by Chris Cunningham
We do not, with sufficient plainness, or sufficient profoundness, address ourselves to life, nor dare we chaunt our own times and social circumstance…Banks and tariffs, the newspaper and caucus, Methodism and Unitarianism, are flat and dull to dull people, but rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy, and the temple of Delphos, and are as swiftly passing away…Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” 1844
Within a dozen years of the publication of Emerson’s essay, Whitman answered the older writer’s call as plainly as he knew how, offering a poetry peopled not with gods and goddesses but with as many American selves as he could catalog, decorated not with hothouse roses but with the unadorned green of grass, and written in an idiom that drew its music as much from American colloquial speech as from the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible.
It’s been a long time since one could complain that American poets fail to address their own times, or that we lack poets who, in Emerson’s words, dare “to write [their] autobiography in colossal cipher.” Indeed, one of the hallmarks of American poetry since Whitman is an active engagement—thematic, formal, stylistic—with the American present. The most powerful effect of this engagement has been the rejection, following Whitman’s example and Wordsworth’s Preface, of traditional poetic diction in favor of the “language of common men.” At the same time, poets have been equally willing to take up what Emerson called the “raw and dull stuff,” the “barbarism and materialism” of American culture, to make poetic art. “The experience of each new age requires a new confession,” wrote Emerson. All three collections discussed here carry Emerson’s project forward in one way or another, engaging and using American popular culture and colloquial speech to sing their own times and ways.
George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip, which ran from the mid-teens to the 1940s, offers a corrective to the world’s most famous comic mouse. In place of Disney’s cheery, whistling, hail-fellow fellow, Herriman’s comic presents Ignatz, an unapologetic cynic, whose recidivist brick-throwing continually lands him in jail in the Dali-esque desert of Coconino County. A less well-nourished mouse than Mickey, Ignatz is drawn with skinny legs and scrawny tail, a compact body, flat, clawed feet, and a long, rat-like nose. In his recurrent abuse of the hopelessly amorous and self-deceiving Krazy Kat, Ignatz is more like Bugs Bunny without the charm and dapper dress: in each full-page comic, Ignatz devises some new way to connect a brick with the back of Krazy Kat’s head, which impact Krazy takes as a token of Ignatz’s affection—for Krazy, abuse is how it feels to be in love.
And so this is the romantic duo that Monica Youn selects for her collection, which traces a speaker’s—the volume’s Krazy—serial romantic failures through four destructive relationships. Just as, say, the Demeter/Persephone story offers a mythic template by which poets can explore the mother/daughter relationship, Youn adopts the tragicomic eros of Krazy/Ignatz as a way to understand a certain kind of romantic self-destruction: for Youn, Ignatz is not so much an individual—although each of the men the speaker loves has his own distinctive character or physical features—but rather the name of the way the speaker loves, a serial beloved whose secondary qualities may change but whose essence is betrayal.
The first section has at its heart an intense, sexually charged relationship, as we see in the surreal “Landscape with Ignatz”:
The rawhide thighs of the canyon straddling the knobbled blue spine of the sky.
The bone-spurred heels of the canyon prodding the gaunt blue ribs of the sky.
The sunburnt mouth of the canyon biting the swollen blue tongue of the sky.
The hangnailed fingers of the canyon snagging the tangled blue hair of the sky.
The blistered thumbs of the canyon tracing the blue-veined throat of the sky.
The sleep-crusted lids of the canyon blink open…your soft, your cerulean eye.
As in the original comic strip, Ignatz’ eroticism is mingled with intimations of violence. Suggestions of rough sex run throughout this section, whether thematically, as in this poem, or on the level of simile and metaphor. The section opens with a bloody sunrise: “A gauze bandage wraps the land / and is unwound, stained orange with sulfates. // A series of slaps molds a mountain, / a fear uncoils itself, testing its long / cool limbs.” Or again, in “Ignatz Oasis”: “When you have left me / the sky drains of color // like the skin / of a tightening fist.” And yet, almost as soon as things are good—and the good here is certainly ambivalent—things are bad, for Ignatz leaves and the next poem announces his “wedding,” leading immediately afterwards—from Krazy’s romantic perspective—to his “Death.”
Ignatz is resurrected in the second section as a self-regarding, “gloaty giant,” a self-important hero in awe of his own god-like “sufficiency” (“The Labors of Ignatz”). Youn simultaneously dramatizes and satirizes this Ignatz in mock-heroic diction in the prose poem “Afterwards Ignatz,” where Ignatz’s departure from a party for a walk on the beach takes on an ironizing epic grandeur:
Afterwards Ignatz rose and without taking his leave of them opened the sliding glass door and vanished onto the lightless beach. And there were those who later said that he never opened that door, that the molecules of glass parted at his touch, or still others that he stepped through the glass door as some of his brothers might move swiftly through a downpour while never being wetted, for as his brothers were to the common run of men, so it is said that Ignatz was to his brothers. But the truth of it was that Ignatz slid open the door, stepped through, and slid it shut again so smoothly and swiftly that to distinguish one action from the other would be to count the blades of a flying helicopter, and that good door, well-greased in its gasket, did not betray him by a single ill-timed creak, so that by the time that they say that he had gone from them, his dark head was already lost in the black waves of sand and the black waves of water.
