Monica Youn Reads “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado)”
Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of February 4th, 2019. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Monica Youn is the author of Blackacre and Barter from Graywolf Press, and Ignatz from Four Way Books. She teaches at Princeton and is a member of the Racial Imaginary Institute.
Christina Pugh: She is also a former attorney.
Monica Youn: I think a lot about the relationship between law and poetry, because they are two practices that I have engaged in. (LAUGHING) And particularly the rhetoric of law and power languages that certain people have access to, and certain people don’t have access to. It’s less apparent to us but equally true that legal language, power discourses, also draw a lot of their power from certain formal properties. I mean, this poem, even though it’s in prose strophes, is a very formal poem. The logic of it works in very small increments—A equals B, B equals C, C equals D—and the poem derives a lot of its power from following those formal rules.
Don Share: In this poem, Youn places two figures beside each other. The first from Greek mythology, and the second a historical figure from 18th century Korea.
Monica Youn: Pasiphaë is the wife of King Minos. King Minos is sent a bull from the sea, from the god Poseidon, and the bull is intended for sacrifice to Poseidon. Instead of that, King Minos keeps the bull for his own herds, and in punishment the gods cause Pasiphaë to fall in love with the bull.
Christina Pugh: Pasiphaë, wanting to attract the bull, asks the inventor Daedalus to make her a mechanical wooden cow.
Monica Youn: And she crouches inside the cow somehow and is impregnated by the bull; eventually she gives birth to the Minotaur. I think also important for this poem is that Pasiphaë is from a family, out of Colchis, who are these famous witches of Greek mythology.
Don Share: The second figure in the poem is Crown Prince Sado, heir to the Korean throne in the 18th century.
Monica Youn: And at some point, he seems to have succumbed to some sort of homicidal lunacy, which had many symptoms, but which often caused him to rape and murder courtiers, people who were in his employ.
Don Share: His father, the king, was in a tricky situation. To imprison Sado or brand him as a lunatic would make the king’s grandson ineligible for succession.
Monica Youn: So what the king did was, on a day in July, he ordered Prince Sado to appear before him and apologize for his crimes, which Sado did. He then had a rice chest brought. A rice chest is a very household object in Korea; at the time it would be about four foot by two foot. He asked Prince Sado to get into the rice chest. Prince Sado obeys, gets into the rice chest, the lid is closed, and eight days later, Prince Sado dies.
Christina Pugh: Youn wrote the poem after ending a curatorial project with the Racial Imaginary Institute.
Monica Youn: Participants were invited to consider our current imaginings of whiteness, and I think that you see that in this particular poem about what it means to pass for white, about whiteness itself as a form of passing.
Christina Pugh: Here is Monica Youn reading from “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado).”
One figure is female, the other is male.
Both are contained.
One figure is mythical, the other historical.
To the extent that one can be said to have existed at all, they occupy different millennia, different continents.
But, to the extent that one can be said to have existed at all, both figures are considered Asian—one from Colchis, one from Korea.
To mention the Asianness of the figures creates a “racial marker” in the poem.
This means that the poem can no longer pass as a white poem, that different people can be expected to read the poem, that they can be expected to read the poem in different ways.
To mention the Asianness of the figures is also to mention, by implication, the Asianness of the poet.
Revealing a racial marker in a poem is like revealing a gun in a story or like revealing a nipple in a dance.
After such a revelation, the poem is about race, the story is about the gun, the dance is about the body of the dancer—it is no longer considered a dance at all and is subject to regulation.
Topics that have this gravitational quality of aboutness are known as “hot button” topics, such as race, violence, or sex.
“Hot button” is a marketing term, coined by Walter Kiechel III, in a September 1978 issue of Fortune magazine.
The term evokes laboratory animals and refers to consumer desires that need to be slaked.
The term “hot button” suggests not only the slaking of such desires but also a shock or punishment for having acted on those desires, a deterrent to further actions pursuing such desires, and by extension, a deterrent to desire itself.
Violence and sex are examples of desires and can be satisfied, punished, and deterred.
Race is not usually considered an example of desire.
Both the female and the male figures are able to articulate their desires with an unusual degree of candor and specificity.
Both are responsible for many sexual deaths.
The male figure says, “When anger grips me, I cannot contain myself. Only after I kill something—a person, perhaps an animal, even a chicken—can I calm down.... I am sad that Your Majesty does not love me and terrified when you criticize me. All this turns to anger.” “Your Majesty,” here, refers to the king, his father.
