The question of whether poetry serves beauty or politics has been an important point of contention in the realm of South Korean poetry since the 2000s. With the acceleration of neoliberalism and the ensuing deterioration of society, it became infeasible for poets to remain content in the realms of aesthetics or deconstructive experimentation. Poets are walking out of their enclosed dens to seek communities small and large, trying to extend empathy and solidarity to their suffering neighbors. Being unable to just walk past a single crying person, sitting quietly next to him or crying with him—if there is an ethics to poetry, that might be it.

This young poet, who has realized early on that “the inside of earth is filled with tears” (“The Rotation of Sadness”) will probably continue his sadness rotation for a long, long time. And then, when he finds yet another planet that is crying, he will ask: “Is this heaven or hell? / Are you a monster? Am I a human? / Are we and the world on the same side?” (“Dracula of the Night”). The infinite tears in those questions will also cycle between waves and particles, breaking, and breaking again, until “broken lights become a song and / broken cries become ripples, the scales of water” (“Babel”).

Translated by Hedgie Choi


Author's Profile

Ra Heeduk has authored eight poetry collections, including A Disappeared Palm (2004), three essay collections, and two volumes of literary criticism. Her collections in translation include Scale & Stairs (2006), Wild Apple (2011), and Le ver à soie marqué d'un point noir (2017). She participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2007. Ra teaches creative writing at Chosun University.