Two Poems by Yi Sang
translated by Michael Joseph Walsh
The textual history of these two pieces is somewhat fraught. “Untitled (Boneshards)” was not published in Yi Sang’s lifetime, making its first appearance in the first edition of Yi Sang’s Collected Works, published posthumously in 1956 and edited by Lim Jong-guk. The poem was originally written in Japanese (under the title 骨片ニ関スル無題), but a Korean translation of the poem, alongside translations of other poems originally written in Japanese, appeared in Lim’s edition without acknowledgement of their original language of composition. “Untitled 1” may have been published near the end of Yi Sang’s life, but it has often been omitted from later collected volumes.
However, although the circumstances around the publication of these poems remain uncertain, both have to varying degrees been traditionally included as part of Yi Sang’s body of work, and have been vectors for his continued influence on both Korean and world literature. The novelist Han Kang, for example, has cited the last line of “Untitled (Boneshards)” as one of her initial inspirations for The Vegetarian, whose English translation won the 2016 Man Booker Prize.
Colored miraculously not blood-red but white
Split a painted apple with a saw and voilà the inner flesh, white
So even God must appreciate finely crafted painted wares—no matter how red the apple there remains the inner flesh, white. And with this God means to deceive humankind.
Snap a photo of an ink bamboo and hold the negative up to the sun—it looks like bones.
A skull resembles a pomegranate—no—the negative of a pomegranate resembles a skull (?)
Have you ever seen a shard of a living person's bone? In an operating room—that's a dead thing, have you ever seen a living shard of bone? Teeth! Oh God—so even teeth are shards of bone. And therefore so are nails?
I think that only people are truly plants.
Last night · Said the half-moon left at my bedside · Is cross-eyed, tonight · Shards of shattered Italian mirror · Having entered the tomb of Ankara · Heart's Kentucky · Scattered like bees shadows calves, when a place like that arrives
Jeong Byeon-ho's "hello"
Turtle is turtle · Turtle Or Through Hapcheon to Haeinsa At Haeinsa, a lineage
Waterstar Avalokiteshvara Body of a tiger who entered the underworld
Earthstar Tathāgata Body of a pheasant who entered its tomb
Day of celebration · Emerges in heaven, day of the absolute · Emerges in the realm of hungry ghosts, and the wind blows and pear blossoms bloom, day of the dead bones · Emerges in hell, day of the human body · Then becomes a person and blooms, a chandelier.
Michael Joseph Walsh is the author of Innocence (CSU Poetry Center, 2022) and co-editor of APARTMENT Poetry. His poems, reviews, and translations from the Korean have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Guernica, FOLDER, Fence, jubilat, and elsewhere. He lives in Denver.