I was suspicious of Ignatz before I had read anything more than the table of contents. I shouldn’t have been; I liked Monica Youn’s first book, Barter, a collection of lovely, wary lyrics with strange but precise allusive force. But I was suspicious of Ignatz’s subgenre: poetry books that are designedly books rather than collections, their titles linked by a single unifying conceit. The category was proliferating, it seemed to me, cultured by a world of book prizes and writing programs, or encouraged by distinguished precedents and obvious advantages. A constitutive donnée, in a book of poems, offers the writer a ballast and the reader a guide; a thematized volume can presume on an initial trust, or expand on an initial idea, rather than hope for repeated, different arrests of attention. But then, such arrest is one of the genre’s glories—the intense singularity of each bounded, ramifying lyric. It would be a shame to forgo that energy too often, I thought, to read poems merely as stepping-stones on a narrative path or pieces of a nonfictional whole. Plus there were the particularities of that whole, in the case of Ignatz: the title refers to the mouse from Krazy Kat comics who constantly beans Krazy with bricks which the lovelorn cat misinterprets as signals of affection. George Herriman’s original strip, which ran from 1913 to 1944, is not only a cherished influence for artists and a beloved classic for readers but also a long-cited instance of comics’ aesthetic potential. I was suspicious of poetry that might wield the high-culture credibility of a pop-culture form. I didn’t want more irony. I knew what that was like. I wanted beauty—I wanted surprise.
I found it. Reading Ignatz undid my defensive misgivings—dissolving them, steadily, in its sure and powerful affect. If I had to name that emotion, I’d call it vulnerability: it’s the suffering of an eternal and impossible ardor, in all its guises, that pervades these delicately phrased and toughly conceived poems. “When you have left me / the sky drains of color // like the skin / of a tightening fist,” says the speaker of “Ignatz Oasis,” for example, who ends by hiding “in the coolness I stole // from the brass rods / of your bed.” In Youn’s world, “The Labors of Ignatz” distill Hercules’s grief-stricken atonement into imagistic bits of yearning: “the belt / of your bathrobe // forlorn / on the floor” replacing the girdle of Hippolyta as elsewhere, “chain-stitches / of sparrow-song // crudely suture // the tattered sunrise” with a violence as threatening as that of Stymphalian birds. The poems don’t worry much about recreating the original material, with the comic’s colloquial-grandiose language and meandering quests through frames that often stretch, tilt, or dissolve. At the start, Youn does conjure an Arizonaish desert-dreamscape similar to the one that Herriman created: in “Ignatz Invoked,” for example, when “a passing cloud / seizes up like a carburetor // and falls to earth, lies broken- / backed and lidless in the scree,” or when “Landscape with Ignatz” tells of “the rawhide thighs of the canyon straddling the knobbled blue spine of the sky.” But Youn’s scenery easily shifts to the more sylvan pastorals of the final section, or the urban block of “X as a Function of Distance From Ignatz,” a wonderful poem which takes place in any city that includes idling cabs and confused lovers. Youn takes up Krazy not for its setting or speech but for the basic geometry of its emotions—configurations of pursuit and subjection too ingenuous, in her interpretation, to be labeled with the perversity of sadomasochism or the routine of codependency. It’s the opposite of what I’d expected: rather than nestle our need in the protective cover of pop connoisseurship, Ignatz would expose the stupid, omnipresent pith of human want. William Randolph Hearst was wild about Krazy Kat, apparently, and kept the strip running in his newspapers; as I read through Ignatz, I thought a few times of newsprint pages on the lonely breakfast table of an ersatz-Xanadu mansion. Ignatz is smart enough to know where pathos lurks and brave enough to expose it.
Ignatz seems intensely romantic, then, and intensely lyric, despite its unified presentation as a single book-length work. In fact, the untitled, lovelorn ballads that open each section seem like bits of some proto-lyric folk song made more universal by its anonymity: “A silverleafed bower / of shivering shade: / I will weave you a shelter / of my living hair,” Youn writes. Reading this collection thus made me reflect on how each successful poem, wherever and whenever it comes, must construct a book-size realm—each poem daring a myth that its language must then make credible—even if some are closer than others to what we call reality. “If after I read a poem, the world looks like that poem for 24 hours or so, I’m sure it’s a good one,” Bishop writes in a letter. In this, good poems help us to perceive the myths and worlds that we construct or accept all the time without knowing it, as well as the myths and worlds that we need all the time without admitting it, while good poems also show us alternative fulfillments and multiplied possibilities. The thematized collections of recent years, then, as they heighten and reflect on this world-making power, might reveal the difficulty of viable myths in the overmediated, under-felt world of contemporary culture. There’s an extradiegetic pathos here, perhaps, as well as that internal to the work. So much seems the case in the work of Louise Glück, for instance, whose books are as self-consciously unified as Ignatz, immersing readers in the pastoral allegories of Wild Iris, for example, or the communal meditations of A Village Life. Both poets use the alienation of a slightly alternative universe to surprise readers with the force of familiar emotions.
Youn’s work is more indebted to familiar idiom than Glück’s and more open to psychological fragmentation—somewhere, perhaps, between Glück and Rae Armantrout. And Youn’s is not quite as strong a book, for me, as either Glück or Armantrout’s recent work; while even a line of the latter two can be a mood-making moment, Youn’s effect depends more on the accumulation of pages and poems. Among many works of strength—among them “Ignatz Pursuer,” “On Ignatz’s Eyebrow,” “The Subject Ignatz,” “Winged Ignatz,” besides those quoted above—there are some that seem filler. Yet the volume as a whole shows how to isolate the lyric thread in unlikely stuff and then weave it into a serious new wisdom. The unifying theme, in this collection of individual poems, is not a quirk or a crutch but a truth that can’t be ignored.
Award season is hitting its stride, and this year’s National Book Award finalists have been announced. This year’s fiction list includes something of an invasion from overseas, with Peter Carey, surely the first Booker shortlister to also be a National Book Award finalist (but eligible for both because the Australian-born author is now a U.S. citizen), and Lionel Shriver, who, though a U.S. citizen is often more commonly associated with London, where she makes her home.
The nomination for Shriver validates a provactively titled piece that ran in these pages this year, Lionel Shriver: America’s Best Writer?, which suggested that she deserves far more critical attention. Rounding out the fiction list are Nicole Krauss, recently lauded as a New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer, and a pair of relative unknowns Jaimy Gordon and Karen Tei Yamashita, each writing for small indie presses, McPherson and Coffee House, respectively. Also notable, the fiction finalist number four women versus one male author, and Jonathan Franzen and his blockbuster literary novel Freedom are nowhere to be found.
The other big name to note is rocker Patti Smith, who earned a nod for her memoir.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (excerpt)
Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
Great House by Nicole Krauss (excerpt)
So Much for That by Lionel Shriver (excerpt)
I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita (excerpt)
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (excerpt)
Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq by John W. Dower (excerpt)
Just Kids by Patti Smith (excerpt)
Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward by Justin Spring (excerpt)
Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War by Megan K. Stack (excerpt)
Young People’s Literature: