Friday, April 11, 2014

Krazy Kat's Eternal and Absurd Songs of Love

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 31
Monica Youn, Ignatz: Poems

For over thirty years, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip featured the gender-ambiguous title cat singing strangely poetic love lyrics to Ignatz Mouse. Ignatz would respond by flinging bricks at Krazy Kat’s head, and Offissa Pupp, who absolutely adored Krazy Kat, would arrest Ignatz, which apparently made no difference. Through two world wars and the Depression, the same arc replayed thousands of times against a strange Arizona dreamscape.

Monica Youn, a Constitutional law attorney who moonlights as a poet, explodes the mind of such self-destructive love. The way Krazy Kat channels various high-minded poetic stylesgets translated into an ambitious poetic expedition that crisscrosses diverse mental landscapes, but tantalizingly never quite resolves. Appropriating the Krazy Kat persona, Youn courts Ignatz with grace and beauty, in a remarkably bleak demonstration of utter romantic futility.

Youn’s poetry is consistently image-driven, but varies in its linguistic approach. Some poems run straight and plain-spoken, all ragged ends and modern free verse. Others resemble Shakespeare, Chaucer, the great anonymous French troubadours. But even when her language runs very high-flown and consciously constructed, she retains a sly will to subvert herself, as in “Ignatz Invoked”:
A gauze bandage wraps the land
and is unwound, stained orange with sulfites.

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.

This fairly accurate invocation, less of Ignatz than the characters’ shared Arizona landscape, embodies Youn’s approach to poetic structure. Her tone may run lofty and exalted, but she recalls the images of the hardpan desert and its equally sun-baked citizenry, just like Krazy Kat does. The juxtaposition runs both ways, though, as her free verse implies untapped wells of philosophical potential, a mind deep but unschooled, as in “Ersatz Ignatz”:
The clockwork saguaros sprout extra faces like planaria stroked by a razor. Chug
say the sparrows, emitting fluffs of steam. Chug chug say the piston-powered ground squirrels.
The tumbleweeds circle in retrofitted tracks, but the blue pasteboard welkin is much dented by little winds.
Though poems like these lack some objective center as such, they nevertheless encapsulate concisely the grim landscapes, and even grimmer characters, populating Ignatz’s world. The “piston-powered ground squirrels” and other steampunk images derive directly from Herriman’s surreal setting, but they also capture the mixed naturalism and technology of Southwestern culture. The clockwork images of circling tumbleweeds and steaming sparrows both warm and chill the soul.

Youn’s (and Herriman’s) austere landscape reflects the characters’ bone-dry, blasted spirits. Krazy Kat and Offissa Pupp both love in vain, pouring their dedication down a well. Ignatz hates with equally futile intensity, repelling others’ pledges of devotion with uncloaked violence. Youn seldom directly says “love” in these poems, but the sentiment percolates through her words, alongside the characters’ useless sincerity, in verses like “The Subject Ignatz”:
Even as a lawn
or tree

is more attractive
when configured

as individual

than as
a seamless

Individual poems defy concise synopsis; Youn frequently rejects overtly the strictures of MFA workshops (for good or ill). But together, her verses create a strange heartbreaking gestalt where the deeper one feels, the more certain one’s disappointment becomes. Love and loathing are equally futile. Though her tone only becomes clear over time, outbreaks of undisguised emotion perforate poems like “Ignatz Pursuer”:
her nostrils straining to the limits
of their stretch and her lips glued shut

and her fingers clamped over her mouth
for good measure she is running

running from Ignatz and 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
An insistent, almost Pink Floyd-ish rhythm underlies this and other poems, though it frequently isn’t obvious until second or third reading. One could imagine Krazy sitting roadside, as he (she?) often did, strumming his guitar and singing these bleak, unforgiving blues to ears that will not hear. Youn’s rhythms often run so subtle that you won’t notice they’re even there until you realize your heartbeat has adjusted to match her.

Long before Samuel Beckett spotlighted life’s intrinsic futility, George Herriman showed comedic characters trapped in eternal loops of feeling and desperation. Youn borrows Herriman’s century-old imagery to tell a story both insistently modern and somehow timeless. Krazy’s feelings remain forever unrequited (each part ends with “The Death of Ignatz”), yet we share in his strange, doomed romance.

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