Fate considered as represented by the eyebrow of Ignatz Mouse

Cruel fate, kind fate, indifferent fate. Cruel can’t be right, can it? The cruel have their reasons, however selfish or misguided they may be. Kindness is a shield held in defense of those fate ill-fortunes; fate itself can’t wield it. And indifference—fate that cares neither one way or ‘nother—well, that contradicts the idea of fate altogether. Random fate is an oxymoron. So what’s left? Ignatz is.

[…] the way Ignatz now feels his anger

dissipating in that self-same gap between

the trigger and the smack between his anger

and its object the way one eyebrow

can never meet the other in a true unbroken v

no matter how doomy how dour

how darksome his invariable frown.

—”On Ignatz’s Eyebrow”

Maybe fate is neither cruel nor kind nor indifferent. Maybe fate is simply cranky.

Kat and Mouse

For those of you loitering in the numinous state of unfamiliarity, Ignatz is one third of a heartbreaking and upsettingly comic love triangle, the other two points of which are held by Krazy Kat, a feline of indeterminate gender and the gift of a chronic inability to take a hint, and Offisa Pupp, a dog who represents both moral and legal order. Pupp loves Krazy (or at least hates to see Krazy suffer), but Krazy only has eyes for Ignatz, which is krazy indeed, since Ignatz cannot abide Krazy, and often registers his contempt with a brick flung to the head of our already-addled hero/ine, who doesn’t mind in the least. For what signifies love more clearly than obsessively repeated gestures of violent disregard?

If tragedy and comedy depend equally on misunderstandings and accidents of meaning, then American arts knows no greater bard than George Herriman, who graphically realized and idiomatically expressed thousands of permutations of this formula in his Krazy Kat comic strips, which ran from 1913 to 1944, largely due to the beneficence of William Randolph Hearst. Set in a fantastical version of Coconino County, Arizona, the strip is widely celebrated as one of the most inventive and influential expressions of American cartooning and popular culture. It’s magnificent, and Youn does it justice largely by resisting the most tempting forms of tribute. Herriman’s language is wildly idiosyncratic, though it bears some resemblance to the hodgepodge phrasing and enunciation of his native New Orleans. Youn makes no effort to reproduce it, not does she attempt to summarize the “plot” of the strip. She assumes no real knowledge of Krazy Kat on the part of the reader at all, though she does make some truly beautiful concessions to the lurid, mutable landscape of Herriman’s Coconino, as in “Ignatz Invoked:”

A gauze bandage wraps the land
and is unwound, stained orange with sulfates.

A series of slaps molds a mountain,
a fear uncoils itself, testing its long

cool limbs. A passing cloud
seizes up like a carburetor

and falls to earth, lies broken-
backed and lidless in the scree.

Likewise, she captures well how the phantasmagorical desert can be both aesthetically fluid and instantly, consistently recognizable:

Landscape with Ignatz

The rawhide thighs of the canyon straddling the knobbed blue spine of the sky.

The bone-spurred heels of the canyon prodding the gaunt blue ribs of the sky.

The sunburnt mouth of the canyon biting the swollen blue tongue of the sky.

[…]

Much as she correctly intuits the key features of that landscape, Youn understands that its value is symbolic; because a self-transforming environment need not actually be anywhere, she doesn’t limit her poems solely to that one arid frame of reference. Ignatz the book is geographically and stylistically peripatetic, which only highlights the persistence of what Youn sees in Herriman’s work: the endlessly inventive impossibility of Ignatz the object of love.

