Monica Youn’s Blackacre* practically shimmers with intelligence as it ranges over subjects including desire, territory (physical, emotional, imaginative), race, and fertility. Here intellect meets imagery with an intensity so great it took my breath away.
In the first section, eleven poems circle and interrogate Francois Villon’s fifteenth-century Ballade des pendus (Ballad of the Hanged Men); these poems are about transformation, and life as much as death. In “Portrait of a Hanged Woman,” the speaker rejects the Greek notion of catastrophe (the fall from grace):
No it is
a single point—
on the topography
of a life.
Later in the poem, she writes:
A life is not
it is not meant
to fold, to be
a narrow ring.
These very short lines do make me think of falling, always (although that’s maybe my own readerly idiosyncrasy), which plays against the assertion that catastrophe is an elevation. And see how the narrow lines mimic the “narrow ring” of the second quotation?
Blackacre‘s second and third sections offer an eclectic sampling of forms, lengths, and subjects, from the brief, ekphrastic “Quinta del Sordo” to the multi-section “Epiphyte.” These are poems intimate enough to be whispered, learned enough to be declaimed from a lectern.
It is in the third section that the poet introduces the “____acre”; as Monica Youn explains in an essay for The Poetry Foundation, “‘Blackacre‘ is a legal fiction, an imaginary landscape. Just as we use ‘John Doe’ for a hypothetical person, lawyers use ‘Blackacre’ as a placeholder term for a hypothetical plot of land.” The hypothetical nature of the poems’ titles belies their specificity (“minnows wheeling in meticulous formation/ the occasional water snake, angry, lost.”) and (for some) their grounding in the presumably autobiographical “I.”
While I have returned and will again to many of these poems, it’s the fourth section, comprised of two poems (both called “Blackacre”) that I cannot get out of my head.
The second of the two poems, which you can find here, is an extended meditation on Milton’s famous Sonnet 19 (“On His Blindness”); you might remember its final line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
“Blackacre” is a long prose poem in fourteen sections. Each section takes as starting point the last word in the corresponding line of Milton’s poem, from which the speaker undertakes a close reading of the sonnet and her own experience with infertility. In the first section, she notes,
I came to consider my body — its tug-of-war of tautnesses and slacknesses — to be entirely my own, an appliance for generating various textures and temperatures of friction. Should I have known, then, that by this act of self-claiming, I was cutting myself off from the eternal, the infinite, that I had fashioned myself into a resource that was bounded and, therefore, exhaustible?
I read this poem for the first time in the car, as we drove west at twilight. The sky gradually darkened, and I struggled to catch the last of the sun so I could read the last few pages of this brilliant, cooly radiant book.
*I received a copy of this book for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.