Two Roads: A Review-in-Dialogue of Jenny Xie’s “The Rupture Tense” and Monica Youn’s “From From”

By Dean Rader, Victoria ChangMarch 7, 2023

Two Roads: A Review-in-Dialogue of Jenny Xie’s “The Rupture Tense” and Monica Youn’s “From From”

The Rupture Tense by Jenny Xie
From From by Monica Youn

VICTORIA CHANG: Hi Dean! I’m so excited to start talking with you about these two books. But first, it’s my job to write a little bit about our plan for the next handful of reviews. Rather than foregrounding books, we thought it might be interesting to focus on presses. There are so many fascinating presses publishing poetry today that we wanted to shine a light on some of the good work being done. Our first publisher, Graywolf, is one of the larger, more well-known independent presses. For our future reviews, we hope to review books from smaller presses such as Song Cave, Omnidawn, Press 53, Noemi, Nightboat, Milkweed, Black Lawrence, and Autumn House, as well as influential university presses. We think that by focusing on presses (rather than authors), we will be able to talk about poetry publishing—and a press’s strengths and character—in interesting ways.

Maybe that’s a place we can start. With the acknowledgment that presses are quite diverse in the poetry books that they publish, I want to ask this question anyway (and maybe we open every review about presses with this question): What adjectives come to mind when you think of Graywolf’s poetry books?

DEAN RADER: Hi, Victoria. I love our project so much! I’m excited about this new direction our column is taking. I’m a huge fan of presses. They deserve more attention than they receive. Running a press is a ton of work and often thankless. I’m glad we are orienting the spotlight on them.

Your question about Graywolf is a good one. In some ways, it is a predictable press to begin with. Its poets are well-known, well-regarded, and well-celebrated. In truth, Graywolf does not need us to write about it; they are doing just fine on their own! Jeff Shotts has done a great job recruiting and keeping amazing poets like Claudia Rankine, Tracy K. Smith, Mai Der Vang, Mary Jo Bang, Diane Seuss, Mark Wunderlich, Natalie Diaz, Danez Smith, my colleague at USF D. A. Powell, and a host of others. I think of Graywolf and Copper Canyon as the most known or recognizable publishers of poetry in the United States.

But I am not really answering your question. Adjectives that come to mind when I think of Graywolf are political, engaging, relevant, accessible. Topical. For sure, topical.


VICTORIA: I find those adjectives really interesting. “Accessible” is a word in poetry that gets batted around quite a bit and I’ve been in rooms where the mere mention of that word brings up a lot of energy and passion among poets! I love the word “legible,” which is a word my friend used once. I think this is probably true of our press too, Copper Canyon, but we’ll get to that press at some point maybe.

“Topical” is another word that is interesting to me because it implies immediacy, current events. I wonder if built into topical is the idea of fleeting? This is a greater question about what is—or how to write—“political poetry,” especially political poetry that is navigating current events. I’ve even argued myself that political poetry is just poetry, or that all poems are political in that they are an utterance and an utterance is by nature political, but when I read a really overtly political poem, I change my mind. I think poets are recording our times in language, but I think obviously some poets are going to be recording more political and social aspects of our culture than others. Some poets might be more overt in their approach, while others less so.

Perhaps we should start talking about the books and the poems? I think what we just talked about, though, is actually directly relevant to the two books we’ll be discussing here. I would classify both of these books as political, so in that way, perhaps they are aligned with the adjectives you used to describe Graywolf earlier.

Let’s start with Jenny Xie’s skillful book, The Rupture Tense (2022). One of the things I was thinking about while reading this book is how a poet (or any writer, really) approaches the historical and/or the political in general. Specifically, how does a poet approach the historical and/or the political when that history is not one’s own memory or experience? I’ve written a lot about this myself in my hybrid prose book, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief, and about the idea of postmemory, so obviously this is something I’ve been thinking about for years now.

Quickly, I’ll say that there were so many things I “recognized” or could relate to when I read this book in terms of subject matter. This isn’t a familiar feeling I have when reading contemporary poetry, and lately I have been experiencing this more and more. I’m a bit older than Xie, and our histories are very different, but there was still some neat overlap. My grandfather participated in the Chinese Civil War as a member of the Kuomintang military and was one of the last people to leave China during the war (so I heard/understand). Half of my extended family on my mother’s side still lives in China, but I don’t know who they are and likely will never know them. When my mother died, the thin thread to China severed entirely. Reading about how Xie’s speaker (presumably Xie) visited her relatives was such a wonderful and illuminating experience for me. It helped me imagine what that might be like for myself if that were my own fate and history. That was a moving reading experience for me.

