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.”