Monica Youn’s new book of poems, Blackacre, takes its title from a legal term used to designate a hypothetical parcel of land, much as “John Doe” is used as a placeholder for the name of an unknown or hypothetical person. In this collection largely comprised of poem-cycles, Youn, who once worked as a lawyer, deploys legal vocabulary along with strategies of legal argument to dramatize the “self-claiming” of her own subjectivity, only to realize that “I had fashioned myself into a resource that was bounded and, therefore, exhaustible.”

          Apart from its technical meaning, the term “blackacre” comes across as darkly suggestive, conjuring perhaps the sort of haunted wasteland that is often depicted on death-metal album covers—a notion reinforced by the heavy Gothic lettering of the title on the cover of this book. Though there’s nothing close to the level of death-fetish here that is present in the work of another contemporary lawyer-poet, the grimly flamboyant conceptualist Vanessa Place, there is, nonetheless, a cold precision applied to situations of death and judgment that brings to mind a lawyer’s way with words.

          But precision, in lawyer-ese, has a flip side. For most people, the adjective associated with a lawyer’s use of language is “slippery.” Lawyers’ arguments are assumed to be sophistical, bending the truth to the advantage of the client. In order to resist such bending, laws and legal definitions are often formulated in hyper-precise phraseology. Still, bending happens, in proportion to what the back-cover copy of Youn’s book calls “lawyerly intelligence.” From this sophistical slipperiness to the “sliding of the signifier” in postmodern poetics there is arguably no great distance. While signifiers do slide and arguments do slip in Youn’s poetry, such moments tend to be overridden by a countervailing gravity, a “pained sense // of imperative,” that lends seriousness, even urgency, to the proceedings, as if the poet were arguing her case before a black-masked, implacable judge.

          In this book of carefully crafted poetic arguments, the consequences of arguing wrongly are often addressed: in one poem, it is asserted that, regarding catastrophe, “The Greeks had it wrong.” And in the same poem, regarding necessity: “The Greeks were wrong.” In another place, the poet makes clear that “it is wrong // to say / you spectate me; // but not wrong / to say // you watch me.” Youn’s concern with correction extends to creativity, to life itself: “what if,” the poet asks, “a given surface is coaxed into fruitfulness wrongfully?” and even worries: “The reader will object. This is all wrong.” Self-correction may prove necessary, as in the poem entitled “Hangman’s Tree”:

 

. . . I was wrong 

 

when I told you

life starts at the center

and radiates out.

 

There is another 

mode of life, one

that draws sustenance

from the peripheries. . .

 

In Marxist theory, the word for a mode of life that draws sustenance from the peripheries is “imperialism.” Despite this accidental connotation, the right argument to which Youn’s poems aspire—in this book that applies a trope of property law to the self—is neither motivated nor guided by evidence from political economy. Instead, what is wrong with the world will be discovered by “folding inward, diving down // into the blue pool at the body’s hollow center.”

          Why “hollow”? First, because the privatized self suffers from privation: “by this act of self-claiming,” Youn writes, “I was cutting myself off from the eternal, the infinite”; to cite Marxist theory once more, possessive individualism leads to social and psychological alienation. Second, because the subject of the poem-cycle “Blackacre,” listening to “that soft, subjective song: if you were complete . . . . if you were replete . . . ,” in striving for self-completion, is trying, and failing, to conceive a child.

 

one day they showed me a dark moon ringed

with a bright nimbus on a swirling gray screen

they called it my last chance for neverending life

but the next day it was gone. . .

 

Here, we may follow the slide of the signifier “blackacre” from imaginary to unrealized to barren. Ironically, we arrive at signifiers like hollow and barren through the poet’s engagement with a fullness of possible meanings. Indeed, in much of this book, the poet seems entranced by the fecundity of both the biosphere and language, tracing and testing their proliferations by means of a lyric reasoning as slippery as any legal argument. Not the least of this book’s achievements is to have negotiated, as if life depended on it, the difficult dialectic between control and spontaneity, the legal and the poetic. “To be bounded,” Youn writes, “is our usual condition; to be open is anomalous, even excessive.” Daring wrongness, this work exceeds the bounds of our usual condition.

 

—Andrew Joron

 
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