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Journal, Day One

By Monica Youn

Skkkkrrrrrrrrreeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! is the sound my bare feet make as they skid
to a halt on the very cliff’s edge of last week’s theory / syntax debate on this site.

Thwiptfwiptfwiptfwiptfwipt! is the sound of the unfastened leash of my vestigial theoryhead guilt whirling like a bolo into the precipice. I listen to it fall and can count to four (one, one thousand . . .) before I hear it hit bottom. Pluppt.

Back off, people, this is my vacation!!!

[Note: preceding comment not directed at Cathy or Adrian who were, after all, just following directions. As they both pointed out, it’s just too damn hot for a steel cage deathmatch. And to say that I don’t currently want to engage in a debate about the role of theory doesn’t imply that I discount the role of theory, etc., etc.]

Ahhh. That’s much better.

* * *

So I spent last week’s heat wave in NYC and managed not to leave my apartment at all for the three-day duration.

Input: butterflied trout, Kirby cucumbers, Korean red pepper paste (gochujang), sweet corn, coffee, milk, shredded wheat, eggs, minimum one pound of cherries per day, friend J’s MS, various mags, Web sites, books, Netflix (I refuse to do a reading list—they always seem like literary arm candy to me), Bryan Kest’s Power Yoga Vol. 3: “Sweat,” mailorder lingerie, Parliaments, Stoli & soda.

Output: negligible, unless trashing various poems in MS counts as “output,” —e-mails, disbursed monies, comments on J’s MS, few (moderately sexy) phrases in notebook, effluvia.

Here’s what I do with the trout (available from Fresh Direct for $5.99 per pound). Rinse and pat dry, place on baking sheet, skin side down, coat with tamari and sprinkle salt. Leave uncovered in the refrigerator overnight. (The uncovered thing is key because this allows it to dry out a little and develop a sort of cured skin of tamari. Koreans are obsessed with dry salty fish and think that Western fish is revoltingly wet.) Broil with ear of corn, still in husk, for 10 minutes, until trout is darkish caramel & slightly burnt, at which point corn is also done. Serve with Kirby cucumber wedges and gochujang. Cherries for dessert. If you’re me, you can live on this for a while.

The preceding recipe was in fact an elaborate parable of the manifestation of theory in poetic syntax. (Much chinstroking ensues.)

Bryan Kest says, “You gotta be where you’re at, ‘cause you’re already there.”

* * *

So the first thing anyone ever said to me about poetry that made any sense was Paul Muldoon, in an undergraduate workshop, saying that if you take two objects, each with its own resonance pattern, and place them in juxtaposition in a backlit tray of water, then the poem can consist simply in the interference pattern between the two.

Point being that the poem can, of course, be much more than this, but the poem need not be much more than this.

He may not actually have said this—but I think he said something to this effect. In any case, I’ve spent quite a bit of time engaged in various abuses of this passing remark.

Here’s one fun variation. Have two objects in the tray, but have one of them be a statement about the narrative status of the other object (a title can accomplish this). Watch the reader’s mind—which has thereby been instructed to function in narrative mode—make lovely ripples in the water as it strives toward linearity and context and ends up telling a sweet little story that it has made up all by itself. Our instinctive yearning for narrative coherence is soooo cute!

It’s as if you took the painting of Magritte’s pipe, but instead of saying “This is not a pipe” you instead said, “This is a story about a pigeon.”

Rae Armantrout is doing something like this in her amazing poem “Generation” (quoted in its entirety)

We know the story.

She turns
back to find her trail
devoured by birds.

The years; the
undergrowth.

Let’s all just take a moment to applaud that semicolon in the penultimate line.

OK then.

I guess I’m doing some variation of this in my current Ignatz manuscript based on the Krazy Kat comic strips (which if you don’t know, you should Google right now). (Sorry to be discussing my own work in this blog, but I’m in heavy-duty revision mode right now, and it’s where my head is. And trust me, after spending two straight months spending a good part of every waking day pondering the love life of a cartoon mouse, your head is in a very weird place. Especially on days when cherry consumption pushes the two-pound barrier.)

So in the Ignatz poems, the content of the poem acts as one element, but the reader’s mind is always struggling back to that other vibrating thing in the tray—the modular cat-mouse-brick cycle that is the Krazy Kat mythology.

This scenario—a water-filled tray, one constant element, one changing element—works as a model for certain kinds of religious experience as well as for romantic obsession—the ever-presence of the obsession-object working an unceasing interference with perception, the thumb in the camera frame.

When I first thought of the Ignatz poems, it was as an unchanging cutpaper silhouette or action figure posed in front of a series of landscapes. (My friend J takes photos like this of his handpuppet sloth in front of various postcard-worthy landmarks. And after the Ignatz MS was well underway, my friend V showed me a heartbreaking series of paintings of different roomscapes each containing a featureless outline of Napoleon in the same stance—bicorn hat, arms crossed behind his back—standing in for V’s fiancé, who had died suddenly the previous summer.)

Well, well, this post has taken a turn for the serious, hasn’t it? Better sign off . . .


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, August 7th, 2006 by Monica Youn.