The female figure is never directly quoted, but Pseudo-Apollodorus writes that she casts a spell upon the king her husband so that when he has sex with another woman, he ejaculates wild creatures into the woman’s vagina, thereby killing her. Although the punishment is enacted on the body of the woman, this punishment is meant to deter the king from slaking his desires.
Both figures, royal themselves, are angry at the king, but neither attempts to kill the king—which would be political. Instead they displace this anger onto other unnamed deaths, which are considered sexual but not political.
Both figures have spouses known for strategy, for self-preservation in politically tumultuous times, times of many unnamed deaths.
Both figures are counterfoils to their strategizing spouses, figures of excessive desire, requiring containment.
Both containers are wooden.
Both containers are camouflaged with a soft, yielding substance—one with grass, one with fur.
Both containers are ingenious solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
One problem is political. One problem is sexual.
They are both the same problem.
They have the same solution.
The male figure waits in the container for death to come. He waits for eight days. His son will live. This ensures the succession, the frictionless transfer of power.
The female figure waits in the container for the generation of a life. We do not know how long she waits. Her son will die, after waiting in his own wooden container. This ensures the succession, the frictionless transfer of power.
There are many artistic representations of both containers.
The male figure’s container is blockish, unadorned, a household object of standard size and quotidian function. Tourists climb into it and pose for photos, post them online. The cramped position of their bodies generates a combination of horror and glee. This, in turn, creates discomfort, the recognition that horror and glee should not be combined, that such a combination is taboo.
The female figure’s container is customized, lushly contoured. Its contours are excessively articulated to the same degree that her desire is excessively articulated. Artists depict the container in cutaway view, revealing the female figure within, awaiting the wild creature. The abject position of the female figure—on all fours, pressing her genitalia back against the hollow cow’s genitalia—generates a combination of lust and revenge. This, in turn, creates discomfort—the recognition that lust and revenge should not be combined, that wild creatures and female figures should not be combined, that these combinations are taboo.
Hot button topics are taboo because they generate discomfort.
The male figure slakes his violent desires and is punished. The male figure also functions as a hot button, a means whereby the violent desires of tourists are slaked, while generating discomfort in these tourists.
The female figure slakes her sexual desires and is punished. The female figure also functions as a hot button, a means whereby the sexual desires of artists are slaked, while generating discomfort in these artists.
The tourist can climb into the rice chest. The tourist can pose for a photo in the rice chest. Then the tourist can climb out of the rice chest and walk away.
The artist can look into the hollow cow. The artist can render the contours of the hollow cow, the contours of the female figure. Then the artist can walk away.
Both containers allow the tourist and artist to touch the hot button, the taboo.
The desire and the discomfort remain contained.
Both containers allow the tourist and the artist to walk away.
The male and female figures remain contained.
Neither container—the rice chest, the hollow cow—appears to have any necessary connection to race.
To mention race where it is not necessary to mention race is taboo.
I have not mentioned the race of the tourist or the artist.
The tourist and the artist are allowed to pass for white.
The tourist and the artist are not contained.
I have already mentioned the race of the poet.
But to the extent that the poet is not contained, the poet is allowed to pass for white.
I have already mentioned the race of the male and female figures.
The male and female figures are contained.
The rice chest and the hollow cow are containers.
The rice chest and the hollow cow are not the only containers in this poem.
Colchis and Korea are containers in this poem.
Asianness is a container in this poem.
Race is a container in this poem.
Each of these containers contains desire and its satisfaction.
Each of these containers contains discomfort and deterrence.
Each of these containers contains a hot button, a taboo.
The tourist and the artist can enter each of these containers.
The tourist and the artist can touch the hot button and walk away.
Each of these containers separates the slaking of desire from the punishment of desire.
Each of these containers is an ingenious solution to a seemingly intractable problem.
They are the same problem.
They have the same solution.
Each of these containers ensures the frictionless transfer of power.
Each of these containers holds a male or female figure.
The name of the male figure can be translated as “Think of me in sadness.”
The name of the female figure can be translated as “I shine for all of you.”
Christina Pugh: This poem is doing so much work to think about containment and so many permutations of containment: physical, emotional, racial, interpretive. And it’s pretty fantastic how many seeming opposites are brought together in this poem as it moves through its thinking in an almost a kind of mathematical proof. And to me, really, at the crux of this poem is those two contained figures of Pasiphaë and Sado. Those bodies that cannot walk away from their containment, even though the tourists can, and the poet can. The embodiment of those two figures is so powerful in this poem.
