Friday, November 26, 2010

cat and mouse . . .

. . . and poetry!

Monica Youn

(Tribeca: Four Way Books, 2010)
[6" x 9" - 69 pages]

Monica Youn’s Ignatz first came to my attention in early August, when in an interview Rae Armantrout said she’d recently received and enjoyed the book. On that, I immediately bought it. For me, it’s usually a smart move to follow such leads when given by poets, especially from those I think write tremendously themselves.

So, for about three months I’ve been reading Youn’s book, intensely. During that time, Ignatz was announced as a National Book Award finalist. Even better for me, on November 12th Youn (who lives and works in New York) traveled to the California College of the Arts (CCA) here in San Francisco, and I was able to hear her read from and answer a few questions about her book.

Ignatz presents an initial challenge, one that will require some to do a bit of work, if learning about a classic piece of American creativity can be called work. The book’s title (a proper name, one that is also repeated in the title of 35 of the book’s 39 poems (and which shows up within many poems as well)), comes from a newspaper comic – George Herriman’s Krazy Kat – that was last regularly published more than sixty years ago. More than that, the dynamics of the Krazy Kat “story line” provide the animating core and frame for the poems.

Now Krazy Kat (1917-1944) remains cherished by comic aficionados, and is often acclaimed as a high spot of daily newspaper strips. But I think its current Q Score (a measure of familiarity and appeal in the culture at large) is relatively low. Ignatz ain’t Mickey (or Minnie), Popeye (or Olive Oil or Bluto), or even Little Nemo, to name a few better know old-time comic characters.

Youn’s use of an old-time and probably obscure-to-many comic to anchor and animate her collection probably doesn’t attract lots of readers, and it is definitely unusual. However, that’s part of what makes Ignatz so singular and marvelous. I figured she must deeply love Herriman’s strips (she so confirmed when I asked her earlier this month, before her CCA reading), and as W.B. teaches, “Exuberance is beauty.” By putting Ignatz (and by association all of Krazy Kat) center-stage, Youn tries to infect us readers, or at least those unfamiliar with Herriman’s work, with her enthusiasm.

A short note in the back of the book explains the basics of Krazy Kat, which can also be found on-line. Here are the barest essentials, excerpted from Youn’s fuller summary:
The strip is set in Coconino County, Arizona, and stars Krazy Kat, a feline of indeterminate gender and mutable patois. Krazy is hopelessly in love with Ignatz Mouse, a rodent of criminal tendencies, who, in turn, despises Krazy and whose greatest pleasure is to bean the lovelorn cat in the head with a brick. Krazy interprets these missiles as tokens of reciprocated affection, and the cat-mouse-brick-love cycle recurs in almost every strip.

Ignatz, the book, similarly spins around intense interpersonal desire and obsession. The poems are mostly (though not exclusively) written from or consider the perspective of Krazy Kat, or more precisely, a Krazy Kat, a character or person (female gendered in Youn’s poems) who deeply desires someone else. In the poems, the someone, of course, is Ignatz; a few poems also deal more specifically with his obsession, to bean Krazy.

How perfect that Youn’s poems about desire and obsession repeatedly (let’s say obsessively) evoke a comic that Youn herself really, really likes and which itself obsessively (day after day, for decades) riffed on the desire and obsession. It’s almost mirrored mirrors mirroring mirrors, or something like that. While such an approach risks gaudiness, Ignatz isn’t that way at all, mostly because of Youn’s considerable poetry-writing skills, several examples of which are set out below.

The poems in Ignatz, while centered on desire and obsession, are not just love poems, at least not as traditionally conceived. To paraphrase what Youn said at her CCA reading, the subject matters addressed and presented are “weirder” (I think she used that word) than just plain old romantic longing. Krazy’s desires are never fully, entirely, happily, or even at all fulfilled, and yet the hope, the want, goes on and on. The poems thus explore and depict what happens when longing (to get cheap about it) just gets longer and longer, when attachment is frustrated or the desired connection interrupted.

One key idea is how such desire or obsession can render a person, to quote from “Ignatz Recidivist,” “helpless / helpless / hopeless.” There is also in Ignatz plenty of the twists and turns of desire and obsession, including the idealizing of the other, the imbuing, for example, of him/her with heroic or magical qualities. As perhaps you yourself know, such emotions and thoughts can get mighty strange (and yet still be streaked with moments of beauty).

A most excellent example is “Ignatz Pacificus,” a poem early in the book in which the fevered imagination of the Krazy-character outlandishly re-casts her desired one as she rides on a passenger train on the Southern California coast:
Travelling backwards on the Amtrak Surfliner,
Ignatz is firelord of the Pacific, CEO

of the thermal inversion, true husband
of the Santa Ana wind. Observe his hands,

sowers of wildfire, hovering over the wave-
embroidered armrests, see the tray table

fruitlessly offering up tidbits to his gaze.
Seven rainless months have sensitized the vast

reticulations of his concern, he is each black ash
that infiltrates each kitchen windowscreen,

he is each ember hissing its defiance
on the blue surface of a kidney-shaped pool.
This short poem moves effortlessly line-to-line and couplet-to-couplet, an effect largely resulting from Youn’s concise language, varied enjambments, and judicious use of repetition and variation (“of the” in the second couplet, then “[o]bserve” followed by “see” in the next complete sentence), and “he is each” in the final couplets). I love here how out-sized (“firelord,” “CEO,” “true husband / of the Santa Ana” as well as “vast reticulations of his concern”) Krazy makes the object of her desire, a status also reflected in how “he” then shows up in every detail she sees or imagines (“each black ash” and “each ember).

