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This review is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

Cover of Selected Works
Greg ThomasWhere eyes are supposed to be
Selected Works, Yi Sang, edited by Don Mee Choi, translated by Jack Jung, Sawako Nakayasu, Don Mee Choi, and Joyelle McSweeney (Wave Books) $25
The timeline at the start of this selected edition of Yi Sang’s (1910–37) work recounts the twin events that set in course his emotional and intellectual development. On 29 August 1910, a month before his birth in Seoul, the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty was signed, making Korea a formal protectorate of the Japanese Empire. Around four years later, the group of artists and poets who would become known as the Dada movement began to congregate in Zürich.

The works collected in this volume – poems in Korean and Japanese, along with essays and stories – react to the condition of colonial subjugation in a voice of variously displaced rage and trauma, filtered through the anti-rational programmes of Dada and Surrealism. Yi Sang’s tone is by turns satirical, morbid, anguished, and brilliantly lurid.

His poems in Japanese – a language brutally enforced upon the annexed Korean state – date mainly from 1931 and seem to take as their animus a desire to dismantle the master’s tools and the logical systems encoded therein. Formally elliptical, thematically absurd, one obvious point of reference is Surrealist automatic writing, as in the slap-in-the-face gobbets of nonsense which make up ‘Beard’:

(BEARD • BEARD • ALL THOSE
   THINGS • THAT QUALIFY AS
   FACIAL hair)
1
THERE IS AND WAS A LAUGHTER
   THAT WAS A FOREST IN THE
   PLACE WHERE EYES ARE
   SUPPOSED TO BE

2
CARROT

Sawako Nakayasu’s ingenious encoded translations utilise lower-case, capitalised, and ...


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