In her previous life as an attorney, Monica Youn represented Mr. Potato Head and made the rounds explaining Citizens United to ordinary citizens. With her turn as mother, the former lawyer has resumed her first love: poetry. Youn’s third volume of poems, Blackacre, is a suspenseful series about those who feel cursed and the evasive maneuvers they devise in the public court of judgment.
Youn opens with a chilling series on the shape of human desperation. The gravity-defying agony of hanging, she observes, is nothing like the downhill catastrophe of Greek tragedy. Through stanzas as taut as a noose’s knot but as vast as Brueghel, she paints her male and female subjects with the kind of veiny detail once reserved for paintings of the Crucifixion. As her victims struggle in “idiot circles” against “the horizon’s // white-lipped sneer,” tighter circles, gasping with sonic repetition, aspire to a syntax of helplessness: “a man / now pendant (still sen- / tient), as tempted, as / amen-.” What the hanged want more than anything else, she suggests, is to forget the burden of the body:
a rake of small-toothed
howls is dragging
toward us, combing out
the hills. If only
I were lying still,
pressed to the ground
Youn’s previous volume, Ignatz, sped along like the zany cat-and-mouse comic that inspired it. The poems of Blackacre, by contrast, drag. Why hurry? They seem to ask. From the standpoint of the punished, plot is just another name for death machine. Horrified by the moral judgments ascribed to dramatic action, Youn’s personae wish to press their bodies against the ground and flatten their emotions, as if doing so would keep at bay the pitchfork masses.
By the second act, one no longer needs the village to hang oneself: “the rope now hissing in widening arcs across the tarmac as the truck zigzags … you find yourself lurching after it, staggering, then sprinting forward … [wondering] whether you would be able to let go.” Youn never tells us the motives behind the crime, the punishment, or self-punishment for that matter. Instead, she stretches the suspense over four acts, buying time for the prodigious finale—when we discover that the trigger for these twitchy nightmares is an umbilical cord yanking this way and that.
Childless people, childless women in particular, often find themselves accused of being unnatural, impotent, infertile, irresponsible, self-centered, and/or unconcerned with the greater good of society. Shakespeare’s Macbeth presumably goes down because of his greed for power, but isn’t the full force of family chauvinism also responsible? Even citizens who have children by adoption or surrogacy or reproductive assistance are judged according to the benchmark of the biological nuclear family. As Bell Boggs writes in The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood, dispelling the shame and failure of being without child means making manifest all the hidden psychic, creative, political, and community-building energies that the situation of being “child-free” may unleash.
Youn is no stranger to the feeling of contempt. A grand-daughter of Korean immigrants, she grew up in Houston, where, she recalls, “racism was as pervasive [and] exhausting as the humidity.” Though she now lives in New York and teaches at Princeton, Youn draws from the arid Southwest landscapes, its humid climates, cartoonish hijinks, and hot-button issues. Blackacre hovers around the drought of infertility and one’s difficulties conceiving a child: “For years, I circled the topic, trying innumerable false starts,” she wrote, “any kind of direct treatment seemed inadequate, untrue to the confusion rattling around in cartilaginous walls.”
The orthodoxies of her Catholic and Confucian upbringing made it difficult for Youn to accept anything less than the “no-holds-barred pursuit of genetic parenthood.” She came around to the benefits of reproductive assistance technologies only after submitting herself to agonizing methods. Like Claudia Rankine before her, Youn set out to complete a volume on the bind of motherhood before giving birth.
The closest precedent for Blackacre might be the false starts of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1767), in which the woebegone narrator has his nose crushed in birth and his penis window-clapped in youth. Yet it is just these traumatic wounds that generate the experimental and digressive style.
Longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award, Youn’s ambitious collection works at the level of the soured dream and nightmarish fantasy rather than the rational anecdote gone awry. But the principle of evasion still applies. Instead of picking a losing fight with the mother brigade, or agonizing over the empty center that the child-less body is said to represent, Youn reaches for the “peripheries,” the “contingent things / you have always // professed to despise,” but “will keep you alive.” One way to read Blackacre is by unraveling the relation between trauma and the wild tangents it sets in motion.
Be fruitful and multiply says the godhead; but what wisdom can the childless fall back on? Frank O’Hara emphasized friendship over the nuclear family, and Marianne Moore bypassed emotional intimacy and sexuality in favor of artisanal objects and landscapes. Youn offers the retrograde fantasy that resists Nature by reversing time: feeling backwards, she shows us each leaf and tendril shrinking back from the sun’s rays, so that what is left is a sumptuous austerity: “soil rubbed through a sieve,” or paradise “dialed back … to smooth-napped expanse—the forehead of an alien princess” before being colonized by the Empire.
