"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Poetry review: FROM FROM -- POEMS

Today the 2023 National Book Awards will be announced. I always look forward to immersing myself in a new batch of award books each year and have a set a goal to read at least two of the winners or finalists from the five categories. I try to get a jump on things things when the finalists are announced. From From by Monica Youn is one of those finalists in the poetry category.

Youn is the child of Korean immigrants. She grew up in Texas but now lives in New York as a racial minority. The result is a "a volume of poems that is deeply heartfelt yet bracingly suspicious, exploratory and accomplished" (Poetry School).  The title sets the stage to answer the irritating question: "Where are you from?" The slim volume is divided into five chapters/themes. The first one, I am ashamed to confess, left me scratching my head because I am not very familiar with characters from Greek mythology. The style of each poem is often direct with the format in couplets or single lines of verse. I didn't have trouble reading the poems, I just wasn't sure of their meaning.

I should stop here and also confess that I often find myself reading poetry as if it were a novel, where I expect to find out the backstory of events. I remember once reading a poem where the poet said something like "this was the second time my brother died." I couldn't read on. I had to know. What happened to the brother? I found the answer in an earlier work by the poet. I say this as an example of what happened to me while I was reading From From. There were several verses in the many poems in the collection which piqued my curiosity/interest the same way. What happened to the dog who returned home with the note that next time it would be shot? Why didn't the mother stick up for her daughter when teachers were so rude to her? Perhaps I'm not cut out to read poetry because I clearly want the kind of details one expects from a novel!

The second section is titled DERACINATIONS, a word I had to look up. The word means: 1. uprooted; 2. to remove or separate from natural environment or culture, especially to remove the racial or ethnic characteristics or influences. What a perfect word to describe the poems in this section since it is here that Youn describes, through eight poems she calls "sonigrams" what life was like for her, a young Asian-American girl, growing up in Texas. Pretty much all of these poems broke my heart. We are so clueless and mean-spirited in the US toward anyone we consider to be "other." I am so grateful for courageous writers and poets who are brave enough to help us face ourselves, if we are willing to look.

I wondered at the symbolism in section four: THE MAGPIES. Aren't magpies supposed to symbolize omens of luck, good or bad? They are known for their intelligence and their tricks. (We don't have magpies where we live, so I am not relying on personal experience here.) But in Youn's poems I wondered to myself if the magpies are stand-ins for immigrants, more specifically, Asian immigrants. In the Parable of the Magpies in the West, I was left wondering if the magpie is appreciated and hated in equal measure. Appreciated for the help they give, for their gifts of management and thoughtful care. Hated for being different or misunderstood. As I contemplated these poems I recognized that Youn had done her work, getting me to sit uncomfortably with our collective feelings about foreigners/outsiders. 

IN THE PASSAGE VOICE, section five, Youn impresses me with the way she wove her thoughts around central themes and returns to these thoughts periodically in subsequent poems. I am always impressed with stand-up comics who make a declarative statement at the beginning of the set, move on, and then return to it over and over. This is the way I interpreted Youn's poems in this last set. She pulled a thread though all the poems so the reader could experience, if somewhat passively, the points she was making. Brilliant work!

Now we wait. I see the winners for the 2023 National Book Awards will be announced today, Nov. 15th. I hope From, From takes the prize for poetry. 


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