Occult Influences: Yi-Sang and Haute Surveillance

by on Feb.08, 2013

As most readers of this meager blog probably know, I have a book coming out this spring called Haute Surveillance. It’s kind of a novel-poem. Or something like that. I tried to write a murder mystery but it turned into more like the memoir of a man imprisoned in the shining mansion on the hill, having been brought there by Reagan and/or a guy in a Reagan rubber mask.


At one party someone made a doll of me. It was a scratch-doll. It was a charged body. There were a lot of tasers at the party. We were partying on media. Now, a child said. Blue, a child said. Now now now. a child said. I knew she must mean me.
I am supposed to build a barn in order to burn down with the pigs inside. I mean the garble-garble inside. Which belongs to the radio on account of the bite.
This is a rampant state. Everybody wants me to leave now because I failed them. Or because the Black Man is no longer coming for me, I have lost my celebrity status.


The artwork on the cover of the book is by Fi-Jae Lee, about whom my wife have written many brilliant and intellectually flamboyant posts. It’s an homage to the Korean poet Yi-Sang, “the Rimbaud of Korean literature” who died in a Japanese prison camp at the age of 27. Before that, though, he seems to have been a wonderful dandy. According to Kim Hyesoon, he used to operate several cafes around Seoul, including one where the overturned furniture made it hard to even get in the door, much less sit down. According to KH, he wore all white.


I put it on the cover because I feel this book (and for that matter, The Sugar Book, my next book) is in close, almost occult dialogue with Yi Sang and his white-clad corpse.

Here are some some excerpts from poems in Three Poets of Modern Korea (trans.by Yu Jung-yul and James Kimbrell) (BTW everyone should buy this book ASAP):

The toy bride might come back, remembering the rich landscape of noon. She is warm like the notepad in my bosom. The scent of her is all that comes close to me. I waste away.

If I give a needle to the toy bride, she will pierce some random objects thoughtlessly. Calendar, book of poems, pocket watch. And the place in my body where the past perches most closely.
This is proof that thorns rise in the mind of the toy bride. That is, like a rose…

13 children rush down a street.
(A dead-end alley will suffice.)

The 1st child says it is terrifying.
The 2nd child says also says it is terrifying.
The 3rd child says also says it is terrifying.
The 4th child says also says it is terrifying.
The 5th child says also says it is terrifying.
The 6th child says also says it is terrifying.
The 7th child says also says it is terrifying.
The 8th child says also says it is terrifying.
The 9th child says also says it is terrifying.
The 10th child says also says it is terrifying.
The 11th child says also says it is terrifying.
The 12th child says also says it is terrifying.
The 13th child says also says it is terrifying.

Can a man with five viscera and six entrails be distinguished from an underwater cattle shed?

I was locked underground like a venomous snake in its high tower and could not move my limbs again• until the sparkling heavens come

When I closed my eyes as if ready for the rifle’s blast, what was it that I spit out instead of a bullet?

If I die pressing my hand over my mouth, the butterly will fly away as if to stand up just after my sitting down. I’ll keep this secret inside.

Red ink spilled from the dummy heart. In my dream (the on I was later for), I was condemned to capital punishment. I did not control my dream. It is a serious crime that separates people who can’t shake hands.

When I participated in a literary festival in South Korea this past fall, I kept talking about Yi-Sang to the Korean poets. They of course all love him. One of the poets confessed that when she had started to write poetry as a teenager, she had glued a copy of the famous picture of him in her journal. Anyway, it’s amazing that he’s not more famous around the world. We should all be reading his poems and wearing his white clothes.

9 comments for this entry:
  1. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    Dear Dead Door

    Whuh! Instantly I ordered 3 Ko Po’s on the strength of those samples alone. And I cant wait to kill or die 4 Haute Surveil (and PUNISH) !!!

  2. Sam

    What do you mean by “occult influence”?

  3. Johannes

    On some level I meant that influence is always occult. But more specifically, I had never read Yi-Sang when I wrote HS, but nevertheless it reads like a strong influence… Johannes

  4. Michael Leong

    Have you seen some of Walter Lew’s translations of Yi Sang?


    Amazing stuff. Also there’s an Yi Sang portfolio in MUAE 1. I’m looking forward to the moment when Walter publishes Yi Sang’s complete poems…that should be an event.

    Where did you hear that Yi Sang “died in a Japanese prison camp”? I’m under the impression he died of TB after being released from a prison in Tokyo.

    I’m also looking forward to HS…

  5. Johannes

    I might have gotten the bio wrong, ML. Dalkey is publishing a book of his writings later this year, I think, or possibly next year. A lot of it is incredibly difficult to translate because it’s not even in Korean- it involves Chinese characters and also characters that are not quite characters (they omit certain lines, or don’t in some other way cohere into a regular character, in some kind of noise-blared version of Pound’s idealization of the ideograph). Totally fascinating writer. / Johannes

  6. Johannes

    Jiyoon has translated some of his poems too. Maybe she can share her thoughts?


  7. don mee

    Johannes, Thanks for this post. Can’t wait to read your new book. And great cover by Fi!

    I am currently translating a new long poem by Kim Hyesoon, and she uses number 9 in an interesting way.

