[Note: Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Monica Youn’s “Blackacre” appears in the June 2015 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.]
“Blackacre” is a legal fiction, an imaginary landscape. Just as we use “John Doe” for a hypothetical person, lawyers use “Blackacre” as a placeholder term for a hypothetical plot of land. Every law student in the Anglo-American system encounters the term in the core course on property law, and in trusts and estates law. So a typical hypothetical on a law school exam might start: “John Doe, possessor of a fee simple in Blackacre, wishes to transfer his interest to Jane Roe, in exchange for her property Whiteacre….” The sequence of fictional properties continues with Greenacre, Brownacre, Redacre, and Blueacre. First coined by Sir Edward Coke in 1628, Blackacre—with its echoes of Bleak House, of black-letter law, of blight taken to gothic extremes—is an inside joke among lawyers, a password marking one’s initiation into a centuries-old tradition of legal indoctrination.
“Blackacre” is the title sequence of my forthcoming book, which also contains poems titled Whiteacre, Greenacre, etc. I think of each “____acre” as a landscape, a legacy—the allotment each of us is given to work with, whether that allotment is a place, a span of time, a work of art, a body, a destiny. We never start with a blank slate—each acre has been previously tenanted, enriched and depleted, built up and demolished. What are the limits of the imagination’s ability to transform what is given? On any particular ____acre can we plant a garden? found a city? unearth a treasure? build a home?
When I was trying to write the poem that became “Blackacre,” I was trying to write something painfully private, painfully personal—about my “barrenness,” my desire to have a child who would be genetically “mine,” my increasingly irrational pursuit of that desire, its long-drawn-out failure, the fallout of recriminations and regrets, and my eventual decision to have a child by other means. I’ve never been comfortable with autobiographical material, and for years I circled the topic, trying innumerable false starts, wanting to approach the issue straightforwardly but failing at every attempt.
Any kind of direct treatment seemed inadequate, untrue. My “experience” of infertility was a tiny kernel rattling around in a confusion of cartilaginous walls: vestiges of my Catholic upbringing, my Korean-American background, my legal training, my socialization into normative codes of class and gender and sexuality, the stories and lessons and phrases that chorus in my brain—all the semi-dismantled interpenetrating structures through which I filter and process sensations, emotions, thoughts. The resonating echoes from these half-ruined structures were as much the subject of the poem as any originating “experience.”
My attention kept shifting away from the blank page and toward a space already furrowed with black text, the near-rectangle of Milton’s great sonnet “On His Blindness.” It was a field already trenched and planted and harvested that I would try to force into yielding another crop, using whatever technologies of fertilization, gleaning, grafting that I could devise. A perverse endeavor, maybe, but one that felt right to me.
Sonnet 19 is a poem that I’ve always obsessed over, a poem that I recite under my breath while waiting for subways and elevators, a poem in which I’m constantly finding new depths and patterns. Mulling over the question of my infertility, the words “spent,” “useless,” “denied,” “chide,” “need,” “wait” kept thudding in my mind. Using Milton’s poem as the frame for my own poem “on my barrenness” somehow became the only workable solution.
It’s not that blindness and barrenness are in any way commensurate, not by orders of magnitude both quantitative and qualitative. But there’s a structural similarity in the way Milton tries to rationalize his blindness and the way we talk about infertility. In Milton’s poem, serving God is a universal good, and he mourns his inability to make an active contribution to that good. But Patience cuts short his flow of regrets, telling him that the good does not depend on his direct involvement; that he participates in the good even if he cannot claim a personal stake in it. We never hear how, or whether, Milton replies to these assurances; Patience gets the last word, both literally (“wait”) and rhetorically.
Similarly, we often treat parenthood as a universal good (although one that many opt not to pursue). Of course, there are many ways to participate in that good without a personal (i.e., genetic) stake in it—adoption, the use of egg and sperm donors, etc. But that assurance—that nongenetic parenting is the perfect equivalent of genetic parenting—can’t explain our culture’s no-holds-barred pursuit of genetic parenthood: IUI, IVF, egg-freezing, surrogacy, and other assisted reproductive technologies, the edge of desperation that shows itself in conversations about the biological clock. Some of the most progressive and enlightened couples of my acquaintance have spent money and time they could barely afford on successive rounds of IUI and IVF and hormone therapies and homeopathic remedies and acupuncture—a dead-end street I travelled down for years.
What motivated me to engage in serial renunciations, purifications, penetrations, to submit to measures that were painful and humiliating and carcinogenic and expensive? How can I make sense of my own desperation? Was it egotism—the temptation to trace one’s own features and traits in a younger (and more adorable) self? Heteronormativity taken to extremes? Family pressure? Fear of death? Self-abnegation? Some primordial biological imperative buried deep within the lizard brain?
I’m a mother now. I love my son, I can’t imagine loving him more. When I was writing “Blackacre,” I was determined to finish it before my son was born. Surveying Blackacre from this vantage point—from across the border of parenthood—the topography and features of the landscape are resonantly familiar to me. But I can be glad that I don’t live there anymore.
Monica Youn is the author of Blackacre (Graywolf Press, 2016); Barter (Graywolf Press, 2003); and Ignatz (Four Way Books, 2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and the New York Times Magazine,...