• Colin Leemarshall

(REVIEW) Such Weird Mimicry: On Yi Sang’s Selected Works

Photo taken of the collection on a dark wood background. The front cover is cream with a rough texture. The author's name Yi Sang is displayed in dark handwriting print. The title Selected Works is capitalised in smaller text in the centre of the cover.

Colin Leemarshall reveals the translational significance of Yi Sang’s work, through the lens of the recently released, Yi Sang: Selected Works, edited by Don Mee Choi (Wave Books, 2020). Leemarshall weaves through a selection of pieces, highlighting the writer’s concern with certain obsessions, such as flowers and skulls, and showcasing a body of work that is entangled with both the biological body and body politic. These intricate readings emerge into an enquiry as to how the book performs as a collection of multiple, distinct translations.

Yi Sang (1910-1937) has long been heralded as one of Korea’s most visionary and experimental writers. Yet even while his name will perhaps be familiar to English-language readers with an interest in experimental poetries beyond the Anglosphere, his work in English translation has until now been quite diffuse, scattered among various anthologies, magazines, and slim volumes. A new selected works from Wave Books is therefore cause for excitement — doubly so for being compiled under the aegis of poet and critic Don Mee Choi. In addition to Choi’s collaborative translations with Joyelle McSweeney (Yi’s stories), the book also includes translations from Jack Jung (Yi’s Korean poems and essays) and Sawako Nakayasu (Yi’s Japanese poems). There is also some welcome and at times fascinating interpolated matter, perhaps the most illuminating example of which is Choi’s essay ‘Yi Sang’s House’, which both situates the interlinguistic character of Yi’s writing within the context of the Japanese occupation and adumbrates the broader translational significance of his work.

Yi’s writing is characterised by certain obsessions — flowers, skulls, surgical operations, romantic deceptions, etc. A kind of master motif under which all of Yi’s other obsessions are subsumed is the mirror:

It is a great crime to seal up two humans who cannot even shake hands. (‘Poem No. 15’ from Crow’s Eye View, trans. Jung)

Inside the mirror I am a lefty who knows not / how to take my handshake (‘Mirror’, trans. Jung)

As is often the case with discrete fragments across Yi’s oeuvre, these two excerpts can be read as slightly warped reflections of each other. If the chirality of the hand — the impossibility of its being superimposed onto its reflected other — is a synecdoche for the riven ontologies of both Yi’s psyche and his writing, the mirror is the object par excellence for betraying such chirality. Mirrors follow Yi’s narrators from poem to poem. Even when they disappear qua tangible objects, they often remain in the lexical or syntactic arrangement of the lines, sometimes combining to create giddying Droste effects of essence and similitude:

When my father dozes off beside me I become my father and I become my father’s father and even then my father is my father like my father so why do I keep becoming my father’s father’s father’s […] (‘Poem No. 2’ from Crow’s Eye View, trans. Jung)

The affront that Yi’s narrators experience when seeing their reflections is also one that they experience in relation to inanimate objects:

That night because of heavy rain the stone must have been washed clean when I went there the next day o how strange no trace of it was left. What stone carried my stone away (‘This Kind of Poetry’, trans. Jung).

The tension here is one between inviolate identity and amped-up Heracliteanism. Stones are typically interpreted as symbols of immanence and immutability. But in the above excerpt, exposure to the elements has been devastating — after the rain, the stone has not been merely altered, but completely supplanted. Another usurpation, below, gets us still further:

Like an anchor sinking into an ocean, a small sword of my torso is destroyed. When the small sword is totally gone, I find a dead small sword, abandoned at the same location. (‘Decorum’, trans. Jung).

From one point of view, Yi’s metaphysics here appear fundamentally ungenerous. The ‘destruction’ seemingly occurs in the absence of the conditions for it; that is, the sword’s apparently stable composition and location do not suffice to preserve its haecceity as particular sword — whatever sword is retrieved is a different sword entirely. We encounter “such weird mimicry” (‘Flowering Tree’, trans. Jung) at every turn in Yi’s works.

The poems translated from the Japanese hit us with a slightly different force than those translated from the Korean. Yi’s Dadaist and surrealist tendencies are often alluded to, but such is the speed on display in some of Nakayasu’s translations that they often more forcefully evoke Italian Futurism. While Yi’s complex and dissonant relationship to speed precludes any embrace of fascism, the velocity of his poems nonetheless threatens the subject in a way that might be considered anti-humanist. Particularly noticeable is the scientific and mathematical inflection to some of Nakayasu’s translations. Weird operations stack up across the poems, and the subjects are just as likely to be numerical (‘1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0’) or symbolic (‘▽’) as onomastic or pronominal. Even so, the specular play remains:

To make it so that numerals are numerals from the fact that it is so that numerals are numerals from the fact that it is so that numerals are numerical from the fact that it is so that numerals are algebraic (The dumping grounds for poetic affect and for the investigation of the disease of 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0) (in ‘Memorandum on the Line 6’ from Solid Angle Blueprint, trans. Nakayasu)

