Poetry often benefits from a poet’s previous career or occupation. Some of my favorite collections were written by doctors and nurses because those writers understood the body on another level entirely, and brought that knowledge to their work. Monica Youn did not work in the medical field, but was rather a lawyer, yet still she uses this experience to reimagine the body as a possession, one that can be stolen from us. In a blog post for the Poetry Foundation, Youn explains the title of her most recent collection Blackacre, “Just as we use “John Doe” for a hypothetical person, lawyers use “Blackacre” as a placeholder term for a hypothetical plot of land.” In Blackacre, the body becomes this hypothetical land, which we think we own, and yet just as with a plot of land it can be taken away from us or found to be barren. Longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award, Blackacre is both distilled and discursive, it dazzles with its precise diction and unravels into the title poem, a prose poem that line-by-line ruminates on Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness.”
The last section of the collection is dedicated to this prose poem “Blackacre” which is divided into fourteen sections, each section is titled after the last word in a line of the Milton sonnet. The poem breaks apart Milton’s sonnet and interrogates its language in order to discuss infertility and our body's betrayals. Here Youn’s legal background is readily apparent; she uses legal jargon as well as rhetoric to question every part of Milton’s sonnet as well as to refer back to her own body. In section four, Youn uses Milton’s line “Lodg'd with me useless” to refer to the vagina, which in a time of infertility struggles appears useless to the poet, Youn writes, “instead of incubator, the hole had become an oubliette, a place where otherwise fruitful things were sent to languish, to become lodged, useless?” An oubliette is a kind of dungeon, which looks like a well with a trap door at the top, Youn begins the poem recalling how before the infertility issues, the vagina had seems to “hold treasure.” Here Youn courageously captures how the body, when it fails to accommodate our needs and desires, can become a place of torture.
Blackacre is arranged into four distinct parts, the first being the hanged man poems, which are dark marvels of linguistic flexibility. These slender poems refuse to divagate, but instead pivot further into their meaning at every endstop. They are sculptural: marble chipped away at until what remains can truly be seen. Youn uses her short line in unusual ways, in “The Hanged Men Reprise” each segment is only two words and though she arranges the poem like a prose poem, the suggested line breaks create a particular rhythm, “I knew / god to / be absolute / zero all / movement slowing / coming to / a stop.” The suggested line breaks force the reader to read the poem in an unnatural way, which both reminds one of the physical horror of a body swinging back and forth, and the way in which language breaks down in the face of such horrors. Youn’s hanged men and women span centuries, from saints, to women hung by their own silences, to the lynching of black men. These poems meditate on culpability, on feelings of personal guilt as well as collective guilt.
One of the hanged man poems references a portrait of St. Julian as painted by Piero della Francesca, Youn describes only his eyes in the poem, and from that we feel St. Julian’s remorse, “downpouring remorseless / but made / of remorse.” St. Julian’s backstory is not dealt with directly in the poems, he is known for having built hospitals and houses for the poor, but he did this all out of guilt for having fulfilled a prophesy by killing his own parents in a rage thinking they were his wife and her supposed lover. In the story I read, there seems to be no question that he had the right to kill his wife for cheating on him. Here, Youn shines her investigative light on the issue of possession of the female body throughout history, another theme running throughout Blackacre.
In “Portrait of a Hanged Woman,” a woman’s silences are spun into thread and coiled into rope that flourishes and becomes necklaces and shawls, until the woman feels herself lifted into the air, her feet no longer touching the ground. The poem ends with the ominous approach of a man who, unlike her, still has footsteps, “She sensed his approaching footsteps not as sound nor even as vibration but only as a stirring among the coils at her throat.” Here the man is revealed to be the source of the silence, the cause of her silences. In another poem, “Hangman’s Tree” the man is hung from Yggdrasil, a tree from Norse mythology which connects all the worlds. By using myth in this way, the man becomes all men, and the tree becomes the world man has created. Youn describes this ravaged tree:
very little wood
left at all, the exposed
with moss, dandelions
filling the foot-wide
gap at its base. And still
the tree thrives…
In Youn’s poem the tree that hangs men and women is also the world we live in and so how do we live? She suggest, “There is another / mode of life, one / that draws substance / from the peripheries,” one can only hope that there is this other mode of life.
Blackacre is perhaps the most challenging books of poetry that I read this year, and yet because of that challenge it is also one of the most rewarding. Monica Youn layers her poems with meaning as well as with references that span millennia: from Greek and Norse mythology, to poets like Francois Villon and John Milton, to films like The Passenger. Youn’s haunting poems rewrite and reanimate a landscape that is ultimately entirely her own.
Brunch: Sometimes I’ll forgo an elaborate plate of food for one decadent pastry, like I might a long novel for a slender book of dense poetry. This chocolate caramel tart with almonds has the consistency of a dense ganache and can be found in the freezer aisle at Trader Joe’s.