Yi Sang (1910–1937) was a poet and a short story writer during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Despite his brief literary career, he left behind perhaps the most influential body of work in modern Korean literature. Suffering from tuberculosis, Yi Sang channeled the pain of his illness as a metaphor for the tumultuous world in the early twentieth century. At the end of his life, he was arrested by the imperial police in Tokyo, who had power to detain without evidence any Korean they deemed suspicious. His respiratory illness, incurable at the time, worsened in jail, and he died soon after being released.
The following selection of his poems share many of the features that were typical of his work. Often bedridden and isolated due to his poor health, Yi Sang transformed his agony into surreal scenes like those found in “Brazier” and “Morning.” In “Family,” the poet laments his inability to provide for his loved ones who lived in extreme poverty, alluding to his diseased body as the reason for his powerlessness and for his family’s misfortune. These expressions of loneliness and guilt, drawn from the poet’s personal illness and hardships, speak to us in our time of pandemic and economic downfall.
“Street Outside Street” stands as a singular culmination of Yi Sang’s techniques and themes. According to a memoir written by one of his contemporaries, the poet himself considered it his masterpiece. The poem begins as a fast-paced montage that mixes images of a body in pain, a world in turmoil, and a broken city. These images collapse into one another like many different reels of film being played simultaneously on the same screen. Investigating the symptoms of a ravaged body and of a dying world as if they were one and the same, the poet lays bare secrets and hypocrisies of his society: his homeland occupied by an empire touting its imperialism as a force of progress; his people brutally subjugated and policed in that colonized reality; his quarantined community struggling through a viral outbreak in the city—all the while the empire wages wars of conquest against other nations.
Near the end of the poem, the “trash” that was swept away from a room ends up in the same room. And the title’s “street,” which is outside of another street, remains within the concept of a city. The “trash” and the “street” are what the powerful exclude and hide as “the other” from their world, but they can never be truly removed or forgotten. The literal translation of the poem’s original Korean title is “Story of a Street Outside of a Street”—Yi Sang is telling a story about the lives that were isolated, ignored, and hidden from the surface of a sick society. He reveals the concealed reality by repeatedly cracking open the language. Through those cracks, we witness bodily and state violence in intimate conjunction.
The freeze touches and desires to enter the room. The room endures. Holding on to the brazier, I struggle together with the book I am reading and pull on the house’s main pillar. The freeze pushes in and the room’s window caves in like a tumor. The brazier’s fire goes out. Frozen inside what is barely a room, I lose my mind. Tides must be ebbing and flowing on a distant ocean. Suddenly, my mother sprouts from the room’s finely tilled floor, takes the brazier from my wound, and carries it away
into the kitchen. Outside, there was a tumult,
I think, but a tree grows out of me. I stretch out my arms and block the window. Laundry clubs drum on my back—I am covered in rags. My mother carries off the freeze on her shoulders—it is a miracle. She brings back the brazier in her arms, warm like a cough medicine. She stands on my feverish body. My terrified book flees.
The midnight air ruins my lungs. Soot settles in. I make a fuss about my pain all night. Night comes and goes endlessly. Day breaks, when I can no longer remember what has been happening. Like a lamp inside my lungs, morning is turned on. I look around to see if anything has disappeared overnight. My habit has returned. I have ripped out many pages from my shamefully extravagant book. The early light carefully writes itself on my book’s exhausted conclusion. As if the noseless night will never return.
Though I keep pulling, the gate does not open, because my family inside is barely alive. Night fiercely scolds me. You have no idea how annoyed I am before the gate, where hangs a plaque with my name on it. I burn like a straw effigy in the night. My family is trapped inside the sealed door, but I cannot trade myself in. Frost comes down on our roof; the sharp needlelike tips on the roof are colored with moonlight. They tell me my family is suffering. One of them might be taking out a loan against the house. My family members are being pawned off one by one. I hang on to the gate’s knobs like a drooping iron chain. Because I am trying to open the unopenable gate because
I am trying.
Clamor grinds my body to nothing. Everyone says I am a boy, but I have an old face. Like an abacus bead punished for leaping out of its line, I barely hang on to my bridge and look down on a tranquil world below. Children as old as me giggle, gang up, and attempt to cross my bridge. Already, moonlight’s weight is wobbling my bridge. Strangers’ shadows are huge at first, then grow fainter, until they all collapse. Cherries ripen. Seedlings fade into smoke.
My investigation leads nowhere—where is the applause I deserve? Perhaps this is a treason against my father. Silence—when I try to speak through my blocked pharynx, my speech sounds like a dialect. No—silence is clamor’s dialect. I try to spill it all—my tongue’s sharp edge probes my fresh bridge’s center. Every day I rot, and my rotting follows a path, and an alley miraculously opens inside this path. My rotting flows in and comes upon a door of opulence. Inside the door are golden teeth. Surrounded by the golden teeth, a degenerate tongue dangles from diseased lungs. O—O—. I can enter this alley, but I cannot escape its depth. Its depth begins to resemble my internal organs. A switched pair of shoes stagger over. Germs make my lower abdomen ache. Watery.
I ruminate. Because I am a crone. A sleep-inducing benefit of a disbanded government comes into view on a mirror in front of me. It is a dream—dream—dream that tramples on vain labor—this century’s fatigue and bloodthirst spread out like the grid of a baduk board. My voracious lips secretly pretend to dine above such maliciously crumpled mire. Sons—many sons—their heavy shoes kick over the crone’s wedding—the soles are made of iron.
When I climb down many stairs, wells become harder to find. I am a little late. Stale wind blows—school pupils’ maps change colors daily. Far from home, the roofs of the houses have no choice but to shake. The colony is in its season of acne. People stagger and pour hot water on those who are sleep-talking. Thirst—the thirst is unbearable.
This ground was once the bottom of a primal lake. Salty. The pillars holding back the curtains become damp. Clouds do not come near me. My tonsils swell in the humorless air. There is a currency scandal—my hand, looking like a foot, shamelessly holds the crone’s throbbing hand.
A rumor goes around about a tyrant’s infiltration. Babies constantly turn into little grave mounds. The grown-ups’ shoes hit other grown-ups’ shoes. I never want to see them again, but where can I escape to? In a state of emergency, quarantined neighbors mingle. The distant cannon blasts and the blisters on our skins soothe us.
All I have here now is the stifling trash that came out of sweeping my vast room. Crows as big as suffocated doves once flew into my thunderbolt-infested room. The stronger crows tried to get out, but they caught the plague, and fell one by one. The room was purified, ready to explode. However, everything I have put down here is just my recent trash.
I go. A train car carrying Sun Tzu avoids my room. A note written in shorthand is laid out on my desk. There is also a cheap dish, and on the dish is a boiled egg—my fork bursts the egg’s yolk. A bird, a medal, flies out—a wind from the bird’s clapping wings tears up the grid. A flock of prophetic documents dances wildly on a field of ice. My blood wets a cigarette. The red-light district burns through the night. Fake angels begin to breed, flying every direction, covering up the entire sky. However, everything I have put here in my room is heating up, clamoring all at once. The vast room rots from within. The wallpaper gets itchy. The trash wildly sticks to my walls.
Translated by Jack Jung
Yi Sang: Selected Works, edited by Don Mee Choi, is out now from Wave Books.