Monica Youn: “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado)”


Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado)

One figure is female, the other is male.

Both are contained.

One figure is mythical, the other historical.

To the extent that one can be said to have existed at all, they occupy different millennia, different continents.

But, to the extent that one can be said to have existed at all, both figures are considered Asian—one from Colchis, one from Korea.

To mention the Asianness of the figures creates a “racial marker” in the poem.

This means that the poem can no longer pass as a white poem, that different people can be expected to read the poem, that they can be expected to read the poem in different ways.

To mention the Asianness of the figures is also to mention, by implication, the Asianness of the poet.

Revealing a racial marker in a poem is like revealing a gun in a story or like revealing a nipple in a dance.

After such a revelation, the poem is about race, the story is about the gun, the dance is about the body of the dancer—it is no longer considered a dance at all and is subject to regulation.

Topics that have this gravitational quality of aboutness are known as “hot button” topics, such as race, violence, or sex.

“Hot button” is a marketing term, coined by Walter Kiechel III, in a September 1978 issue of Fortune magazine.

The term evokes laboratory animals and refers to consumer desires that need to be slaked.

The term “hot button” suggests not only the slaking of such desires but also a shock or punishment for having acted on those desires, a deterrent to further actions pursuing such desires, and by extension, a deterrent to desire itself.

Violence and sex are examples of desires and can be satisfied, punished, and deterred.

Race is not usually considered an example of desire.

Both the female and the male figures are able to articulate their desires with an unusual degree of candor and specificity.

Both are responsible for many sexual deaths.

The male figure says, “When anger grips me, I cannot contain myself. Only after I kill something—a person, perhaps an animal, even a chicken—can I calm down…. I am sad that Your Majesty does not love me and terrified when you criticize me. All this turns to anger.” “Your Majesty,” here, refers to the king, his father.

The female figure is never directly quoted, but Pseudo-Apollodorus writes that she casts a spell upon the king her husband so that when he has sex with another woman, he ejaculates wild creatures into the woman’s vagina, thereby killing her. Although the punishment is enacted on the body of the woman, this punishment is meant to deter the king from slaking his desires.

Both figures, royal themselves, are angry at the king, but neither attempts to kill the king—which would be political. Instead they displace this anger onto other unnamed deaths, which are considered sexual but not political.

Both figures have spouses known for strategy, for self-preservation in
politically tumultuous times, times of many unnamed deaths.

Both figures are counterfoils to their strategizing spouses, figures of excessive
desire, requiring containment.

Both containers are wooden.

Both containers are camouflaged with a soft, yielding substance—one with grass, one with fur.

Both containers are ingenious solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

One problem is political. One problem is sexual.

They are both the same problem.

They have the same solution.

The male figure waits in the container for death to come. He waits for eight days. His son will live. This ensures the succession, the frictionless transfer of power.

The female figure waits in the container for the generation of a life. We do not know how long she waits. Her son will die, after waiting in his own wooden container. This ensures the succession, the frictionless transfer of power.

There are many artistic representations of both containers.

The male figure’s container is blockish, unadorned, a household object of standard size and quotidian function. Tourists climb into it and pose for photos, post them online. The cramped position of their bodies generates a combination of horror and glee. This, in turn, creates discomfort, the recognition that horror and glee should not be combined, that such a combination is taboo.

The female figure’s container is customized, lushly contoured. Its contours are excessively articulated to the same degree that her desire is excessively articulated. Artists depict the container in cutaway view, revealing the female figure within, awaiting the wild creature. The abject position of the female figure—on all fours, pressing her genitalia back against the hollow cow’s genitalia—generates a combination of lust and revenge. This, in turn, creates discomfort—the recognition that lust and revenge should not be combined, that wild creatures and female figures should not be combined, that these combinations are taboo.

Hot button topics are taboo because they generate discomfort.

The male figure slakes his violent desires and is punished. The male figure also functions as a hot button, a means whereby the violent desires of tourists
are slaked, while generating discomfort in these tourists.

The female figure slakes her sexual desires and is punished. The female
figure also functions as a hot button, a means whereby the sexual desires of artists are slaked, while generating discomfort in these artists.

The tourist can climb into the rice chest. The tourist can pose for a photo in the rice chest. Then the tourist can climb out of the rice chest and walk away.

The artist can look into the hollow cow. The artist can render the contours of the hollow cow, the contours of the female figure. Then the artist can walk away.

Both containers allow the tourist and artist to touch the hot button, the taboo.

The desire and the discomfort remain contained.

Both containers allow the tourist and the artist to walk away.

The male and female figures remain contained.

Neither container—the rice chest, the hollow cow—appears to have any necessary connection to race.

