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.
DRAWING FOR ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS
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, www.graywolfpress.org