Specter, Mirror, Melancholia, Zero: Poetry/Translation as placeholder, double, regurgitation, and excess

by on Oct.15, 2012

(*I’ll get back to this print later, I promise)

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with translating Korean poems, and the recent posts on transfiguration and zero got me thinking about the idea of zero in relation to art, poetry, and translation.


Spirit Calling

O the name that shattered into pieces!

O the name that dissolved into air!

O the name without a holder despite the calling!

O the name which I will die calling!


The one word remaining in the heart

Was never spoken even till the end

O the one that I loved!

O the one that I loved!


The red sun is hanging on the tip of the west-mountain

The herds of deer are crying out of sorrow

From the top of the mountain that is fallen off and landed

I call out your name


Overwhelmed with sorrow I call out

Overwhelmed with sorrow I call out

The calling sound may glide across

But the gap between the sky and the land is too wide


Even if I will turn into a rock fixated on this spot

O the name I will be calling until that moment!

O the one that I loved!

O the one that I loved!


Above is my translation of 초혼(招魂) Spirit Calling by Kim Sowol. This poem may seem like a simple (and a little melodramatic) eulogy for the loved one, but what makes this poem haunting is the ritual of number involved in this poem.

To give some context for this poem: Spirit calling,초혼(招魂) is a Korean shamanistic ritual that starts from deathbed right after the one expected to die ceases to breathe. The person that is considered closest to the dying person then alone climbs to the top of the roof on which he/she holds a piece of clothing that belongs to the dying in the left hand, grabs his/her own waist with the right hand, and calls out the name of the dying three times facing north, hoping that the dying person’s spirit in the air/limbo will come back to the dying body in the room.

From the first two lines of this poem that tell us that the name is now “shattered into pieces” and “dissolved into air” we can tell that this poem starts from the moment of zero, after the spirit calling has failed, the signified is no more, and the name/signifier is nothing more than air/breath wasted. Yet the speaker of the poem goes on to cry out the broken name and its brokenness—signified-lessness—three times and one more, ending with fourth time— which is an excess beyond the three times, the number of completion, the number the ritual asks for. Not only the fourth time of calling out is excess on its own, the fourth call speaks of the speaker him/herself dying, the unnecessary death, excess. However, the excess strangely invites absence back into the poem: The act of spirit calling becomes a prophecy of another death, the death of the speaker, returning the poem to death/lack/zero.

The way this fourth line operates resembles the nature of melancholia; Melancholia is a void that cannot be filled, a lack that has to remain lacking, a hole, the placeholder for the loss, zero. (my impulse is to talk about the relation between this excessive nature of melancholia and melodrama, but I’ll save that for some other post.)

The second stanza opens with a mirror image to the broken name that is cried out loud, “one word remaining in heart/  was not spoken”, which is silent and seemingly intact, being “one” and “remaining in the heart”. However, this “one word remaining in heart” is bound to return to zero, lacking the recipient just like the broken name. It is not entirely clear whom the unspoken word belong to, but that unspoken word that is stated to be unspoken—another moment of zero, the placeholder—is what transfigures “the name that shattered” into “the one that I loved”. By calling “the one that I loved” twice, the speaker almost seems to promise restoration of the loss…

The third stanza is where the melancholia expands into cosmic level, the sun, the mountain, and the deer (that often represent timelessness in Korean folktales) becoming part of this imploding sorrow. But the third line interjects this movement: the mountain that the speaker climbs to call the name once again—Spirit calling usually takes place on the roof so that the caller can be closer to the spirit. The speaker in this poem is going overboard by climbing the mountain—is a fallen one, not like the mountain Jesus’s transfiguration occurs, the mountain that touches the heaven. The new name that the speaker calls is broken for its platform is already broken and fallen. The new name was not a transfiguration after all, just another signifier that is bound to fail.

The third stanza leads to the fourth stanza that is about recognizing the gap between the sky and land, and the excessive sorrow that is overwhelming, binding the speaker to the fallen mountain.

However, in the fifth stanza, instead of giving up or attempting another recovery, the speaker decides to replace the broken signifier by becoming a new signifier, a rock, known in Korean folktale, 망부석, the Waiting rock, the signifier of absence, which is what the waiting widows become in Korean folktale. Yet the ending of this poem is not as resolved as this declaration; It first seems so, as the last stanza ends with three invocations, the number of completion. However the new name, “The one that I loved” is called out only twice, not three times. Calling the new name three times would lead to the acceptance of the failed name, conclusion to this spirit calling, most importantly, the end to the melancholia, the signifier of absence that drives the poem. The rock cannot replace the imploding motion of melancholia that runs this poem. With this ending, two—unfinished—calling, the poem becomes a void, melancholia, the site of lacking, zero (招, a character in the name of the ritual stand for both calling and binding, which makes this melancholic reading more plausible).