Solving for Ignatz in the Equation of Love

Since it’s impossible for me to have the experience of reading Ignatz without knowledge of the strip, I’m curious as to how readers might approach this book cold. While I believe familiarity with Krazy Kat certainly enriches one’s experience of the poems, I don’t think that they require that knowledge—all they hope of the reader, I think, is curiosity. Even the basic question of “What’s an Ignatz, and what’s it doing in every title of every poem in this eponymously-titled book?” would serve perfectly well, for that question alone would result in all the answer the book requires. Ignatz is whatever captures your attention; Ignatz is whatever compels you. Sometimes Youn writes of Ignatz in a narrative prose; sometimes she writes of Ignatz in the most diffuse and indeterminately lyric terms. Each style affords her the chance to show off her considerable poetic gifts, but more importantly, the diversity of approaches proves the point that interest, attraction, compulsion, love are all both highly specific and totally impersonal. Everyone has an Ignatz. All the reader has to know is the rich complications of the act of paying attention to something, and if that’s too much of a barrier to achieving a useful context, then, well, poetry is doomed, I guess.

Ignatz as Direct and Indirect Object

In a fantasy of reversal (or a simple act of self-justification), “Ignatz Pursuer,” Youn writes of running from Ignatz:

[…] the night
like a drumskin and her heart like someone

locked in the trunk of a car and if there were
only time god she would spit it out

into her palm she would pry out the mortar
between two bricks and wedge it in there

but, as the poem continues, there isn’t enough time, for the inexorable force that is Ignatz follows hot on her heels. This panicky account actually serves the poem’s protagonist, for it projects onto the thing pursued the responsibility for pursuance. An irredeemable and unrealizable desire, even if elected, feels more like an inheritance—an affliction—than a choice. In this, Ignatz can be blamed, but the majority of the poems speak to a more disconcerting truth: “Springes to Catch Ignatz,” for example, which makes of every natural and cast-off element in a pastoral a device for entrapment; “Ignatz Recidivist” (“to blush / to blame / to blame / to bleed / to bless // helpless / helpless / helplessness”), which marks Ignatz as provoked as much as much as provocateur, and “Invisible Ignatz,” which simply reads

I would forget you were it not that unseen flutes
keep whistling the curving phrases of your body.

A love triangle is still a triangle, a closed shape, and all closed shapes resemble circles, which we cite as having no beginning and no end, no fault and no flaw, no cause that can ever be divorced from what its effect causes in turn. In Herriman’s strip, of course, the triangle involves three characters; Youn knows that you only need two for a triangle, for desire of all kinds is always the third party, the node through which electricity—deadly, animating—arcs.

Eyebrow Redux

Of Herriman’s trio, Ignatz is the least expressive; he is, after all, the smallest (despite his disproportionate upper body strength). His temper is usually telegraphed through his eyebrows, which usually take the shape of feigned innocence or furrowed rage. But sometimes, usually in the act of flinging a brick at poor, infinitely optimistic Krazy, his eyebrows form a kind of bisected infinity symbol, at once inquisitive and judgmental. What is your goddamned problem, that countenance seems to ask. Why do you keep putting me in this position?

I don’t think the universe, which would be the origin of fate if fate had one, has a point of view. But if it did, and we had to believe in fate, I reckon the look on Ignatz’s face would summarize it. Call it irritated fate, irritated because our love and our hope are inappropriate in the face of what would otherwise be indifference. The brickbats are more discouragements than punishments, fate warning us to stop, to not ask for too much, to not see things that aren’t there. And to that extent, the illusion that aggression is affection is actually true. Krazy won’t walk away, and Ignatz can’t. As Youn writes in “Letter to Ignatz,”

O bring me
my ordinary:

my trays
of soot
and sand

*

For tonight I am a window
in a cottage by the sea.

*

O mia paloma blanca
O my desert dune

my dove,

who now will
sing the praises

of a natural love?

A natural love, the only possible kind, tragic and comic for our invention and occupation of it. I know she means it as a rhetorical question, but she answers it nevertheless, in the whole of Ignatz: Youn will sing the praises, in every sober key and antic register, and this book, wise and lovely, she proves her fitness to record our most subtle and brutal selves. Herriman would be delighted, Krazy would, in hir daffy way, understand, and Ignatz would offer her his highest praise: zip, fling, beware.