And then there’s Youn’s final image in this poem, which I repeat from above:
he is each ember hissing its defiance
on the blue surface of a kidney-shaped pool.
Yow! I see and hear that image, even feel the heat of its fire and the cool water too. In Youn’s lines, the krazed idea of the desired one as a force of nature, fragmented and vaporizing and thus ultimately unattainable, seems indelible. I also love how a quintessential emblem of SoCal life, the kidney-shaped pool, is paired with another immutable characteristic of the geography, and how both of these observed details of a time and place (and ditto here the Santa Ana winds and the thermal inversion) are reformulated into the frame of the poem.

“he is each ember hissing its defiance
on the blue surface of a kidney-shaped pool.”


The poems in Ignatz are written in a variety of forms, from half-page prose blocks to (in one instance) a single couplet. Some of the most intriguing – and there are four or five such poems, spread throughout the book – are presented in numbered or otherwise marked off sections, with juxtaposition and allusive (sometimes elusive) images the key (though not only) energizers (Rae Armantrout is the contemporary master of this approach). Here’s an example of this type of poem from Youn’s book:

       Once more an urge; once more a succumb.

Even as a lawn
or tree

is more attractive
when configured

as individual

than as
a seamless




the rubber

replumps itself.


The pin
pokes through

the black

and scratches
the bottom

of the pan.


All the unseen

of the night
click open,

a blue-violet
pour down

a fretless throat.


There can be no
launch, only


in this elastic
This is crackerjack, in part because a precise line-by-line or even section-by-section parsing, let alone one for the poem as a whole, continues to elude me even after repeated readings and plenty of thought. The poem begins with a suggestion of a simultaneity or close equivalency (“Even as . . .), but the thing happening at the same time, or which is being suggested as having very similar qualities, is not stated. Presumably, the suggestion stated – that specific arrangements entice more than the general – refers to why Krazy particularizes Ignatz.

The the second section of the poem then brings an abrupt shift, with its curious “Asbestos interlude” and equally curious suggestion of a some type of slow re-load or regathering of energy: “the rubber / button // replumps itself.” This bewitches me, and each of the poem’s other parts, and especially the transitions between them, do the same. The next-to-last section probably is in this regard first among equals:
All the unseen

of the night
click open,

a blue-violet
pour down

a fretless throat.
This is yet another unforgettable image from Youn. It suggests some unencumbered full-on surrender to dream-desire, sensuous but also reckless and dangerous (think of chugging, or even worse, gavage). This section is a powerful little machine of words, of almost psychedelic intensity (particularly the “blue-violet” (implied to be a liquid) in the (also implied) black of “the night”), that is huge in its scary beauty.

“a blue-violet / pour down // a fretless throat”


To switch gears somewhat, here are the first thirteen lines of “On Ignatz’s Eyebrow,” a poem that directly concerns Ignatz’s obsession, his anger towards Krazy, but how that emotion also eludes connection, and can dissipate between thought, action, and its object. Think here, if you please, on how you may have sometimes felt when intensity has left you in a lurch, or has had its spell broken (the poem, as seen immediately below, begins with the lower case, seemingly mid-sentence, as if we are right in the lurch):
the way water is always rushing between a ferry

and its dock in that ever-present gap where

the rush is the speed of the water and the rush

is the sound of the water and the water is

bitterly cold and is foul in its bitterness and

the gap is irreducible space and time and

is the ache felt by the ferry in the cold

of its iron bones which will never clang

against the framework of the dock

in the satisfying clash of solid surfaces because

the gap is where such satisfaction helplessly

dissolves . . .

“that ever-present gap where // the rush is the speed of the water”

In Youn’s lines the words swirl and churn, creating what I’ll call eddies of language. This action primarily stems from repetition (e.g. rush, water, bitter, the gap, ferry), the alliterative circlings of ache, cold, clang, clash, and dock, and the absence of any punctuation that would pause or stop the energy. I feel, reading these lines, as if I too am stuck betwixt and between, just as the words describe. This is an electrifying and effective use of repetition and sound. American poeetry in recent decades has plenty of stellar examples of electrifying and effective use of repetition and sound -- I think of the best of John Taggart’s Loops (1991) or any number of Ted Enslin poems in Nine (2004) -- and Youn’s poem is a worthy addition to this stylistic sub-genre.