Don Share: It often occurs to me that in our time, we almost need to find new ways to read poems. I think it’s a commonplace of any era, that people want to find new ways to write poems—and they do—but alongside that, the audience for poetry has to adjust itself and understand, you know, how to encounter a poem. And I think at the heart of this remarkable poem is this idea that certain kinds of concepts, ideas—whether it’s about gender, let alone about form in poetry, but so many things that are enclosures—can actually be sort of liberated with a kind of logical-imaginary thinking. Now it feels more urgent than ever. How do we read people? How do we read poems? What’s going on in the political world? Or in any world!
Christina Pugh: Hmm.
Don Share: This poem, which calls itself a “Study of Two Figures,” ends up being a study of much more than that, as you’ve pointed out. It’s almost dialectical. And of course, that suits the idea of male and female and white and non-white. But I think it’s possible to forget that there’s a kind of dialectical thinking which is not-polarizing. In other words, you take things and they don’t quite go together, and the poet and the imagination can bring them together, while retaining the sort of separate aspects of your identity in character, for better or worse. And the shock of that, I think, is really important. Because we do get used to the enclosures of our habitual thinking, which is actually a lack of imagination. There are so many striking things, but one, of course, is a line in the poem that sort of jumps out, I think at everybody: “Revealing a racial marker in a poem is like revealing a gun in a story or like revealing a nipple in a dance.” (LAUGHING)
Christina Pugh: Mmhmm.
Don Share: I mean, that draws in so much from culture about, sort of, everything from wardrobe malfunctions …
Christina Pugh: Yes, right! (LAUGHING)
Don Share: ... to gun violence. Very different things, but you see exactly what’s meant by that. There is sort of a pushing back against what we take to be inevitable, which is so confining.
Christina Pugh: You know, revealing the nipple in the dance really stands out in concert with a lot of the more legalistic language like “regulation,” that’s happening. There’s just this really fluid and wonderful traveling between, say, elements of a very concrete scene and in a way shock, and the more distanced legalistic language that’s also working really wonderfully in this poem. And it seems to me that that juxtaposition, and those kinds of co-existences, are perfect examples of what you were just talking about in terms of the logical-imaginary. How, really, in poems and particularly in a poem like this, you can really see how the poet is mobilizing both parts of experience, both parts of the brain, in order to, really, not only inhabit those moments of containment, but also to work through things like interpretation and what you were talking about, finding new ways of reading and interacting with poems. I feel as if this poem is bringing that reception into the poem itself in a really interesting manner. So it’s almost predicting its own readership and guiding, in a certain way, its own interpretation and making that interpretive language part of the experience of this poem. And I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so powerful.
Don Share: Hmm. Maybe a kind of way to think about poems when you’re trying to acclimate yourself to them is to sort of look at how metaphor is used. And in a lot of poems, metaphors are just sort of tossed off, or they sound good, or they seem sort of appealing or even ravishing. But here, it’s sort of really exploring the metaphor of containers, you know, like real literal containers. And sort of the truth value of a metaphor, to me, it goes along hand in hand with how good a poem is. A metaphor that’s just shallow doesn’t get you very far. But here, that exploration of each of these containers and what they contain is really remarkable. And then, of course, there is the ravishing way the poem ends.
Monica Youn: Each of these containers is an ingenious solution to a seemingly intractable problem. // They are the same problem. // They have the same solution. // Each of these containers ensures the frictionless transfer of power. // Each of these containers holds a male or female figure. // The name of the male figure can be translated as “Think of me in sadness. // The name of the female figure can be translated as “I shine for all of you.”
Christina Pugh: Yeah.
Don Share: I mean, that’s just … amazing, really.
Christina Pugh: Yeah, it really is. And I think of those lines in themselves as kind of containers of tragedy and emotion. Again, the mathematical proof quality of this poem serves to contain, in a certain way, that suffering that we see going on to distance, in a certain way; at the same time, it brings it to the fore. And these two quotations at the end of the poem, almost as if these two figures are speaking for themselves as their names are being translated in these direct quotations. Very beautiful and moving.
Don Share: You can read “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado)” by Monica Youn in the February 2019 issue of Poetry magazine, or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Christina Pugh: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all February episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud. Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at [email protected], and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and this episode was produced by Rachel James.
Christina Pugh: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.