It’s easy, however, to dissemble one’s suffering behind the Sublime. Bored or frightened by the implications of purification, she notes how “even now, you’re trying to hide your gaze is drifting upward.” Youn nonetheless finds the temporary spell useful in building special structures or creating weather conditions for the purposes of talking about embarrassing matters. Like a sorceress, she works by means of magical hypothesis and demystification, rearing up pawns as castles, only to topple them once they’ve served their purpose.
In the marvelous shame-face of “Redacre,” for example, the orphans of Neverland build Wendy a spectacular shrine as an enticement to motherhood. No sooner, though, does she tell them she’s “not ready yet,” than the “jewelwork of berries and crewel work of vines” collapses:
slumped with regret…. its sorrows turned inward turned acid turned foul
and corrosion traced stencils in slime on the wall and the draperies puddled
in ponds on the floor and the over ripe cushions ruptured like sores.
You’ve heard this rhythm in ditties like “‘Twas the night before Christmas” and The Grinch who stole it. Anapestic tetrameter delivers the bowlful of mirth, makes a bilious creature lovable. Staggering the couplets like a checkerboard has the effect of making Wendy’s acid sorrow (projected onto the slumping shrine) feel lighter and airier somehow. Youn coaxes out a hidden story to explore whether motherhood is right for everyone. Is it right for the girl who lacks experience? For one who does not yet understand the full implications of adoption? Look closely and you can make out the “cruel work” (drudgery) behind the “crewel work” (embroidery); the toddler’s crayon doodles behind the corrosive stencils on the walls.
The bulk of Blackacre consists of symbolic holdings that are as colorful as the properties in Monopoly, only darker and more various in imprint. “Blackacre” is the “John Doe” of property law, a placeholder term used to describe a hypothetical or fictitious piece of land. Youn breathes into this bygone jargon of blackacres, whiteacres, and so forth, the special meaning of an accursed and aching lot that one must make the best of.
This same title is used for quantities that seem antithetical to each other: “Whiteacre” describes uninspiring ice rinks and incandescent grids of light; “Redacre” addresses nasty skin irritations and fairy tale splendors; and the two “Blackacres” of the finale suggest blindness in the face of a Miltonic staring contest with a sonogram. Several of the -acre poems have highly evocative forms, as in the indented dapple of “Greenacre,” whose possible lakeside rape is muddled by “hypothesis / over-eager.” Each landscape provides the occasion for investigating the wider terrain of cultural myths that govern our everyday perceptions and attitudes. “Brownacre” makes something as idyllic as friendship look awkward against the autumnal wilderness. Things get off to an auspicious start, the mountains “all expectant angles, like the music stands // of an absent orchestra,” but go downhill fast:
I wasn’t paying attention. I was watching the thing
You had just said to me still hanging in the air between us,
Its surfaces beading up with a shiny liquid like contempt,
That might have been seeping from the words themselves
or else condensing from the air, its inscrutable humidity—
the droplets rounding themselves in their fall
If you’ve ever found yourself asking, “how did I ever become friends with this douchebag,” this is the poem for you. Whether the precipitation is real or imagined, it signals a crisis: weather, after all, is what we talk about when we have nothing else to talk about. Words get hot, then cool, condense, and puddle, seeping into an underground “root system of corresponding complexity” that rises “taller than us.” Any previous rapport is broken by some off-color remark that shuts down further conversation, a situation that leaves the speaker to wonder “what still anchored us to that mountainside”?
That formidable “root system” might be another name for racism, sexism, or chauvinism. It is not necessary to know the exact remark for us to recognize the asymmetry of respect these droplets of “contempt,” “coherence // and righteousness” imply. By reverting friendship to weather, and intimacy back to abstraction, Youn captures that visceral shudder of disbelief when demoting a person from friend back to stranger. “Brownacre” is a pastoral of spoilt friendship that discloses lost love through its personal dynamic of irritation and its structural weather of inequality.
Blackacre can be daunting in its indirectness. Yet its arcs and wild thrashings attest to the roundabout ways we process personal catastrophe. Youn responds to the fear of infertility by flinging herself from the accursed lot towards the magical acres that can be made to yield her own will, from the barren center of the childless body to the silver-and-sour lining of the periphery. In the process, she shows us how to overcome the crippling experience of lack: by inverting it into occasions for exploring what we find lacking in the world around us.
Working up the courage for a staring contest with judge, jury, and sonogram, Monica Youn sends into the world a Renaissance woman’s exhibition on the unnerving ways we absorb and resist the whiplash of want snapping in our bellies.
Photo Credit: Top image by Sarah Shatz
Jeff Nguyen is the Vietnik still busking for a public. He writes about the contemporary poetry and theatre scene. His reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, Jacket2, Harvard Review, and Electric Gurlesque. See him tart up his tears at the citricdistrict.