In my copy of Ignatz I’ve bookmarked, in addition to the four poems quoted in whole or in part above, more than a dozen others, each of which has something remarkable that I’d really like to tell you about. There’s also the book’s overall structure: it’s divided into four sections, each of which casts Ignatz as a different archetype (the beloved, the hero, the villain, and the fugitive), with each section also having an associated landscape (e.g., the desert, the coast) and similarly starting with a song (a short lyric in the voice of Krazy) and ending with a poem concerning the death of Ignatz. Plus there’s the idea, an important one, of how constrained creativity -- Youn’s fitting of everything here into the Krazy Kat framework -- spurs innovation and imagination.

This blog post, alas, cannot get into all the poems or facets of Ignatz. However, since I am -- as you probably have noticed -- more than slightly obsessed with the book, I must mention and discuss a few more poems.

“X As A Function Of Distance From Ignatz,” which at eighteen tercets over almost three pages is one of the longer poems in the book, presents an account of a leaving from the beloved, the immediate consideration of whether to go back, the turning back, and a return by Krazy (referred to only as “she”) to Ignatz (“he”). The exclusive use of the pronouns in the poem universalizes the intense pull of desire it depicts. It could be any of us.

Most remarkable in this poem is how Youn details what happens between the two characters, and what those particulars suggest. There are five separate instances, and each is parenthetically mentioned, of “she” opening a particular door, and then for each a subsequently mentioned (again in parenthesis) of her closing those same doors (to wit: the door of the room where the two are as the poem begins, the front door of the building where he lives, the door of cab that takes her away, that same door when she stops the cab and gets out, and the door of the building where he lives when she returns). There are also, as “she” moves about, seven specific notations of exactly how far away “he” is at various moments (the distances a range from twelve inches to seven hundred feet).

All the opening and closing doors, I think, suggest the cyclical nature of some romantic involvements. More generally, and most powerfully, these details of repeated actions and the precise mapping of the distance from the beloved show just how compulsive obsessive attraction can get. Or is that how obsessive compulsive attachment can get? And yet as weird as it all is, there is an undeniable emotional charge when the “she” in the poem, having left her love, decides to turn back, having the cab in which she’s riding away stop so she can get out and go back. Strange and troubled as such helpless / hopeless devotion can be, there is still a power to giving in, to following the desire. To quote Blake again, “Enough! or Too much.”


Another amazing poem is titled “Springes For Ignatz” (a springe is a snare designed to catch a small animal). Its 23 lines alternate couplets with singles, and sets out a series of observed details that Krazy, the one who desires, believes will trap the one that she wants. Here are the first ten lines, which should give you a pretty good idea of how the poem goes:
Corrugations, leaf litter,
a palm-sized blaze.

The leer of each boulder,

each mask
of white lichen.

The lopped branches

of the pines black
and reaching,

and the woods softly clicking,

with fringed holes.
The idea of this poem seems pure poetry: that the desired one might be caught via numerous details brilliantly seen and rendered in words. There are at least a dozen observed particulars in the lines quoted above, and there are about the same number in the thirteen lines that follow. Every one of these, and particularly “[t]he leer of each boulder,” catches my attention, makes me stop and think and read again. This phenomenon raises the question of just who or what is desired here. True, the poem can be read, as is the case with most others in the book, as Ignatz standing as a desired person in a romantic or love relationship. But it also seems to me that Ignatz here might be the mind of the reader, with the Krazy / the voice of the poem being Youn herself. If so, Youn has got me, and good.


The final poem I’ll present from Ignatz is yet another great one, “Semper Ignatz.” It’s relatively short at nine lines, and concerns a moment of terribly frustrated desire, although as suggested by the title (“Semper” is Latin for“always”) and as indicated more directly in the poem itself, it is common to experience moments of thwarted love and disappoint. Here it is:


How could it have been other

than abrupt
when as ever

in media res Ignatz remarked,

Sometimes            I don’t            like
fucking.                 Whoosh!        A billow

of white cambric sheets the scene,
through which her nipples glow dully,

taillights                in snow.
This poem explodes with its report of Ignatz saying, “Sometimes I don’t like / fucking.” The precise reasons why he rejects sex, rejects it apparently even while doing it, aren’t made explicit, but the impact on Krazy couldn't be more tellingly put. “Whoosh!” and “billow” indicate that the disruption is almost atmospheric, as teh air seems to leave the room (I both hear the sound of that, and see Krazy clutching her chest, gasping for air) as the bedding that presumably held the two lifts away. The scene then turns chilly as deep winter in the North, and it feels very real. Youn’s last line, a metaphor for Krazy’s just barely still turned on nipples beneath the thin sheets in the freeze-out of desire thwarted and rejection, is one I’ll remember, in awe, for a long, long time.


Monica Youn



Meg said...

Great work...both poet and reviewer.

Meredith said...

I want this book now. That last simile out-Herricks Herrick.

Meredith said...

"simile" - I meant metaphor. Argh.

Steven Fama said...

Meredith, your correction is noted.

And let me say: You've made my morning, yes you have, with your comment that the Youn's metaphor "out-Herricks Herrick." That's a marvelous riff on the words in Hamlet, Act III, scene 2, line 13, which as you know -- and I hope others do too -- is a part of Hamlet's speech to the players.

Thanks for taking the time to comment!