This was a poem that I was obsessed with when I moved to America. When I alone moved to America at the age of 16, I felt alienated by English in which I was crippled with stutter and wrong grammar; the language was making my voice into a weird noise. I clawed at my “language”, wanting to return to the state of wholeness as a response to this stressful environment; I was re-reading Korean poetry and fiction over and over again, wrote fiction and poems in my spare time, trying to restore my state into my intact language, the sense of intactness. However, I was in West Texan town where there was no Korean I could speak Korean to (There was one Korean boy whose mother warned me not to speak in Korean to, because she was afraid the guy who finally adjusted to American English would revert back to speaking in Korean). Korean language became the site of melancholia, what had become waste of breath, what I had lost, and where I was mourning for both my language Korean lacking recipient and the impossibility of my transfiguration into a perfect English speaker.


The frustration that I feel when I try to translate sometime resonates this feeling.  I realize, having to explain the context—Korean ritual, folktales, language—this post has become excessively long. I feel inadequate for not being able to just deliver the poem and the reading. I wish to give the poem transfiguration, a wholly new, complete-body of English, yet I cannot do that. The body of translation is always leaking excess.

If transfiguration of a poem is impossible through translation, what is act of translation? What I feel is that I cannot be fixated on either languages, I have to be in the mode of instability, oscillating between two languages, suspicious of whole-ness of the language itself. Beginning from a hole, zero.

Re-starting, regurgitating the text, only to return to the beginning, unwhole, broken language, noise, zero.


What I keep returning to, thinking of these idea, is the teaching of quantum physics that substance is void, more of a movement than “substance”, and Bolano’s description of both transparent and mineral-like Peajarito Gomez, the agent of motion in the story. What is Zero in art?


In these series, I was playing with the idea of starting from the ground-zero, the outdated name of (some no longer existing) cities  and moving into excess, the repeating number 4…


At this point, as I promised, I’m returning to the print, Melencholia I by Albrecht Durer at the beginning of this post. What I like about this print is that this also seems to resonate with the idea of zero/melancholia as the beginning of art. There is a vanishing point is in the sky—with the excessive clutter of symbolism, the eyes cannot bear but to imagine the upper left corner to be vanishing point (also there is a bat that appears to be sucked into or coming out of the vanishing point, point of whiteness, emptiness.). The word melencolia that the ghost-like bat carries draws the eyes of the viewer first, making that a starting point of reading this print, and then we notice the raw material, a chunk of rock with a mark that looks like a face or skull(specter?). And then there is a impossibly perfect sphere that seems to be made with the same material as the rock with a strange mark. The material and its product of transformation coexists in the image, all located on the left side where the vanishing point hovers.


To end this shapelessly expanding post, here is a poem by Yi Sang that I feel like is related to the idea of zero as the beginning of art, the mirror being the zero-medium, oscillating between being and non-being as signified/the person who reflects themselves enters and exit.



I am inside the indoor area without a mirror. The I inside the mirror had stepped out for an outing. I am currently trembling, afraid of the I inside the mirror. Where would the I inside the mirror have gone, and what kind of plan is the I inside the mirror plotting against I…

I sneak into the indoor area with a mirror. To release I from the mirror. But the I inside the mirror enters at the same time without an exception. The I inside the mirror expresses his regret. Like I am imprisoned here because of him he is imprisoned here because of me, trembling.

From “Poem number 15″*

(*there is no title, but numbering)


2 comments for this entry:
  1. Kristen

    I am really fascinated by the idea that excess, via the vehicle of the number four, voids itself to zero — particularly as it relates to translation. The number four in Japanese (shi) is a homonym for death (also: shi); I understand that the kanji character for death is the same character in Chinese, and once was the same character in old Korean script. The symbolic repetitions either overshoot and go for four, or they truncate at two; For all the language here, there also seems to be a longing for death an an inability to accomplish the three statements that would bring the soul back.

    As it relates to Bolano’s substance = void, I think there’s a conundrum here, as only some substances/symbols = 4 = 0. (I haven’t read the post on Zero yet, but I will — please forgive me if I’m treading on ground that has already been covered). The zero, therefore, appears to be beginning, middle and end of this particular poem, rather than solely the impetus or beginning point.

  2. Johannes

    Hi Jiyoon,

    As my gothic childhood post suggests, I’ve been thinking a lot about this: the trauma of homesickness. I noted how it’s kind of easy for me to talk about myself as the embattled immigrant, but it’s harder for me to talk about the sense of loss, the ghostliness of the self, the homesickness. The embattled emigrant is whole, strong in the face of xenophobia. The homesick foreigner is melancholic, sentimental, weak. The self is incomplete, or not “whole,” as you write.

    I recently read this interesting book Homesickness by Susan J. Matt. She shows how homesickness troubled the American model of the self-sufficient immigrant, and how, conversely, prevailing rhetoric pathologized homesickness in order to promote the self-sufficient model of selfhood. It’s about agency and autonomy. We should be strong. Forge ahead. Make decisions. Look forward. Should not look back. Should not be sentimental and incomplete. Matt traces this to the 19th century development of capitalism and its need for more complete subjects.

    (This reminds me of Lennard Davis’s writing about disability coming out of the century’s need for complete bodies for the factory. And it reminds me of Joyelle’s and my essay on translation as “Disabled Text” which outraged so many people. Perhaps we should have called it “The Manifesto of The Homesick Text.”)