By Monica Youn. (Four Way Books, 2010)


In her second collection, Monica Youn takes on the antagonist of George Herriman’s early 20th c. comic strip Krazy Kat, in which Ignatz plays the evil mouse who constantly, and very efficiently, throws bricks at Krazy Kat, who loves him dearly and whom he despises. Youn has written a wonderfully strong, seriously interesting book—it’s touching and lovely and complexly sad—all the things that the Krazy Kat comic was supposedly not, all the things that it was, in fact, specifically constructed not to be, that it was constructed to hide in that deft way that makes what’s hidden more visible. Youn’s book has a beautiful surface, sure and determined in its use of form and sound. There are certain moments that sum up the entire book, particularly certain rhyme equations, such as “devoir/devour/arrow.” The disparate poles of desire and its detractions, its ramifications and complications, are—as they are of the comic strip—the crux of the collection. It’s at this question of desire that Youn’s project intersects Herriman’s—desire and desire’s desire to refute itself in order to perpetuate itself. But, because it takes place in language, and takes language as its protagonist, Youn’s project also lets the question of desire overflow the human to impinge upon language itself—a theme well-explored in critical theory and poetics since 1968, but Youn enacts it wonderfully in her emptying out of the Ignatz-signifier through the sheer inexhaustibility of its potential. “Ignatz” the word gets played around so thoroughly and relentlessly that it comes to mean everything—it is ash, it is ember, it is backlit in orange isinglass and pyrite—and thus means nothing. It is returned to the state of the ur-word, that of the empty counter, which allows it to attach to anything and act as an agent in its coming-to-meaning. Though the book’s overall pose is highly ironic (e.g., titles such as “Landscape with Ignatz,” “Ignatz Pacificus,” and “Ignatz at the Shrine of the Sinners”), the ultimate irony of the book is that these poems are ultimately not ironic at all, and so risk a sincerity that our time has very little time for. Youn offsets this sincerity through non-sequitur, which keeps emotion from settling and instead transforms Herriman’s absurdist humor into absurdist elegance and eloquence. The absurd dimension of elegance and eloquence is the new territory that this book enters. And this is to say not simply that elegance and eloquence can be absurd—that we already know—but that they can use the absurd to carry their integrity and exigency to new extremes. This is what the emptied and renewed Ignatz has to offer.

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