As though foregrounding the purported exactitude of numbers, the first two lines are identical here, suggesting something like an idempotent operation — a preserving of effect that runs counter to the metaphysical flux of the Korean-translated poems. But things then break down, and the numerical string is described as being possessed of a ‘disease’ (numbers, it seems, are no less impervious to morbidity than are Yi’s human subjects). That Yi is a thoroughly nosological poet — a relentless diagnostician and inventor of maladies — is perhaps unsurprising, given that he was for years beset with pulmonary complaints and ultimately died from tuberculosis at age 27, following his imprisonment by the Japanese for ‘thought crimes’. Even so, Yi’s thoroughgoing nosology is a slippery one, and our purchase on both the diseases and the armamentaria must remain tenuous:

Problem concerning the condition of a certain patient.

Intricate table of numerical patterning, moving up between 1 to 9  on the squares on the right hand side and moving down from 0, 9-1 on the right hand side,

Diagnosis 0 : 1 2 6 • 1 0 • 1 9 3 1 End of Document Attending physician: Yi Sang (‘Diagnosis 0:1’ from Architecture Infinite Hexagon, trans. Nakayasu)

A poem almost identical to the above (its numbers and bullet points are inverted) appears among Jung’s translations. Appropriately, the mirroring is slightly inexact due to the different source languages, and Yi further adds to the uncanniness by presenting slightly different ‘problems’ (the Korean-translated version reads ‘Problem concerning the patient’s face’). I am reminded here of Yi’s brilliant short story The Wings (not included in this selection), in which he writes: ‘It is worth trying to counterfeit yourself’ (trans. Ahn jung-hyo and James B. Lee). The slight disparity between Yi’s two diagnosis poems seems to me an example of such counterfeit ontology, since neither poem can quite break free from the stealth imbrication of its translated other. Everywhere Yi’s narrators look, there are fakes and imitations. But the fakeness is also reflexive, characteristic of the Ding an sich (or the human self, depending on the focus). The urge to reflexively counterfeit represents both an acknowledgement that the subject is already a priori compromised and an attempt to possess an inviolate subjectivity despite such acknowledgment.

The harrowing and irresolvable cognitive dissonance that follows might be interpreted as a sequela of modernity, the symptoms of which are explored in a more discursive mode in some of Yi’s essays. One of the most interesting essays, ‘A Journey into the Mountain Village’, was written during a sojourn away from the capital. And yet, we get the sense when reading this essay of a displaced flâneur, someone whose bucolic or pastoral inclinations are offset by the rush of an evoked city. When Yi’s narrator ‘listen[s] closely to the bees’ wings, [he] can hear the rickety fan inside the parlor of Renaissance Café in Seoul’; when his attention is drawn to a ‘kisaeng flower’, he thinks of the city’s kisaeng — ‘How the Westminster cigarettes seem bound to their lips […] scented with Wrigley’s chewing gum’. The capitalistic detritus of the city makes incursions even into the narrator’s dreams, and he is unable to rid himself of the residue by any dint of will. Towards the end of the essay, the narrator writes:

I have a city person’s nostalgia to worship all my fellow wayfarers. Women who are fresh like the covers of new magazines—gentlemen who are as old as their neckties—my pale-faced friends—my home that does not wait for me. For all of them, I want to rewrite the words of my naked body and send them to the city. I fall asleep—in my dream, the metal types at a printing press are jumbled while they are being set up to print the bible. The printer’s apprentice thoughtlessly puts them back together. I become the disciple who gets drawn and quartered. I renounce my starving family, not just three times but ten times. (Trans. Jung)

As elsewhere throughout the book, biblical detail is uncannily reflected, the narrator here casting himself as a Peter whose excessive treachery plays out against a domestic, rather than a divine backdrop. The salvific promise encapsulated in the narrator’s ‘beloved Gospel of Luke’ cannot survive the mediatic onslaught of the modern city — whether that city be Seoul or the colonialist metropole that is the focus of another of Yi’s essays in this selection, Tokyo. The confluence of writing and body (‘the words of my naked body’) also warrants mention. For Yi, writing seems to be an almost painfully somatic affair. Elsewhere, he writes of his ‘body’s poetry’; of ‘crumpled skin’ that ‘returns to me as blank paper’; and of ‘blood-soaked calligraphy’ (trans. Jung). Perhaps slightly more dubiously, he also figures female bodies as skin parchment, as in the poem ‘Girl’: ‘When her stomach aches, someone is playing tricks on her with a pencil’; ‘the girl hides, as emaciated as paper’; ‘The girl’s smell lingers in my metal printing types’. Here, as elsewhere in Yi’s writing, one might detect a distasteful figuration of the male gaze and female subservience. But Yi’s writing never lets the skeletal hierarchies fully ossify. Indeed, in her afterword, ‘Thirteen for Yi Sang, for Arachne’, Joyelle McSweeney reads the subservience as ‘a revaluation not according to the hierarchies of the [Japanese] occupation’. She goes on to write:

[…] Yi Sang’s body of work is the spider-hole, a place where values are reversed and upended, where proscriptions are resisted, where a sex-worker bride dominates the prone man, where the forcefulness of masculinity is shed like an exoskeleton, where the powerless explore the subaltern zone of their stigmatized embodiment.