Xie’s writing in this book traffics in the fragment, in shards and pieces, in the way memory and silence traffic in the fragment too. In the poem, “The Rupture Tense,” for example, I could pluck out random lines: “Such as the guide who is no guide: / only archetype, stale tropes,” or “Forge papers, declare sovereignty,” or “Blur the ratio that your body belongs / more here // than there / more against than anywhere.” In “Reaching Saturation,” similarly, “The physicality of these streets” or “And money that leaks, warmth.”

If we read the fragments (by necessity) of Sappho or modernist fragments (by, for example, Eliot, Pound, Ashbery, or Oppen) as representations of societal and political unrest and a response to prior more unified forms and syntax, then what is the role of the contemporary poetic fragment? Perhaps the contemporary fragment particularly suits our time.

Another thing I found interesting about this book, or noticed about this book, is how the writing tends to alternate between fragments and declaratives.

DEAN: Wow! There is so much here; I don’t know where to begin. I like everything you are saying, especially about the fragment. Your cultural background overlaps more completely with Xie’s than mine—that’s for sure—but there is a great deal of her approach and content that also resonates with me, most notably her ekphrastic gestures. The poems of Rupture Tense enter into conversation with the photographs of Li Zhensheng, who furtively documented disturbing scenes of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Li’s stark (and, I think, revolutionary) images function as a counternarrative to the triumphant propaganda that emerged from China at that time.

While Xie is certainly committed to art’s ability to speak truth to power, she is also interested in art’s ineffability. Regarding Li’s photographs, she seems particularly taken by what they cannot say and what we cannot say about them. Consider the opening of “Red Puncta,” the second poem in the collection:

Of the foreground, we will not speak. Look past the blotted figures, stiff line that parts glaucous air from ground’s teeth. Forfeit faces. Alight instead on the thin twine that screws hands together. Gelid landscape, chromatics at life’s edge, those pant bottoms burnished to a peasant gray. Harbin in the deepest of winter: eight stripped trees matching eight individuals on their knees. Close the book, they disappear. Open it, they’re upright again.

The photograph Xie engages here is one of Li’s most haunting: eight men kneeling, about to be executed, the trace of what appears to be a mass grave just outside the left margin (perhaps this is the foreground of which we shall not speak). Close the book, the men disappear. Open it, and they reappear, upright, frozen in that state between life and death, between representation and erasure.

Five of the first six poems in the collection bear the title “Red Puncta.” My hunch is that Xie wants to front-load her book by channeling (or at least riffing on) Roland Barthes and his notion of the “punctum.” For Barthes, photography’s magic arises from the interplay of two elements: the studium and the punctum. The studium is grounded in semiotics: it is the cultural, social, and historical signifiers present in a photograph. Barthes contrasts this with the punctum, which is the emotional component of a photograph that goes beyond semiotics. Put another way, the studium is an objective decoding of an image, while the punctum is the viewer’s subjective response to the same image. “A photograph’s punctum,” writes Barthes, “is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” That word, “accident,” is no accident. For Barthes, the power of the punctum’s pierce lies in the unintended alchemy a photograph produces. You can see Xie’s fascination with the unintended in these puncta poems.

As I was writing this, I was reminded of something the great photographer Minor White said: “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.” It’s that what else that Xie is getting at in her poems.

I’m intrigued by Xie’s (and Graywolf’s) decision not to include Li’s photographs alongside the poems as paratextual documents. It is possible, even likely, that most readers will not know Li or his photographs. Xie knows this. I would guess she is more interested in writing poems that ask the reader to conjure the photographs, invent them. Either way, Xie’s poems do interesting nondocumentary work on documentary texts.

The “Red Puncta” pieces are short, square prose poems that look a bit like photographs, at least in silhouette. Many of the poems in Rupture Tense are rendered either in prose or, as you note, in fragments. These could be assumed to be two extremes of writing: the discursive/the nondiscursive, the complete/the incomplete. But they are also two sides of the same coin, two ways of getting at language’s shortcomings.

I’m curious what you think of Xie’s formal innovations in this book and her interest in postmemory. This is an area you have in common. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

VICTORIA: I knew you would be interested in the ekphrastic poems. I think we are circling around similar things because, in some ways, the fragment’s importance is not only what’s there but also what’s not there, the missing shard. Your Minor White quote gets to the heart of this.

