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

Comments by Contributing Editor Amanda Moore

To make a study of something is to contain it. Because containment, both physical and figurative, is a prominent concern in Monica Youn’s “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado),” the place I logically start to encounter the poem is in thinking about its container: the shape and size of it, its markings, its function. This container is a long free-verse poem comprised of unbroken lines, full sentences which fill entire stanzas. These sentence-stanzas vary in length and resist the line break, many moving all the way from one side of the page to the other. In the beginning, the sentence-stanzas are short and staccato, almost like a slide show, as they set up the themes, characters, and ideas the latter part of the poem will explore. As the poem progresses, Youn begins to circle and explain the backgrounds of and connections between two figures—a “mythological” woman named Pasiphaë and an actual man, the 18th-century Korean Crown Prince Sado—and the stanzas spread out, lengthening to contain more than one sentence and more of the narrative. As the poem nears its conclusion, the sentence-stanzas shorten again to deliver a collage or barrage of sentences that revisit the main conceits of the poem, providing new ways to contemplate and see. The container expands and contracts but is solid, unbroken, whole.

Prose poetry, which is how I would categorize Youn’s piece, lives on a liminal edge of both forms, often embodying figurative, melodic, and associative aspects of a poem within full sentences, paragraphs, and narratives. The form has a long association with 19th-century French symbolist poets Apollinaire, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, who conceived of prose poetry as a sort of visual painting, a block of text rich in visual imagery. In modern and contemporary writing, where prose poems are increasingly employed in innovative ways by writers like Russell Edson, Margaret Atwood, and Maggie Nelson, boundaries between genres continue to erode; a hybrid writing is emerging to contain multiple genres and offer new modes of storytelling—new containers, that is. For more examples of hybrids, check out the anthology Family Resemblance (Rose Metal Press 2015), which features examples of different forms as well as thoughts by authors on their creation.

I’m not sure how Youn would categorize her own piece, but I see it as a prose poem that blows open the more traditional block format to lay emphasis on each sentence, line, and new facet of the various elements she is weaving together. The poem moves down the page, using the contrast between Youn’s longer lines and the white space of stanza breaks to vary the elements, and their pacing, of her collage. The way she maintains characteristics of both prose and poetry, together with her variations of line length and syntax, create a duality similar to the containers she describes for Pasipahaë and Sado—hard and soft—and also disguised, another kind of duality: “Both containers are wooden. // Both containers are camouflaged with a soft, yielding substance…”

And just who and what do these wooden, yielding “containers” contain? This poem ties together the narratives of two figures who occupy different genders, time periods, and even planes of reality: Pasiphaë, who “is mythological,” and Korean Crown Prince Sado, who actually existed in the 18th century. Pasiphaë, daughter of powerful Helios, is the wife of Minos, the King of Crete. Whether due to her own impiety or her husband’s, she is cursed by the gods with sexual attraction to a bull sent by Poseidon. In order to satisfy her desires, she solicits help to build a wooden cow, her container, through which she copulates with the bull and conceives a son, the infamous Minotaur, who spends his life trapped in yet another mythological container, the labyrinth.

Sado, on the other hand, is a historical figure, born in 1735, the second son of a Korean king perpetually unsatisfied with his heir. In response, Sado was reportedly violent and unreasonable, irrationally berating family members, beating eunuchs, beheading servants, and otherwise visiting violence and chaos upon all corners of the court. The king, wishing to dispatch Sado but constrained by a law forbidding defilement of the body of a member of the royal family, ordered Sado to be placed in a rice chest, which was then covered in grass. Eight days after his containment, Sado died and was reinstated as prince so his son could eventually succeed to the throne.

Youn holds these two disparate figures (whose names she doesn’t use after the title, only their genders), side-by-side in her poem as a way to interrogate more than just containment; the piece goes on to touch on violence, sexual desire, gender, anger, power, tourism, and art, among other concepts. “Both figures are considered Asian,” she says early on, adding a “racial marker” which implicates her own race and “means that the poem can no longer pass as a white poem.” Merely mentioning race, Youn argues, renders the poem one that is “aboutrace,” and thus “subject to regulation.” I love how this section implicates the reader as well as the writer, forcing me to examine what I’m bringing to the poem—which “‘hot button’ topics, such as race, violence, or sex” I feel pulled toward. As a white reader, I am “expected to read the poem in different ways,” and I am left wondering what unconscious tendencies I’m succumbing to during the reading process.