The body of work is thus necessarily entangled with the biological body and the body politic. For Yi, the stratifications and lacerations that result from such entanglement betoken a constant fissuring of identify and power relations. Such fissuring is thus constitutive of an imperiled subject but also of an imperiling one.

All of this leads us to the question of how this particular book works as a collection of translations. Given the fraught, specular play of Yi’s writing — its pageant of reflected doubles and counterfeits and epigones — one might make the case that translation simpliciter is already an essential problematic for Yi’s original works. That is, we might say that in putting pen to paper, Yi was already concerned with the forlorn task of transposing an original Yi Sang into words. It is appropriate, then, that this book should feature multiple translators, given that the aggregate gets us away from the notion of a definitive translation, a true reflection. In a literary climate in which solitary ‘mistranslated’ words can elicit the high dudgeon of critics — or in which creative elision can be treated as an act of bowdlerization — a group translation project that works contra notions of the definitive can be read as a welcome, politically inflected statement. This contention should not be taken as an embrace of mawkish relativism — certainly, a healthy translation culture should always admit of challenges to certain choices, even within a spirit of comity. But how these challenges are posed is important. Consider the very first line of ‘Poem No. 1’ in Yi’s Crow’s Eye View sequence: ‘13 children speed towards the way’ (trans. Jung). Being familiar with this poem in the original Korean, as well as via several other translations, I cannot help but feel that Jung’s ‘towards the way’ jarringly amplifies some of the lower frequencies of the original at the expense of the most resonant frequencies. (By way of comparison, Walter K. Lew translates this line as ‘13ChildrenRushdownaStreet’; Brother Anthony as ‘13 kids go racing along a street’; and Myong-hee Kim as ‘Thirteen children are running down a road’). At the same time, the temporal and spatial removes woven into Jung’s line are also daringly estranging — and perhaps appropriately so, given that they further distance the poem from its own horizon in a way that seems somehow befitting of a Yi Sang work. Furthermore, this poem (which necessarily defects from the 13-syllables-per-line exactitude of the original), almost begs to be read as part of a complex that comprises all of the entries in the book. While there is a necessary defection from the number 13 in Jung’s translation, the fidelity might be said to be upheld by proxy elsewhere — perhaps in Joyelle McSweeney’s afterword, for example. Still, as McSweeney knows, there are always vacuoles in the Yi Sang complex, even when the numbers appear to add up. The eleventh entry in her afterword, for instance, comprises simply a swatch of white space followed by a lone typographical symbol: ‘*’. For McSweeney as much as anyone, the vacuolisation of Yi’s writing must at times feel almost unbearable. Her thirteenth entry reads in part:

While we were finalizing our texts my baby girl was born and died. Her name was Arachne. She lived thirteen lucky days. After she died, I questioned everything, including whether it was wise to name a baby after an artist who defied the gods. Spider&Spider&. My thoughts ampersand and scatter. They no longer run in a straight line down the alleys. I look sidelong at mirrors and I look for clues in broken glass. Where is my baby?

This devastating personal revelation encodes a string of presences and absences. ‘Spider&Spider&’ is a reference to the somewhat Kafka-esque story ‘Spider&SpiderMeetPigs’, translated by Choi and McSweeney in this book. McSweeney’s harrowing personal trauma finds structural echoes in Yi’s elusive writing. A deeply insightful reader of Yi’s work, McSweeney tells us, in an allusion to ‘Poem No. 1’, that her thoughts ‘no longer run in a straight line down the alleys’. Her question (‘Where is my baby?’) finds a kind of structural echo in the deictic problems posed by ‘Spider&SpiderMeetPigs’: ‘But, O, if you compare your life to mine, no, my life to yours, whose is truly superior? No, whose is truly inferior?’ This deviation from hierarchical certitude finds a generous mirror in the book’s embrace of other Yi Sang translators not represented herein (Jack Jung thanks ‘Emily Jungmin Yoon for her friendship and work as a fellow Yi Sang translator’, and Don Mee Choi recognizes ‘Walter K. Lew, who has previously established Yi Sang’s visibility in the US through his brilliant translations’). Ultimately, the book’s translational capaciousness and ingenuity make it an entirely worthy introduction to the work of Yi Sang. Even though one might reasonably claim that some of Yi’s best works, such as The Wings and Donghae, are not included in this selection, such a quibble perhaps misses the point. Namely, that this timely selected both instantiates a vital dialectics-at-work within its own pages and positions itself in conversation with Yi Sang translations past and future.

You can order a copy of Yi Sang: Selected Works from Wave Books, here.


Text: Colin Leemarshall

Image Credit: Colin Leemarshall

Published: 27/7/21