[English] The Thanatos Room: Selected Works by Yi Sang

  • onMarch 25, 2021
  • Vol.51 Spring 2021
  • byKatherine Beaman
Yi Sang: Selected Works
Tr. Jack Jung et al.

In considering the work of Korean Modernist poet Yi Sang, one first thinks of the rooms, the dark, exilic rooms, their windows overpowered by a breeze that cannot be shut out. Inside, there is an emaciated insect-man, scrambling for life just as he scrambles for annihilation. Dark, musty rooms, rooms for a kind of post-mortem life, a place for teetering between failing health and the comforting assurance of death. Rooms that are not merely rooms, but whose walls loosely delineate conscious and unconscious life, rooms which are big enough to contain a whole country confined by the limits of a native tongue which cannot be entirely expressed in the language of the colonizer. Wave Books brings us reproductions of these rooms in Yi Sang: Selected Works, a collaborative effort in translation from Jack Jung, Sawako Nakayasu, Don Mee Choi, and Joyelle McSweeney, which spans the breadth of the bleak and whirling poems, personal essays, and fiction pieces by Korean architect-cum-Modernist poet Yi Sang. Yi wrote under the dark period of Japanese colonial rule over Korea, which entailed forced assimilation into the Japanese language and suppression of anti-fascist political dissidents, all while his body withered from the tuberculosis which would ultimately result in his untimely death at twenty-seven.

In their highly intimate essays, Choi and Nakayusu both begin with an account of a visit to Yi Sang’s childhood home. From his house, they weave in their own experiences into Yi’s dark, exilic rooms of the psyche, wearing the poetry and life of Yi Sang like a cloak, assembled from the deconstructed fibers of the original text, together with their own contexts and experiences, into a custom-made garment. It is a spider-like operation of carrying the vestiges of history into the present, of carrying the forced estrangement of the colonial subjects of history, as in the case of Yi into their own relationships to colonial linguistic estrangement. In her essay “Introduction to the Japanese Poems of Yi Sang,” Nakayusu quotes Serk Bae Suh’s writing on translation in colonized language: “Just as colonialism maintains differences between the colonized and colonizers while claiming to erase them, translation simultaneously points to the gulf between two languages while trying to bridge the gap.”

Yi’s writing, prior to translation, is already a product of estrangement, as he subversively published work in a mixed Hanja-Korean script, often used words and symbols reminiscent of mathematical, medical, and alchemical language, and twisted Japanese language conventions to accommodate his own linguistic estrangement as a colonized subject. It is even more so under translation; to read Yi Sang in translation is to look into Yi Sang’s mirror (a recurring theme in his work, especially in his periodical series of poems Crow’s Eye View, which was published in the newspaper Chosun Central Daily until the series was abruptly discontinued due to public backlash that complained the poems were the ravings of a madman). Within the poetry of Yi Sang, the device of the mirror is that which connects an original to its image, the conscious to the unconscious, while always, always rendering a distorted, flipped image of the original and never permitting the object and its image to touch. “Because of the mirror I cannot touch the me-inside-the-mirror,” Yi writes. “Because of the mirror I get to meet the me-inside-the-mirror.” Because Yi, in true Surrealist form, deals in matters of the unconscious, because he intentionally subverts the language conventions to introduce estrangement, and because translation necessarily obscures its source object through the act of mimicry, Yi’s writing can only be met, never touched.

The unconscious contained within the mirror exists in the night, roaming and committing acts of violence out of thanatos, its death drive, which converges with eros, the drive toward life, a connection made by Joyelle McSweeney in her gutting afterword “Thirteen for Yi Sang, for Arachne,” and a likely result of the influence of the introduction of Freudian psychology to Korea, along with technology, Christianity, Western Modernist art movements, and other by-products of the simultaneous drive toward life and annihilation of the self. In his poem “Paradise Lost,” indicative of his influence by Renaissance poets like Milton, Yi relates modernized Korea to a post-fall Eden, infected by new knowledge and progress in a similar way to how his lungs were infected by the airborne particles of industrialization, resulting in estrangement from a primal state of oneness with the subconscious, as in the Tower of Babel. He writes:

I do not know why angels love hell so much. Perhaps the angels have figured out hell’s appeal.

You can taste the poison in every shade of an angel’s kiss. Once you are kissed, you fall ill then perish.


Katherine Beaman
Critic, Engineer, Short Fiction Writer

Author's Profile

Yi Sang (1910–1937) is Korea’s representative writer of the 1930s. His books have been published by France’s Zulma, Russia’s Hyperion, Spain’s Verbum, and Germany’s Literaturverlag Droschl. English editions of his works include Muae 1WingsCrow’s Eye View: The Infamy of Lee Sang, Korean Poet; and Three Poets of Modern Korea: Yi Sang, Hahm Dong-seon and Choi Young-mi.