Clarity: that superlative quality, everywhere referenced, nowhere understood. There is a special pod of Hell reserved for those who evaluate poetry on the basis of its presumed clarity (or lack thereof): woe, woe, woe betide those who neglect Monica Youn’s excellent Barter in favor of work that offers greater ease of “access” at the expense of the invention and force of language here so compellingly arranged.
As a metaphor, of course, clarity fails. This idea that the language of which poetry is made exists optimally as a transparent sheet, a substance through which Something Other can best be appreciated—this sets a recursive fuse, a logical threat that eventually unwinds to detonate the very idea of language itself. If the poetry is not the Something Other, if poetry is merely a scrim the opacity of which is to be damned and the transparency of which is to be praised, then we’d best hang a “closed” sign on the shop of paraphrase and retire to a dim future doctored up with all kinds of human sentiments the details of which have been known for thousands of years and to everyone’s utter boredom. Try springing that on the next befuddled someone who petitions you to explain how come poet Hex, Why, or Zee couldn’t just come out and say what they meant, why they couldn’t be more clear.
(One day I will successfully market to the manufacturers of Crayola Crayons my line of Klarity Krayons: 64 un-colors, each designed to achieve perfect drawing transparency.)
My objection to a hyper-valuation of clarity is that it simultaneously privileges the Something Other on the opposite side of the magic mirror while perpetually forestalling the question of what kind of thing should be on the other side, if, in fact, anything should be on the other side. I hope I am not alone in insisting that if you are going to force “clear” writing upon me for the benefit of revelation that the object you thereby reveal be very goddamned interesting indeed: if you are going to parade before me a cow with transparent skin, that cow had best contain something other than the expected innards. Oh, give me a transparent cow stuffed with watch wheels and miniature topiary gardens; otherwise give me a painted cow, or even a partially invisible one.
If, reader upon whose faith I depend, it seems as if I am breaking up under the 10X atmospheric pressure of this question of clarity, it is because I am concerned for the receipt of Barter: a book of poems that is meet and fit and good, creepy and sinister and alien, and deserving of a wide and appreciative readership. Monica Youn has expressed her realization that a language act cannot be merely vehicular; her surfaces, alternately of burnish and rust, defy all standard expectations of how the physics of conventional discourse will resist or foster meaning.
It is not as if Youn introduces us to a terrarium chock-a-block with flora and fauna the evolutionary origins of which are utterly unknowable; when I describe her poems as alien, I simply mean to illustrate the degree to which she de-familiarizes the known with a consistently elegant and unexpected touch:
A ridged glass cylinder
(via pneumatic tube)
over six lanes of idling cars
opens to a slim sheaf of
and, for the holidays,
That’s the whole of “Home Savings,” and it approaches the perfect. It’s easy to see how this poem could have gone terribly awry (mawkish, maudlin, morose) but Youn does better than control this possibility: she inverts it, makes a graphic toy, a poem with an engineer’s sensibility, out of what would otherwise be merely descriptive content. It even has the aural equivalent of mechanical bite: hurtles, twenties, mints. With only a few exceptions, Youn works this alchemical trick consistently, plating plain language with unexpected enamel and metallic features.
These few exceptions are worth mentioning not because they substantially detract from the collection’s quality but because they elucidate the way in which capitulation to clarity not only fails to achieve a good but can actually augur an ill. Consider the introductory gestures of the following:
One could search this landscape in vain
for signs of necessity.
From “25th & Dolores”
It was hardly a high-tech operation, stealing The Scream.
That we know for certain, and what was left behind—
From “Stealing The Scream”
Neither of these initiate ineffective poems, but Youn is unable to escape the constraints she imposes on herself on those few occasions she acquiesces to a nominally straightforward agenda. It’s as if these poems cannot help but go where they do; there is less sense of gravity-defiance, less room for the language to set its own affiliations. If Youn’s resources were limited, then the pleasures of this more traditional form of lyric inevitability would perhaps be sufficient. But the fact of the matter is that she can achieve the same measure of rightness while still preserving the textures of the strange:
remorse: to be bitten
to be displayed again;
shown again, arms
pulled back, head
following, how you
gloat, my reflection
smeared in the midnight
window: why won’t
you look at yourself?
“Derivation, or, The Unexamined Life”
Oranges My love,
going gelatinous in I dreamt the wolves
the Central Valley as the Dow were on you and I was useless
neared ten thousand in my open-toed shoes.
The point with each of these is that while the diction is direct and the syntax familiar, this “plainness” in no way corresponds to clarity in the sense that we can predict or extrapolate some supplemental function superior to the poem itself. “Derivation,” quoted here in its entirety, suggests “content,” but wisely leaves off where speculation begins. What Youn appreciates is that this choice is not merely strategic; she knows that the language of the poem has occasioned its own cessation in a way that is darkly pleasing, as opposed to that fuse of redundancy previously threatened. “Stereoscopes” makes explicit a function of metaphor in lineation; each fragment is lucid, but again, that kind of visibility doesn’t foretell the prophetic boredom that comes with actual clarity. We arrive at curiosity but do with assurance. You cannot claim to know where this poem will end, yet do not feel lost as a consequence of this uncertainty.
This is a fine balance to strike, and Youn needs the confidence it bespeaks, because she is drawn to material (pornography, various degrees of delusion as they are realized in abuse) the social force of which applies a considerable effect on the social will, even at the level of the individual. There are, in brief, “ways” by which we are “supposed” to consider these things. Youn successfully arrays her words against this force; even better, she makes use of that cocktail of politesse and shame, brewing from it her own peculiar napalm. In “Drawing for Absolute Beginners,” a countdown to a hushed, suggestive apocalypse that begins the collection, Youn makes the following arrangement:
6.Cross-hatchings of street noise and the Minotaur with his boy’s body. Narrowing. Rib cage the verge of a canoe. Armpit a whiff of pencil lead.
5.”If you want to fuck me with that bottle, Mr. Arbuckle, best take the foil off first.”
a. The act of kissing. A kiss.
b. Math. A point where two branches of a curve have a common
Tangent and extend in both directions of the tangent.
c. To the ankles. Or to the knees. Or just unzipped enough.
It takes precision and considerable nerve to render these affiliations and then leave them be, and it is this assuredness that both allows the venturings of “Drawing” and the sparseness of “Derivation.”
Youn is seduced by the visual arts, as well as particularly intimate travesties, those that depend upon a sense of rule and decorum. But she is master of that by which she has been seduced; she sees through the blandishments of clarity to a keener order, one characterized by a design intelligence. Barter is an exceptional book of poems, and it is one that makes the act of mechanical comprehension more than a game of hide-and-seek. What is seen here, as well as what is unseen, is sketched by misdirection; Youn approaches her monsters backwards, not with mirror, but with her own impressive script and parchment, the topographical wonders of her own imagination. That much, at least, is clear.