Atom by Atom…
From From, Monica Youn’s fourth book of poems, is a striking departure from her first three books. Instead of addressing race obliquely and occasionally, From From confronts it full-on, from beginning to end. Interviewed in Bomb magazine, Youn explained, ‘I always felt I had permission to talk about race, but I wanted to figure out a way to write about race that would ring true to me.’ The child of Korean immigrants, Youn trains her incisive intelligence and considerable lyrical gift on her experience growing up in Texas and living in New York as a racial minority. The result is a volume of poems that is deeply heartfelt yet bracingly suspicious, exploratory and accomplished.
Youn’s interrogation of race takes many poetic forms in her new book. The section ‘Deracinations’ consists of eight sonigrams. Devised by Youn, a sonigram is ‘a poem in which the letters and sounds of the original word are omnipresent, but the poem is not limited to those letters and sounds’ (endnotes). This nonce form manifests brilliantly the prevalent yet unobtrusive effects of deracination. ‘1. Story’ begins:
Shhhh! her mother said. Sit down
Next to me. Time to read.
Hidden in this apparently innocuous instruction to read the children’s storybook Curious George are many of the letters and sounds of the word ‘deracinations’: s, e, r, o, t, i, d, o, n, a. The storybook is a sneaky snare, like the ‘straw hat’ set down by the ‘pink-faced’ American man to capture the African monkey George.
The eight sonograms chart a path from ‘Story’ through ‘Education’ to ‘Canon’ to create a portrait of the artist as an Asian American. The storytelling here is deft, with wryly humorous moments, as when the speaker was instructed to write what she knew and then promptly handed ‘some Seamus Heaney’ (‘8. Canon’).
If ‘Deracinations’ leans on story, ‘The Magpies’ gambles on meaning. Written in the form of parables, the poems in this section strive for immediate moral recognition, but they run the risk of merely illustrating what is known about racism. The best parable is the first one, ‘Parable of the Magpie in the Trap’, which owns the steely charm of an animal fable. Caught in a trap, a magpie begs the hunter to release it since its meat is foul, its feathers ugly, etc. The hunter ultimately explains:
For know now, Magpie, that you are not bait because you are wanted, but you are bait
because you are hated, and it is because you are hated that therefore you are valuable to me.
Hated by whom? The answer springs at the end of the poem, like a trap.
Most consistently inventive are the poems all titled ‘Study of Two Figures …’ These double portraits depict the duels, actual or symbolic, between two people, for instance, a nouveau-riche father and his daughter in ‘Midas / Marigold.’ The most ambitious of these double studies concerns Dr. Seuss and his imaginary daughter Chrysanthemum-Pearl. Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Geisel, is better known as a children’s author. Less known is his racist work as a political cartoonist and a US Army propagandist during World War II. Unable to conceive a child with his wife during that time, Geisel invented a make-believe daughter and named her Chrysanthemum-Pearl after two traditional symbols of Japan.
The set-up could have given rise to a comic villain and a stereotypical victim, but Youn infuses tremendous pathos into her multi-part poem without letting Geisel off the hook. She knows the sorrowful struggle to conceive a child, as she shared in another interview and so writes here perceptively, ‘what is a pearl / but a cyst sent to finishing school’ (‘Study of Two Figures …’). The music of the poem rises to a baroque beauty when the doctor dreams with desire and fear of the child. After biding its time, finally the egg…
extends a prehensile tendril a
periscope a peril it dispenses with
all pretense no longer tentative it
taps its tiny teletype machine
(‘Study of Two Figures (Dr. Seuss / Chrysanthemum-Pearl)’)
While the ‘en’ sound infiltrates the entire passage, the hesitant ‘p’ sound changes to an assertive ‘t’ in the final line, the sound effects complemented by the radical enjambment of the lines. The tentative tendril has become a confident spy.
The last section of From From consists of a lyric essay titled ‘In the Passive Voice.’ Begun at the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Florida, the essay takes in its beach surroundings, the productions of art, the American news, and personal encounters with racism to meditate in a freer style on the complexities of race. The essay form allows the speaker to vary their authorial distance from the materials in an unpredictable yet persuasive manner. In one part of the essay, the speaker sceptically questions an explanation for Asian-Black hostility in Edward T. Chung and Carol K. Park’s book Korean Americans: A Concise History (2019) by asking: ‘Who could be naïve enough to believe this?’ In another part of the essay, the speaker responds viscerally to the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, when a white man killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent. ‘Rage’ fills the speaker, but also something else:
An unending flow of righteousness welling up in my chest, a sulfurous spring, blood-warm […]
I could learn to breathe in it. To inhabit it effortlessly as the red tide rises to swallow everything,
a decorative froth on the surface like remembrance. Like poetry.
(‘In the Passive Voice’)
In analyzing this natural reaction, the speaker expresses her wariness of this ‘flow of righteousness’, if for no other reason than that it turns poetry into ‘a decorative froth.’ Less ‘decorative froth’ and more imaginative feast, is the different image of poetry offered by the end of the essay. Youn examines the fossilized shark’s teeth that she brought home from the beach.
The organic material has been replaced by minerals, atom by atom,
filling in the pattern of what had been. Emblems of hunger, of fear,
transformed into objects of a small and easily satisfied desire.
(‘In the Passive Voice’)
Born of hunger and fear, poetry too replaces the ‘organic material’ of life with the ‘minerals’ of words. In comparison to the global struggle for food, justice, and peace, poetry is ‘a small and easily satisfied desire.’ This acknowledgement of poetry’s status points to the accuracy and modesty of Youn’s project, where From From has mineralized, atom by atom, its organic material into a strong poetic form.
From From by Monica Youn
US: Graywolf, 7 March 2023 / UK: Carcanet, May 2023
You can order the book here
Jee Leong Koh is the author of Steep Tea (Carcanet), named a Best Book of the Year by the Financial Times and a Finalist by Lambda Literary in the US. His hybrid work of fiction Snow at 5 PM: Translations of an insignificant Japanese poet won the 2022 Singapore Literature Prize in English fiction. His second Carcanet book Inspector Inspector was released last year. Originally from Singapore, Koh lives in New York City, where he heads the literary non-profit Singapore Unbound, the indie press Gaudy Boy, and the journal of Asian writing and art SUSPECT. https://singaporeunbound.org/
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