30 Books #26: Tess Taylor on Monica Youn’s Blackacre

by Tess Taylor | Mar-14-2017

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 16 announcement of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Tess Taylor offers an appreciation of poetry finalist Monica Youn’s Blackacre (Graywolf Press).

As well as being one of the most consistently innovative poets working today, Monica Youn is a Yale-trained lawyer. And so as all lawyers do, she learned in property law that blackacre is a centuries-old legal term that stands in for a fictitious estate.

In legal practice, positing a blackacre has been used to explore laws about easements or environmental rights or whether or not farmer A will eventually owe farmer B potatoes. This might be a bit far afield from poetry, but in this case, the estate Youn is looking to claim is the estate of the body, specifically the body that wants to conceive a child.

In this book, both the body of the speaker and of the longed-for child are held up as fictions, sites that can be thought about and named but may or may not be wholly claimable at all. This means that Youn is essentially writing a study of longing for something at once internal and out of control, something highly envisioned that may never come to pass.

What does it mean to imagine claiming something as strange as a baby or, for that matter, a self? What, in the end, does it mean to hope? These are open questions, and Youn mines them with precise skill. As she circles ideas of barrenness and fertility, Youn unsettles the way we imagine our possessions, interiors or borders at all. What is the work of desire? What slips away even as we try to name it? Glancing off mythic landscapes, slipping by Homer and Milton, Youn's poems also thread through, as she puts it, radiant squares of sensation, the body a dichotomy of flesh and blood. At what point does this lacework shift over from intricacy to impossibility, she asks?

Youn's poems, luminous fictions, also capture the sheer force of imagining itself, the slippery elusive loops of desire. Youn writes, it is almost unseemly - this exalting - the maypole the seed has made of its body.

Tess Taylor’s chapbook of poems, The Misremembered World, was selected by Eavan Boland and published by the Poetry Society of America. Her poetry and nonfiction have since appeared in The Atlantic, Boston Review, Harvard Review, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New Yorker. Her first book, The Forage House, was a finalist for the Believer Poetry Award. Tess is on air poetry reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered, and is a professor of English and creative writing at Whittier College. This appreciation is adapted, with permission, from her NPR review.

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