by Monica Youn
Graywolf Press 2023, $17.00
by Mariam Ahmed
“YOU ARE IN NO POSITION TO CRITICIZE ANYONE.” –From From
The above quote, transcribed from the speaker’s writing notebook, appears in the last section of From From. This poetry collection in five sections is the latest poetry book by Monica Youn, a former lawyer who teaches at the University of California, Irvine. From From depicts the formative years of the speaker, a daughter of Korean immigrants in Texas. The book powerfully explores themes of history and myth that keeps readers guessing what observations the speaker might question from one page to the next. From From demonstrates that poetry is a distillation of complicated concepts that allows for the unpacking and repacking of containers of ideas into evocative images of otherness.
The book’s opening poem, “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaė / Sado),” sets a speculative tone. In this poem, the speaker prods at an image or object, revealing the hidden layers within. An example of these revelations involves a rice chest and a hollow cow:
…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 buttons, 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…
A self-awareness arises as the speaker unpacks these metaphoric containers. The meta-comparisons in this passage lead to interpretations that unveil alternate realms of reality and perception. The book’s format presents another example of the way the speaker enhances an alternative, almost otherworldly, sensation.
From From’s format reflects the surreal experience of moving through dimensions, as if the reader travels with the speaker in parallel universes. The reader may extrapolate an unsettling tone and ominous mood through the book’s running prose form. Five chapters present titles upon specific different backdrops at the start of each section, including an image of The Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, and landscapes. The pages with these backdrops seem to be pages from a passport or visa — or at least designed to look that way. These overarching, thematic headings section out the collection: “Asia Minor,” “Deracinations,” “Western CIV,” “The Magpies,” and “In the Passive Voice.” No titles appear above the poems, which emphasizes the voice and stream-of-consciousness quality of the narrative. This collection disclaims solidarity in moments of precarity and trauma, acknowledging the authenticity of those who have an organic relationship with their Asian homeland. This is evident in the backgrounds and imagery on the section title pages. Youn navigates between the poles of belonging and displacement. In some instances, humorous phrasing and imagery builds solidarity around the impersonal yet intimate irreality of Asian American identity and existence.
One instance of humor comes from the minimalist poem, “Parable of the Magpie’s Name 1.” The book title From From mirrors lines with phrases in this section, like “pica pica.” This whole poem is simply one question (with no question mark):
The micro-poetic expression of six couplets with two words in each line provides little context, let alone commentary. This allows the reader to create an individual, perhaps even personalized, understanding of what the poem means. It also encourages a deeper introspection into the motivations behind our desires and urges us to seek sustenance and fulfillment in more meaningful and substantial ways. “Parable” contemplates the idea of desire and its relationship with sustenance and fulfillment. The form emphasizes the minute questioning and introspective tone, as if the speaker challenges the reader to reflect upon the origins of their desires and questions the influences that shape their yearnings. This poem also elicits a sensation of wanting something that cannot nourish and the impossibility of constructing a home by consuming a barrier. It does this by presenting a metaphorical exploration into the futility of pursuing empty desires. In this poem and many others, the speaker prompts the audience to examine desires more closely and consider whether they are truly fulfilling the desire for identity and belonging that align with fundamental needs.
In addition to identity, the concept of visual gaze is an important element in the book as Youn grapples with the expected reader, who could possibly be white. She crafts narratives, images, and perspectives that consider the speaker’s Korean American experience as well as the Asian American experience as a whole. In this manner, Youn navigates the interplay of interiority and outsiderness. In formal and experiential aspects of the collection, it’s possible that ideas of containment preceded any structural concept she had of the book as a poetry collection, such as how “Study of Two Figures” has a conversational tone that sounds as if the lines could have been lifted out of a diary. It’s clear from the content that the pandemic also impacted the interplay between interiority and outward expression, since going outside may have been anxiety-inducing for many people during this time. The fear of contagion was a factor, but there was also the fear of being visible and vulnerable during the Anti-Asian hate surge. This visibility factor created a duality in emotions that society then enhanced through a distorted gaze.
The dualism in From From allowed me to reflect upon many stories and personal encounters with identity and belonging, and how the immigrant experience in the United States is a wide-ranging one rather than the monolithic phrase often heard in public settings. Since hyper focusing on identity is a common practice in American culture, the recognition of individuality and true personal agency can come secondary to pointing out how ethnicities and communities differ from the dominant society. Youn’s collection highlights the irony of these modalities and distorted perspectives in regards to ethnicity. Several passages reminded me of past—and sometimes, present—instances of discrimination and harassment that often go overlooked and disregarded throughout history. This observation can be seen in section “V. Passive Voice,” about the word “buffer”:
The book writes that Korean Americans were the ‘buffer between the affluent white and often poorer black and Latino communities.’ The book doesn’t explain what it means by “buffer.”
A buffer is “something that absorbs a blow, apparatus for deadening the concussion between a moving body and that against which it strikes.”
As a term, “buffer” is another construction that leaves it unclear who is meant to be striking the blow — the Black and Brown against the White, or the White against the Black and Brown. Which is the “moving body” — Black and Brown upward mobility? Or White suppression? Korean Americans were not the buffer for the blow, they were the instrumentality of the blow, they were the blow itself, not the leather glove but the white-knuckled fist.
This part of the poem suggests that Korean Americans aren’t merely a neutral buffer, but rather an active force in the dynamics between the aforementioned communities. The community couldn’t protect others from harm; rather, there’s an embodiment of the force itself, likening the collective to a clenched fist rather than a protective glove. This interpretation challenges the notion of Korean Americans as passive intermediaries and invites a reevaluation of their role in these social dynamics. In line with the rest of the collection, this poem asks questions that may cause the audience to draw their own conclusions, which could cause discomfort. Many poems pack the same punch as alluded to by the fist in the above example, and thus each poem of the collection makes a statement in an original and impactful manner.
From From is a compelling and thought-provoking collection that embodies complex themes and concepts with precision and depth. Youn’s evocative use of dual imagery and direct language invites the reader to engage with the poems on multiple levels, providing valuable insights into the experiences of Asian Americans and immigrants more broadly. The collection emphasizes the complications of identity and the challenges that immigrants face in navigating belonging and otherness. Youn’s book serves as an example of how poetry can distill these often avoided topics into a few images, allowing readers to explore them in a deeper and more nuanced way. She also asks the reader to contemplate the importance of understanding cultural and personal significance of one’s identity and how it can affect one’s sense of belonging in a foreign, yet newly settled space. In this manner, From From provides a relevant context for recurring social observations and commentaries about ethnicity, society, and the idea of “identity.” Perhaps what the speaker transcribed into the book might have another meaning after reading the collection: “You are in no position to criticize anyone.”