Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Poem: Monica Youn

Monica Youn
I should start today's post by saying I'd initially imagined, as I often do, that these entries would be brief and that the poems would speak for themselves. In a few cases, that's how things have unfolded. In others, like yesterday's...well, one paragraph leads to another, followed by another, and then I've written far more than I intended to. I hope none of it is boring, and that, for readers who might not be familiar with the poem and poet, the commentary is at least somewhat interesting and perhaps even a little insightful. But I am going to strive for brevity or I'll struggle to finish these posts.

Today's poem takes the idea of writing about art and ekphrasis in yet another direction. Instead of focusing on a particular art work or artist, Monica Youn's "Drawing for Absolute Beginners" starts from a more basic principle: drawing--that is, learning to draw--for absolute beginners. Whether in art school or browsing bookstore shelves, you can come across courses and books geared toward "absolute beginners" that presuppose no familiarity with picking up a pen or pencil and sketchbook t all, a state utterly foreign to someone like me who began drawing at 18 months old.

But there are absolute beginners in almost everything out there, and with drawing, a quick Net search showed one such course at The Cooper Union, as well as Andrew Loomis's various instructional series, which include the line quoted as an epitaph in Youn's poem. Yet Youn's poem is about more than drawing per se than, I would venture, exploring how we assemble meaning out of various strands of experience, information, knowledge we encounter, the lines and hatchmarks and shadings of art and life, and how, almost like beginners, we have to interpret what we hope to understand. That also is one definition of how we "read" a poem. We can approach it, as I once suggested in a micro-essay entitled "The X-Ray of the Poem," in a variety of ways, and perhaps we should.

The basic template, however, is that initial instruction beginning "Take any desired height...." And then we proceed from the top of the head to the feet or, as Youn's numbering suggests, from the bottom up. Each eighth is a clue, a glimpse, an answer, with some, like section (or stanza) #7 replete with subsets. What answers to we draw up by the time we're done? Desire is here, tenderness and brutality, relationships of various kinds, loss, and yet, by #1, we hear, overhear, someone saying they want to leave the friend, the beloved, the person with whom they have connected, exactly as they found them. So much has been drawn, indirectly and with a great deal of mystery, but the addressee has not been erased. The relationship between the speaker and the addressee has deepened considerably, though.

Monica Youn is a poet and lawyer who grew up in Houston, the daughter of Korean immigrants, and was a Rhodes Scholar.  She has published three award-winning books of poetry, Barter (2003), in which the poem below appears; Ignatz (2010); and most recently, BLACKACRE (2016), which won the Poetry Society of America's William Carlos Williams Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. She also book on one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions of the last 30 years, entitled Money, Politics, and the Constitution: Beyond Citizens United (2011). She currently teaches creative writing at Princeton University, and is a member of the curatorial group The Racial Imaginary Institute and chairs the Lewis Center Committee on Race and Arts.

by Monica Youn
Take any desired height, or place points for
top of head and heels. Divide into eights. . . .

8.  Head tilted back between the headboard slats. Eyes glass boxes
     filling up with light. Later, drained to a blue-gray, the color of
     good government.
7.  Thus, we see that commodification is a function of local necessity.
     a.  As Angelenos collect percolating shade in shallow pans, to
          leach the arsenic out of the light.
     b.  “And then I buried it.”
          “Where, exactly? And when?”
          “In the chest. Insertion point at the base of the throat. You
          were still asleep.”
          “But what is it, exactly? I mean, I can’t figure out its precise
          extent. I mean, I can feel it there sometimes, like stitches, or
          sometimes like a flanged or branching bone.”
6.  Cross-hatchings of street noise and the Minotaur with his boy’s
     body. Narrowing. Rib cage the verge of a canoe. Armpit a whiff of
     pencil lead.
5.  “If you want to fuck me with that bottle, Mr. Arbuckle, best take
     the foil off first.”
4.  osculation:
     a.  The act of kissing. A kiss.
     b.  Math. A point where two branches of a curve have a common
          tangent and extend in both directions of the tangent.
     c.  To the ankles. Or to the knees. Or just unzipped enough.
3.  Charmeuse chemise. A shuddering fall. Miss Adelaide Hall on
     the chaise longue singing I ain’t much caring / Just where I will
     end. Then jerked upright, skirt hiked to the knee, that bridge
     stretching out under every skip-step. Slaphappy scat-puppet of
     the fixed smile, the meanwhile, Ain’t got nobody to love now.
2.  The bone begging bowl. The foot that pushed it away.
1.  “I want to leave you exactly as I found you.”

Monica Youn, “Drawing for Absolute Beginners” from Barter. Copyright © 2003 by Monica Youn. Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press,

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