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Journal, Day Five

By Monica Youn

“The invisible has a mocking tendency to present itself as the visible, as if it might be distinguished from everything else, but only under certain circumstances, such as the clearing away of mist.” – Roberto Calasso, K. (P.S. Those who haven’t read Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony should do so now. Can we get him to blog this site?)

* * *

So another addictive aspect of the Ignatz MS – why I’m a little terrified to finish it and to move on to the next thing – is what I refer to in my mental shorthand as a lighthandness with respect to narrative. I’ve always been drawn to narrative material, to backstory, but I’ve found that in using such material in a poem, it’s difficult to accomplish a glancing reference to the narrative, to isolate the particular contour of the narrative that interests me without getting caught up in telling the story. The weight of backstory always exerts its gravitational pull, trying to distort the poem into a linear narrative mode.

I remember one poem I had to abandon because of this, based on one particular episode – more specifically on one particular image from that particular episode – from Sir Walter Raleigh’s voyages in Guiana. But I wasn’t interested in having the poem narrate the episode, and I didn’t want it to become a poem about Raleigh. As I said, I had to give it up.

It’s even more problematic when you’re dealing with contemporary material –
with identifiable subject matter – and you feel like there is some responsibility to tell the story of this subject, especially if this story hasn’t yet had its telling. (I remember taking a poet to task in workshop who had written a poem about a woman who had been pushed in front of the subway several days before. Why this guilt about the real?)

But I’ve never been particularly interested in telling stories in poems, and I certainly don’t want to feel forced into it by my choice of an unfamiliar subject.

In the Ignatz MS, I’ve been able to shunt off any such burden — to proceed on the assumption that the reader is familiar with the contours of the modular story. (I intend to include a frontispiece of the comic strip, or if copyright issues make that unfeasible, at least an explanatory note.) Lifting this expository burden has been unbelievably freeing – I don’t have to spend any of any poem explaining who Ignatz is, or Krazy or to describe or justify their “relationship.”

(In a weird way, this must have been what it was like to write a poem like “Endymion” in Keats’ era – to have the questionable luxury of assumed familiarity, and to be able just to go off on a tangent to a preexisting line. But I oppose the canon in all its forms.)

Also freeing, in an unexpected way, has been the devotional exercise of doing 40-some takes on a particular subject. (The great thing about comic strips as a narrative form is that character is static, rather than dynamic.) No particular take bears the burden of being authoritative, so that I’m able to take much more oblique angles on the subject than would normally be comfortable, while feeling confident that the reader is grounded in a deepening understanding of the character and backstory.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?

As I said, addictive.

* * *

People are always (I exaggerate) asking me what the relationship is between my poetry and my law practice.

What I miss more and more in law is exactly the ability to be lighthanded that I’ve just been describing – to say what you mean simply and then to stop speaking. In law, one is always getting bogged down, not only in the calcified locutions of brief-writing or contractual boilerplate, but also in the particular grammar of a common-law legal system, which draws both its function and its political legitimacy from precedent-based reasoning.

It’s a commonplace of jurisprudence that law is an analogical system backed by very real force – the force of the State – and is always, as language, constructing a justification for that threat of force even while enacting it. And in the Anglo-American common-law system, that justification rests on legal precedent, which can boil down to the historical baggage of a phrase – on the previous deployments of the particular nugget of power-language (“beyond a reasonable doubt,” “cruel and unusual punishment”) you are trying to redeploy in the particular context of the current argument.

As a stylistic matter, the power of a legal argument thus has a direct correlation to the number of string-citations or footnotes that back it up, to the point where the pages of law review articles commonly have a single line of original thinking borne up by a visual and functional foundation of footnotes, like the mattresses of the princess and the pea, or like the stack of turtles upon turtles on whose backs the universe rests. (Ask not, dear reader, on what foundation the original turtle is standing.)

But it’s possible that this back-story – this bogging down – has something to do with responsibility, to rootedness, to what’s at stake in a particular language game. But it may be a trap to think this way.

In law school, miserable, I was reading Wallace Stevens obsessively, but was finding in the artistic escapism of Harmonium the negative message that the more alluring the created worlds into which one retreats in one’s daily post-work reveries, the harsher the quotidian world will seem come 9 a.m tomorrow.

Tonight there are only the winter stars. The sky is no longer a junk-shop, Full of javelins and old fire-balls, Triangles and the names of girls.

Stevens, though a model as a poet, shouldn’t function as a model for a life. (Can one emulate the poems without living the life?) The poetic world can’t, and shouldn’t exist with regard to the everyday world in a relationship of escapism – such a stance is not just irresponsible, but may be a prescription for personal misery.

Yikes, how did I get onto this? Hard to sympathize with old Wally while watching light leaping off the river and groundhogesque mammals frolicking on the lawn. Even ever-grumpy visiting friend D is smiling.

Project for September (when I return to law job (or “La Job”) and immediately have to throw myself on the grenade of this massive trial): figure out how not to associate poetry with time off, dissolve poetry / life dichotomy.

* * *

Bryan Kest says, “It’s not about aesthetics, it’s about sensation.”

(Creepy, but still not as creepy as my other yoga tape instructor, Yogi Alan Finger – “Yogi Finger” – who exhorts you to “take the perineum and draw it back into the body.” (Great, now this blog will show up on Google searches for “jurisprudence + perineum.” Bring on the pervy emails!))

* * *

So friend M requested another recipe, and tonight for dinner I was able to try out a tart experiment that was a fair success, judging by requests for seconds after a large grilled meat meal. The problem with summer fruits in the Hudson Valley – the peak of ripeness — is that ripe fruit throws off too much water, and turns any potential pie effort into fruit soup. (Friend J3 – poet and professional piemaker – whom I’m trying to coax upstate next week, may have a solution for this, but I haven’t yet discovered it.)

So here’s the recipe for my open-faced ripe peach tart experiment. Make a normal single pie crust, except with proportions as follows: 6 tablespoons butter, _ cup mascarpone cheese, one cup plus extra flour, 4 tablespoons ice water. 1/8 teaspoon baking powder, and _ teaspoon salt. Refrigerate in plastic wrap for at least an hour, than roll into a tart shape. In the meantime, caramelize peach wedges (about 6 large ripe peaches, or any other suitable fruit) over medium heat in about 4 tablespoons butter and about 4 tablespoons sugar (depending on fruit ripeness). When peach wedges are brown around the edges, remove with slotted spoon and reserve juices (reduce if too liquidy). Bake tart shell in 350 oven for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Take about 1 cup mascarpone and stir in a few teaspoons honey just until spreadable. Spread mascarpone in warm tart shell, arrange peach wedges attractively on top, and glaze with reserved peach juices. Refrigerate for about 15 minutes to set the glaze. Enjoy!

(I also tried this with halved, uncooked Bing cherries, with notable success, except that it pushed my daily cherry consumption over the hallucinogenic threshold.)

Signing off now, full of peach pie and goodwill. Thanks for listening.

Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, August 11th, 2006 by Monica Youn.