    Yi Sang is well known for his use of numbers in his short fiction as well as poems like the one above.

    (This is something I already shared with Joyelle)
    here is what I gathered from Wiki Korea:
    Yi Sang’s short fiction, “Dec 12” (in Korean we say 12 wol (month) 12 il (day) or for short 12, 12), was serialized from Feb – Dec 1930 in an important magazine put out by the colonial ruling government containing all the colonial policies by top officials. Yi Sang told a few friends after the story appeared in the journal about his use of puns. If you say 12, 12 in Korean it also sounds the same as a swear word referring to the genitals. The swearing was directed at the governor and the Japanese colonial rule of Korea. The story is about a Korean who leaves for Japan on 12 12 to earn some money and returns on 12 12 with money he had earned, and it is the day he dies and also the day he realizes that he needs to live as well and utters 12, 12 together with “pen is my ultimate knife.” Yi Sang has taken a tremendous risk with his word play even if the Japanese officials did not get Yi Sang’s pun at all.
    There are other numbers he used in his poems and stories such as 18 – which also sounds like a swear word as well. And he used number 23 to refer to a sexual act—two legs and three legs (2 legs plus a penis).
    I will soon post Kim Sung-hui’s (feminist poet/critic) 5 short articles in Dong-A Daily.

  8. don mee

    One more from what I shared with Joyelle:

    From Kim Sŭng-hŭi article in Dong-A Daily, April, 1, 2010 -“Re-Reading Yi Sang in the 21st Century”

    Kim Sŭng-hŭi points out that in Yi Sang’s life he showed an unrestrained modern life of free-love, which involved living with his lover Kŭm Hong and other women but at the same time he did not tolerate any “new women” (shin yŏsŏng) of the time who were educated and pursued free-love. (At this time all marriages were arranged marriages.) Yi Sang was aware of his inability to overcome his traditional values and referred to his limitation as the “19th century system.”
    Joyelle, In this article and others I have quickly read through, many of his stories are believed to be based on his own scandalous love life. It is widely known that in his stories such as “Wings” and “Encounters and Departures” are about his lover Kŭm Hong. Yes, she did prostitute herself to support Yi Sang. He was able to open several cafes (they all failed) with the money he inherited from his uncle who was also his step-father. According to his younger sister, his cafes barely had any customers and only frequented by writer friends. When he opened his first cafe, “Swallows,” he had Kŭm Hong as the “Madam” of the café, which meant that she entertained male customers. Kim Sŭng-hŭi says that Kŭm Hong used to beat Yi Sang and abuse him psychologically but that he tolerated it. She had once given Yi Sang a pillow that reeked of other men’s hair oil and then left him. But when Yi Sang sent a message to her to return to him because he was sick, she rolled up her sleeves and did not hesitate to come back to prostitute herself in order to support him.

    Ji Yoon, Looking forward to your thoughts on Yi Sang since you have been translating some of his poems. Where/when will they be available?

  9. don mee

    Ji Yoon will be posting about Yi Sang’s work later today or tomorrow, but here are some more bio info from Wiki Korea:

    His real name was Kim Hae-kyŏng. As you already know, he was born on August 20, 1910 and died when he was only 26, on April 17, 1937. He was the oldest son and had one younger brother and a sister. His father (Kim Yŏn-ch’ang) was poor and illiterate and was considered handicapped as he had lost 3 fingers. His father worked as a barber. When Yi Sang was two, he was adopted by his father’s older brother who had no children of his own. So it is known that he went through a rebellious period during his adolescence about the fact that he had to call his uncle and aunt as his parents, that he could not love his own parents or his adopted parents. As a result of this double or split identity, he always carried around a mirror and played with it alone.

    His adopted father, his uncle, was prosperous and greatly valued education, so Yi Sang was able to complete his high school education in architecture. He was hired as an intern-architect by the Japanese colonial government—the Governor’s department in Korea. He had another pseudonym : Pi-gu. He used Pi-gu when he published his short story called “Chido ŭi amsil” in a journal called CHOSŎN. (Choson is the name of the last kingdom prior to the modernization/colonization of Korea.) Then he used his official pen name Yi Sang for the first time when he published a poem called “6-sided infinite architecture”

    In March of 1933, he ended his work for the architecture department of the colonial government and left on a retreat to Paekch’on Springs because of his tuberculosis. There, he met a prostitute called Kŭm Hong ( her real name Yŏn Sim) and returned with her to Seoul and opened a café called Jebi (means Swallows). This was when he officially delved into literature/writing in order to overcome his fatalism.

    According to his writer friend, Pak T’ae-won, Yi Sang “loved women, loved to drink, loved his friends and loved literature, but he didn’t love his own body—not even one half of whatever else he loved. His death merely borrowed a name from the illness, but the real cause of his death may have been suicide.”

    In June 1936, he married Pyŏn Tong-rim and moved to Tokyo. Then in 1937 he was arrested for “subversive thought” crime, then released due to his illness. He died in the same year as his close friend, Kim Yu-jŏng (one of my favorite writers of that period). Yi’s body was cremated and his funeral was held together his friend’s Kim Yu-jŏng. His ashes were buried at a public cemetery at a district called Miari, but later his actual grave site was forgotten.