“I hate it, but, lacking skin, I’ve lost / my capacity for scorn: that // was my failing—not excess / of pride, but that stooping // to pick up their accoutrements, / as if emulation could engender // equality. I stain everything / I touch, it all stains me; //
my raw surface is an unlidded eye, / each stimulus its own white- // hot knife, but why would I submit to be resheathed?” – from “Marsyas, After”
Monica Youn’s 2023 poetry collection, From From (Graywolf Press) is as much an origin story as it is an authentic portrayal of what it means to be Asian American. Through a blend of poetry and personal essay, Youn studies deracination and Asian American identity through various poetic methods. As I read From From I found it offered an opportunity to consider what it means to be an American, to reach inside myself to critically examine the ways in which western ideology has impacted colonization and racial identity.
“Study of Two Figures (Agave / Pentheus),” is one poem in a series of poems of a similar title; this poem in particular struck me several ways as it explores the ways in which Asian American identity is conceptualized through a western lens. In this poem, as in the entire collection, Youn isn’t hesitant to delve into western “taboos” such as female sexuality, and she plainly portrays microaggressions in the same way she does more explicit modes of racism. Youn also includes examples of self-doubt and the inevitable guilt that comes from feeling ashamed of where one comes from; in this way, Youn’s poetry reaches readers and asks us hard questions not without also reflecting the emotional work of the poet.
“She said she was at first going to name him Sparrow eater of seeds but then she realized her seeds were poison // People kept asking questions. // She said it was an Asian thing and they stopped asking. // Sorrow found the Asian thing embarrassing. // Why does Grandpa have to dress like that? he asked about her immigrant father // Respect your elders she told him // I’ll show them respect when they show me respect he said // That’s not how it works she said vaguely Confucius // We’re not that kind of Asian said Sorrow // The scar where they had cut him from her healed into an ugly white lump. // It looked like a white mask soon he was wearing it all the time.”
The interaction in this half of the second sequence in the poem is one hard for me to forget; it’s layered with complicated emotions—guilt, shame, honor, and it’s beautifully portrayed in allegorical mythos.
“Epicanthic” is another poem in From From that will remain with me; its narrative elements are rich with emotion and honesty. There’s no way that, as a white person, I could truly know the extent to which racism and anti-Asian related violence impacts Asian Americans, but I felt as though this poem offered an entrance to acknowledging that experience, to understanding how violence begets violence begets shame.
“Hey // Miss Ching Chong! Is your cunt / as squinty as your eyes? I hear you Chinese chicks / have slanted twats! // She grabbed her knapsack, / rushed off to French class. // Back home that day she shut / her bathroom door, squatted / on the toilet seat, a compact / mirror between her thighs. // A single hair—kinky, coarse—gesticulated desperately, // the sole survivor / of some natural disaster. // She sighed, reached / for the tweezers, yanked it out.”
Monica Youn’s From From is a stunning collection of American poetry; its explorations are a triumph of contemporary poetry, and I’ll be pleased to flip through its pages over and over, searching and finding something new within each poem again and again.