Now here’s something: a collection of poetry inspired by a comic strip. Monica Youn’s Ignatz is surprisingly like George Herriman’s classic cartoon: suggestive, surreal, catty. It’s focus, despite its comic derivation, is the caginess of love, it’s impact on psychology and our perceptions. There are two voices speaking here, Krazy Kat and Youn; and when in “Ignatz Pursuer” it’s wished she could spit out her heart into her palm, we hear both.
If we’re to truly understand the Kat whose love prompts her (his?) beloved to fire bricks at her head, we must see the relationship, like Youn, as symbol, as a panoply of images and sounds. In Krazy Kat’s world, love is both blind and a vision. Like the shifting scenes in Herriman’s strip, Youn’s poems present us with ever-changing backgrounds holding unmoving characters. Krazy Kat’s love will never change. Ignatz mouse’s disgust with the same won’t either.
With doses of wit (“Weight/is the end//of wanting”), Youn makes Kat’s obsession serious, deep and unfathomable. She avoids Herriman’s phonetic spellings but not the phonetics: “O my dear devoir/O my dour devour”//Your name:/an arrow/with a rope attached/could pull/this raft/across this river.” The comic’s focus on unrequited love is made substantially dark, its humor dependent on the hope seen in hopelessness.
Yet somehow, hope persists. Each of the book’s four sections begins with an love poem (Krazy’s Song) in verse. “O Ignatz won’t you meet me/by the blue bean bush?” Each of the four sections ends with a poem entitled “Death of Ignatz,” and it’s here that the weight of love squeezes perception. “The mesas/sink to their knees//and let the snickering dunes /crawl over them.” Could the absence of an unloved mouse change the landscape like this?
Indeed, background is permutational. In “Landscape With Ignatz,” six views of the same place — “The sunburnt mouth of the canyon biting the swollen blue tongue of the sky… The blistered thumbs of the canyon tracing the blue-veined throat of the sky.” — all frame “your soft, your cerulean eye.” Youn’s ability to create and link images distinguish her poems. “The clockwork saguaros sprout extra faces like planaria stoked by/a razor,” she says in “Ersatz Ignatz.” The connection of time and regeneration in the desert setting is held in a man’s shaving. Sound and vision share symbol: “Chug chug say the piston-powered/ground squirrels.” And always the hand of Ignatz and his creator:
The yuccas pulse softly under grow-light sconces.
Here is the door he will paint on the rock
Here is the glass floor of the cliff.
He’ll enter from the west, backlit in orange isinglass, pyrite pendants glinting from the fringes of his voice.
These poems are so smartly worded (“isinglass” is a collagen obtained from sturgeon bladders used to clarify wine), so true and smoothly constructed that it’s apparent Youn could make something meaningful out of any subject. That she chose Krazy Kat’s voice to represent her own gives her collection natural entry into a variety of comic and tragic themes: the foolish and obsessive qualities of love, the errors of action and the delicacy of perception.
Like heart-on-its-sleeve Krazy Kat, Youn also invites us to examine her heart, there, in her poems, in the palm of our hand.–Cabbage Rabbit