Again, Ignatz betrays the besotted Krazy, when his epic self-regard takes a spiritual turn in the form of Augustinian asceticism:
in medias res Ignatz remarked,
Sometimes I don’t like
The third and fourth sections follow similar trajectories, retracing two more times the path from eros to loss: the third lover, a blue-fingernailed man first seen slumped in a chair at a Free Clinic, attracts and then burns the speaker, leaving her a “moth sobb[ing] brokenly in the middle of the room” (“Ignatz at the ________ Hotel”); the final Ignatz seems safely domesticated, a sleepy lover apparently content in the “sylvan bower” Krazy creates for him, until this flighty, “winged Ignatz” escapes from his birdcage into the neighbor’s bed.
The collection ends not because Krazy comes to some culminating self-understanding—on the contrary, the speaker recognizes over and over her own self-destructive impulse, does what she knows she shouldn’t do. As she says in “Invisible Ignatz” (quoted in its entirety):
I would forget you were it not that unseen flutes
keep whistling the curving phrases of your body.
Or again in “Ignatz Recidivist,” whose seven short lines rehearse the direness of Krazy’s situation:
The poem’s anaphoric infinitives not only take these actions outside of the conjugated time of any individual relationship but also underline the sheer repetitiveness of Krazy’s romantic failures, which repetition we hear again in the head-shaking hopelessness of the final tercet. Indeed, what is striking here is precisely the lack of emotional progress or growth. In this sense, the comic strip is the ideal means for expressing Krazy’s dilemma. As a narrative form, the comic strip is simultaneously static and iterative, re-enacting versions of the same story—without character or plot development—year after year: Charlie Brown will always fall for Lucy’s football trick, Calvin will always cause trouble for the babysitter, Blondie will always be shocked by Dagwood’s huge sandwiches. The comic-strip genre thus rehearses formally—as Krazy and Ignatz rehearse thematically—Youn’s vision of romantic-erotic defeat.
Indeed, the problem for Youn’s Krazy seems to be sexuality itself. The challenge ultimately is to imagine a right relation between man and woman, between what, in a different context, Youn calls the hard and the soft:
…if this is a lesson in how something harder and something softer can achieve a mutuality if the harder thing has a curvature that suggests an accommodating mindset and the softer thing is willing to relinquish some measure of contingency so the softer thing can come temporarily to rest and if a test were devised on the subject of this lesson then what would be gained for one who took this test and passed it or one who took this test and failed?
(“At the Free Clinic Ignatz”)
In the context of the larger prose poem, Youn is describing the man who will become the third Ignatz sitting in a “secondhand classroom desk” chair, but the stakes are higher than how to design comfortable seating for high school students: rather, the problem is whether—how?—one can “achieve a mutuality” between two beings apparently willing to make accommodations on both sides in order to come, at least, “temporarily to rest.” But the prospect of “mutuality” and “rest” seems almost impossible to imagine, much less describe. Embedded within a series of hypotheticals and concluding inconclusively in an interrogative swirl of subjunctives and conditionals, the poem loses itself in a syntax and diction as baroque and abstractly euphemistic as late Henry James.
Understood in this way, Youn’s collection is almost gothic—sexual violence, emotional self-destruction, repeated romantic failure. But there is a tension in these poems between their explicit emotional content and the style and form in which that content is given voice. Herriman’s Krazy Kat is a singer, often pictured with a stringed instrument that looks like the bastard child of a sitar and a banjo. And indeed part of the fame of the Krazy Kat comics is due to Herriman’s own voice, his stylized ventriloquism of the American vernacular, Krazy and Ignatz and Officer Pup speaking in an urban demotic rendered in dropped g’s, apostrophes, and creative spelling. Youn’s Krazy is also a singer, her four linked love songs to Ignatz serving as epigraphs to the four sections, offering lyric expression of more or less traditional romantic love:
O Ignatz won’t you play me
like a filigree flute?
I’d trill any tune it might
please you to hear.
“O Sweet Adeline,”
“Au clair de la lune,”
Your song my only voice,
your breath my only air.
But Youn’s mercurial voice is harder to pin down, ranging tonally from irony to eros and formally from terse, fragmentary lyrics to substantial, sometimes garrulous prose poems. And yet, what ties these poems together is the way they handle their emotional content. Youn draws on a range of techniques to craft a poetics of emotional restraint: her use of the third person, the personae/characters of Ignatz and Krazy themselves, irony and satire, violent enjambments, imagistic juxtapositions, and fragmentation create poems that invite aesthetic contemplation and appreciation rather than emotional engagement. In the end, we are less moved by Krazy’s loss—or outrage or desire—than by the often startling, careful beauty with which these emotions have been sculpted.