At least part of Youn’s project is the exploration of the effectof including certain topics in her narrative, a topic addressed in her indirect reference to Chekhov in “Revealing a racial marker in the poem is like revealing a gun in a story.” Chekhov’s idea, familiar to anyone who studies fiction, is that all pieces of a story must somehow play a role in its unfolding: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” [Source here.] That is, no detail in a well-crafted story is accidental or extraneous. As the poem goes on to recount the connections between Pasiphae’s and Sado’s stories, I can’t help but wonder which of the guns Youn has planted are—about to go off.

“Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado)” unfolds some very long arms in the next few pages, moving back and forth between the histories of the two figures to gather up implicit and explicit connections between them, highlighting violence, desire, taboo, and punishment. Many lines employ anaphora, starting successive sentences with the same word or phrase, namely “Both,” “The male figure,” and “The female figure.” A great example of anaphora, by the way, is Allen Ginsberg’s long poem “America,” which rambles on about our country’s afflictions, employing repetitive phrasing to pull his tirades and rants back into the container of his poem. Similar to Youn’s poem, “America” resists line breaks and uses its length and width to cover a lot of ground. You can read “America” here. In today’s poem, anaphora not only contains Youn’s many images and ideas but also cements the connection between Pasiphaë and Sado.

As Youn’s poem moves through anaphora, deepening its dual narratives and the connections between them, it expands to include two new figures, the “tourist” and the “artist,” both of whom can “walk away” after interacting with their containers. The tourist can “climb into the rice chest…pose for a photo in the rice chest…[and] climb out,” and the artist can “look into the hollow cow…[then] render the contours of the hollow cow, the female figure.” In other words, both can use the containers willingly and temporarily for their own entertainment or edification.

Which am I, I wonder, exploring the container of today’s poem? Am I the tourist, climbing into the narratives of others for entertainment? Or the artist, studying the form of the container and the performance of the poet within, trying to figure out a way to incorporate it into my own art? Am I both? More importantly, is either persona inherently flawed? If not inherently flawed, are there better and worse ways to be a tourist or an artist? I could lose half a day getting lost in this metatextual universe, wandering through various containers, drawing new connections where previously I saw none.

In fact, that’s what I find in the rest of the poem, in those aforementioned one-line sentences that kaleidoscope and stack different perspectives and experiences, always forging new connections. These lines read like gunfire and eventually return to the idea of containment as a “solution” to various conceptual and artistic problems: “Asia is a container in the poem. // Race is a container in the poem…. // They have the same solution.” Maybe “kaleidoscope” isn’t exactly the right word for how these lines work, though I see interesting movement here in familiar forms made new when considered in different arrangements and from different angles. Youn returns to the tourist, the artist, the race of the figures in and outside the poem, and sees them anew.

“Telescope” is also an apt description for the almost-visual action of the poem, shifting from long-distance to close-focus on the poem’s individual elements. For example, after introducing us to Pasiphaë and Sado and their histories, the poem turns them—and, I might argue, the poet, the reader, the tourist, the artist—into abstractions, large and distant containers for more complicated and nuanced ideas. The final two lines of the poem tighten the lens back down, giving the specific, literal meaning of each figure’s name: Sado’s “Think of me in sadness” and Pasiphaë’s “I shine for all of you.”

To speak of poems and containers and not mention Whitman, who claims in his “Song of Myself” that “I am large, I contain multitudes,” misses one of Youn’s many allusions in today’s poem and throughout her significant body of work, which is often ekphrastic, referencing art, literature, and historical figures. “Two Figures” contains multitudes I haven’t even begun to discover, ultimately what makes it such a compelling poem, worthy of its place beside Whitman and Chekhov, mythology and history. As I’ve been reading and thinking about the poem these last few days, it has become its own kind of container, and nearly everything I encounter—from a situation in my classroom to an exchange in the grocery store, a scene in a film to a lyric in a song on the radio—seems to want to find a way to fit inside.


Amanda Moore, the author of this column, is a new contributing editor to Poetry Sunday. Her poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies including Zyzzyva, Cream City Review, Tahoma Literary 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. She received her MFA from Cornell University, where she served as Managing Editor for EPOCH  magazine and was a lecturer in the John S. Knight Writing Institute. Currently a 2019 Fellow at The Writers Grotto, 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: K.C. Ipjian.


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