Ignatz Enters Poetry

For years I was a philistine. I believed that poems should draw upon life experiences, memories of what I’d loved and lost, or what had disturbed me once and disturbed me still. Poems shouldn’t be op-eds, ten cent philosophies, or high brow name dropping. All those poems about Greek gods (unless written by the Greeks themselves) struck me as pretentious. And don’t write about van Gogh. Go out and see sunflowers for yourselves. Free yourself from libraries and museums. Engage with life in all its uppity unruliness which has more to teach us than does your aesthetic learnedness.

Then I watched Night of the Living Dead. Before long I found myself immersed in writing poems in which I entered this black and white zombie world much as Dorothy had flown into Oz. So much for the line I’d always drawn between what I’d experienced for myself (the personal and the authentic) and what I could appropriate from the culture at large (the borrowed and the ironic). Liberated from my own life I had a blast messing with these popular cultural icons in ways that have delighted me and audiences alike. Now I wonder if I’m not the last one in on this game, for our culture is saturated with borrowing, sampling, collaging, referencing, etc. as if everything is slyly commenting on something else. The other night on the car radio I heard the ethereal male singing almost like a loon that starts a song I’ve been hooked on. “Oh good!” I thought. “It’s Kanye West.” But a minute later the singer was still stuck out on that misty lake. The booming beat and hip hop vocals that gave me the thrills had yet to invade like a marching band. “Oh shit,” I realized. “This must be the original.”

Which brings us to Ignatz by Monica Youn, which was nominated for the National Book Award last year. It caught my eye by being inspired by a classic comic strip. Ignatz was the mouse with a gangly pitcher’s wind-up forever throwing bricks at the back of Krazy Kat’s head. Now that I’ve read Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman I know the story better, though there’s not much to know. Krazy Kat was a moony romantic who mistook each brick as a love blow from his beloved Ignatz. Ignatz was a wiseass. Officer Pupp, the dog in love with Krazy Kat, spent his career chasing after Ignatz to lock him upstairs in jail. All this took place in the Arizona desert with orange mesas in the background like giant boots or anvils against a black sky. Krazy Kat ran in newspapers from 1913 until Herriman’s death in 1944. Its fans included such figures as e.e. cummings, Jack Kerouac, Walt Disney, and William Randolph Hearst, its devoted publisher. It reminds me of Samuel Beckett in the way it makes so much out of so little. But rather than an underlying void, there’s love, even if it’s forever aimed in the wrong direction.

Once I had Ignatz in hand I saw that it was nothing like my foray into zombie poems. It’s spare and edgy, not retellings but brainy lyric meditations. Often, I find such poems hard to grasp, but these have pleased me with repeated readings. Here’s one to try for yourself. Aside from writing and teaching poetry, Monica Youn is an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, where she directs a project on money in politics.

Ignatz at the Shrine of the Sinners

Night like a black

glass bell
and the fading

echo of the detox

helpless helpless
helpless helpless

if fleshly importuning
were to fall silent…


Each sinner’s left behind

a little sinner

laminated photos,
silk flowers

strung with wire.

tiptoes unseen through

of votive prayer

holding as his candle

an aluminum


He’s a stalker

or a snigger or
a stain the v

on his forehead
stands for villain

or for vain o
tongueless talker

will you never teach him shame?

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