To mention race where it is not necessary to mention race is taboo.

I have not mentioned the race of the tourist or the artist.

The tourist and the artist are allowed to pass for white.

The tourist and the artist are not contained.

I have already mentioned the race of the poet.

But to the extent that the poet is not contained, the poet is allowed to pass for white.

I have already mentioned the race of the male and female figures.

The male and female figures are contained.

The rice chest and the hollow cow are containers.

The rice chest and the hollow cow are not the only containers in this poem.

Colchis and Korea are containers in this poem.

Asianness is a container in this poem.

Race is a container in this poem.

Each of these containers contains desire and its satisfaction.

Each of these containers contains discomfort and deterrence.

Each of these containers contains a hot button, a taboo.

The tourist and the artist can enter each of these containers.

The tourist and the artist can touch the hot button and walk away.

Each of these containers separates the slaking of desire from the punishment of desire.

Each of these containers is an ingenious solution to a seemingly intractable problem.

They are the same problem.

They have the same solution.

Each of these containers ensures the frictionless transfer of power.

Each of these containers holds a male or female figure.

The name of the male figure can be translated as “Think of me in sadness.”

The name of the female figure can be translated as “I shine for all of you.”



First published in Poetry (February 2019), reprinted in Best American Poetry, 2020, and reprinted here by permission of the author.

Monica Youn reads “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado)” from the February 2019 issue of Poetry, followed by a discussion with the editors, here.

Read an in-depth interview with Monica Youn by the Washington Square Review, in which she discusses her writing process and various themes in her work, here.

In The Paris Review, Youn discusses her racial identity and the role it plays in her work as she explores her poem “Twinkie” here.


Monica Youn grew up in Houston, the daughter of Korean immigrants. A former lawyer, she is the author of Blackacre (Graywolf Press 2016), which won the William Carlos Williams Award; was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN Open Book Award; and was long listed for the National Book Award. It is available for purchase order here and here. Her previous poetry collections are Ignatz (Four Way Books 2010), a finalist for the National Book Award, and Barter (Graywolf Press 2003). A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and Witter Bynner Fellow at the Library of Congress, Youn has held residencies at Civitella Ranieri, the Rockefeller Foundation–Bellagio, Yaddo, and MacDowell. She currently teaches at Princeton University and in the Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence MFA programs. Sources: here and here.


Commentary by Amanda Moore

National Poetry Month is a good time to reflect on the wealth of wonderful work we have been fortunate to feature on Poetry Sunday over the last five years, more than 300 columns and poems since Rebecca Foust came on board in 2015 at Women’s Voices for Change and later invited me to contribute. This April, and in Aprils going forward, we plan to revisit columns published during our tenure, allowing the work of these phenomenal poets a new place in the sun and offering us the opportunity to revisit our thoughts and commentary in light of current circumstances. Whether you are a new reader or have been following from the beginning, we hope you will enjoy these reprises, and remember—Women’s Voices maintains a deep archive of Poetry Sunday columns here for your continued (re)discovery.

For National Poetry Month 2021, we are reprising columns by Asian American writers to recognize and celebrate the substantial contributions of Asian American Pacific Islander communities to our culture, and also to acknowledge the recent racist killings in Atlanta and the precipitous increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States in the past year. In revisiting these extraordinary poems and poets, we lift up their voices and stand in solidarity with them. Join us each Sunday in April to look back at work we’ve previously featured and to imagine the voices to come. Additionally, visit Stop AAPI Hate for more information on active ways to support the Asian American Pacific Islander Community.

Monica Youn’s “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado)” is the first poem I wrote about for Poetry Sunday, and the opportunity to spend so much time considering and writing about it has left a lasting mark on my sense of poetics. Sophisticated, complicated, and compelling, the poem has become a touchstone for me in terms of craft, and whenever I consider braided narratives, juxtaposition, and the exciting, liminal space between prose and poetry, I am drawing on lessons I learned from it.

When I recently paged through Best American Poetry 2020 and re-encountered the poem, however, I felt it deeply on an emotional level and was eager to experience it not critically or with my intellect, but viscerally and with my whole human heart. The longing of a speaker who seeks to connect and make sense of so many threads, lessons, myths, and messages is stirring, and I find myself wanting to dwell in the poem’s themes and powerful sentiments as I revisit it, feeling the deep conflicts and conundrums around containment and racial identity. This is an important poem to read anytime, and it takes on even more urgency in our country’s current climate. For a more cerebral approach to the poem, you can find my previous column here.



Amanda Moore‘s debut collection of poems, Requeening, was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published by HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently a Brown Handler Resident at the San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: Clementine Nelson.

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