by Olivia Zhu
Right now, I'm somewhere in the American Southwest, surrounded by what my high school biology teacher would remind me is called a “desert chaparral.” I'm road-tripping from Austin to California, both a far cry away from the cold climes where I first encountered Monica Youn, and her second book Ignatz.
As a child of the 90s, I had no clue that Ignatz referred to the Krazy Kat comic strips, and similarly had no idea who Monica Youn was (CliffNotes version: she's a notable lawyer and poet, and Ignatz is her second book). When I first read “X as a Function of Distance from Ignatz,” or “Ignatz Domesticus,” or any of the other bits and pieces of her book available online—well, they were a bit inaccessible. I thought it because I didn't know Krazy Kat, didn't know the original Ignatz. To be perfectly honest, I still don't know if Ignatz is meant to be male or female, and I confess I haven't been perfectly diligent in my research here; even now, I read Youn's work in fragments, on the road. But—I hope my argument that poetry is a matter of being at a point in time, at the right moment in time, is no less obscured for that fact.
But, details as where Ignatz comes from or how much of it has been read—they don't matter (at least, not overmuch, and certainly not for now). What is clear, is that to appreciate Youn's Ignatz, one need not know about Krazy Kat, or the red desert it inhabits, or unrequited love—but perhaps, simply, have touched upon just one of these three. (Isn't that the mark of rather special poet—to convey meaning through a small sliver of what one writes?) And what chance, to find myself traversing the I-40 in the right state of mind to think back on her earnest speaker, whose impressions of Ignatz are replete with the language of the heated earth and its decorations (and yes, the I-40 as well).
Maybe it's too simple to say that loving a terrain like that which lies through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona is akin to the love born by Krazy Kat for the cruel, unresponsive, hostile Ignatz. Youn, a Houston native, ought to be familiar with the surrounding environment—and it's clear that she is. The kind of attention she pays to the landscape, whether to the “supersaturated blues” of jeans—or the unending expanse of sky here—or to the “skin / of a tightening fist” on the wheel of a car, well, that attention is delivered with the same gaze that turns toward an object of affection.
She presents the speaker's feeling for Ignatz in a way that's clearly sensual, too. The physicality of where Ignatz is, where he will be, is utterly clear in Youn's head, and in her poetry. There's a “moan deepening the dust / choked fissures in the rock,” and so on, in such poems as “Ignatz Invoked” and the aforementioned “X as a Function.”
Yet, far more interesting to me is the fact that there is something about the love Youn's Krazy Kat bears for Ignatz that is embedded in the American dream of the West, of pursuing an unfriendly frontier until it bears fruit. Such a dream is evident in the chugging of animals along the highways, like the trains that escort the road until it ends, ultimately, at the sea. In “Ersatz Ignatz,” Youn also depicts the object of her speaker's desire as having painted “a door… on the rock,” and having been “backlit in orange isinglass.” I am, of course, immediately thinking of hobbits going to Isengard—but, distractions aside, ought not one think here about the worlds that Ignatz has opened? He is not only a portal to the mountains, the unfriendly rock—he is also the crystalline, fishy hint of water in a desert.
This is a nice segue back to “Ignatz Oasis,” where Ignatz is a cooling, comforting presence, despite the heat of the speaker's passion amidst the furnace of the desert. Yes, Ignatz has left the Krazy Kat speaker, and so the “sky drains of color.” The speaker nevertheless finds joy in the remnants, for “Crouching I hide / in the coolness I had stolen / from the brass rods of your bed.” Ignatz is loved when there, and Ignatz is loved when not there. The memory of receding chilliness is enough, perhaps just as the memory of her hometown landscapes is enough.
And thinking of Youn, here, not so far where she set Ignatz, tells me how much of love is about timing—about letting yourself be hit by a brick in the head, about thinking back on a read-long-ago piece while on a highway west.