Sometimes I think that what makes a poem a poem is what’s left out, the silences versus the actual words on the page. But those silences aren’t possible without the words. So, a poem (and perhaps a photograph, too, as White is saying) is a negotiation between presence and absence. Perhaps this is what Xie is ultimately exploring. Isn’t that what diasporic experience is, ultimately—the tension between here and there, the tension between the known and the unknown (à la Barthes’s stadium and punctum, as you discuss above)?

On the formal innovations, the poems in Xie’s book look different on each page. There are the “Red Puncta” ekphrastic poems you discussed, which are small prose blocks, and then there are numbered list poems such as “The Game,” poems that indent and scatter across the page such as “The Rupture Tense,” poems such as “Deep Storage” that use brackets, single-lined poems, poems that use caesuras, etc. Each of these pages physically looks different—some look like essay blocks, others prose poems and rectangles, some have a thinner ethereal feeling.

When we met to discuss this book, we talked about how we admired Xie’s desire to play around with how the poems looked on the page. I saw these “formal innovations,” as you call them (I might call them “formal experimentations”), as being different ways to enter similar material. These poems are trying to get at what can’t ever be found, which is essentially the definition of postmemory—a kind of memory that can only be approached through the imagination, because these “memories” are transferred via stories, rumors, documents, fragments, residues, by a previous generation. There’s a poem titled “Postmemory,” actually, that addresses some of the challenges facing the speaker:

Struggles we had
a name for and those
for which we didn’t.

Some matted
from one
to the next.

Occasionally we
were released
from one
struggle though
we didn’t
detect it.

This poem, like many of the others, addresses the issues of money and capitalism: “Surely / someone standing / to make a profit.”

The opening of another poem, “Reaching Saturation,” so artfully depicts this yearning to be something that one can no longer be, the grief when history stays history or when one moves and severs one’s own ties to a country:

All new images leave your thinking askew.

And wouldn’t you know—you wouldn’t
recognize these streets even if they translated you
phoneme by phoneme.

If feeling comes, some form of modern distance will clot it.

In your alogical ways, you make a foolish bargain:
you ask to be a native again—naive
as you are, with steadfast eyes.

Some knavery in desire, some echo.

What more is there to say about the way
your homeland’s forehead degrades?

All stitching of narrative alienates.

I love how “native” and “naive” sound alike, and how the word “narrative” later echoes both of these words. The speaker is overtly recognizing the futility of this poem and this book’s project as a form of alienation versus connection.

And later in the same poem, the speaker writes: “Silences reaching saturation // No one can read the dead / in their creasings // Not even an afterlife / of nostalgia to inherit.” I was struck by the words in this poem alone that are all circling around vocabulary of diaspora: “translated,” “distance,” “echo,” “alienates,” “aphasia,” “approximations,” “utterances,” “lacunae,” silences,” “nostalgia,” “vapor,” “untranslatability,” “dissonance,” etc. This is just a side note, but I noticed that Xie also likes to use the language of language, of rhetoric, to describe the speaker’s experiences and thinking, such as “anaphora” or “syntax.”

Finally, “Reaching Saturation” is also a good example of how some of Xie’s poems tend to shift between mini narratives/observations about relatives or physical surroundings in China, to fragments and declaratives, and back again. These are poems that are saccade-like in their flitting from scene to scene—objects and people are processed through the speaker’s mind as thinking, coming out as fragments. In this way, this book reminded me of Xie’s first book, which in my mind, at least, was a travel book of perception, from the perspective of an outsider.

Maybe we should move on to Youn’s book? Before we start, I will say that I think Youn has written a startlingly good book. I think that this book, of all of Youn’s books, is the one that most showcases her powers as a writer and thinker.

When we had met, we had talked about how these two collections were similar yet also different. You said something I remember, something to the effect of Youn’s collection being more “mythological” and culturally “wider.” Can you expand on that (pun intended)?

DEAN: Ignatz is back! Krazy Kat is back! How cool is that?

I agree with you (as per usual). There is a lot to say about From From (2023), Youn’s fourth collection, and perhaps her most anticipated. One thing I noticed immediately is how long this collection is. My copy is 160 pages. That beats some novels! And, by the way, that’s not 160 pages of skinny poems à la Pablo Neruda’s odes—many of these pieces are rendered in prose. The lines go all the way across the page. There are paragraphs! That is a lot of text for a book of poems.

This is not a complaint, merely an observation about From From’s (and Youn’s) ambition. This book is designed to make a statement. It asks to be taken seriously. It is not letting anyone off the hook.

The opening poem, “Study of Two Figures: (Pasiphaë/Sado),” sets the bar pretty high. Like Xie, Youn opts to open her collection with the discourse of looking. Where Xie opts for actual ekphrasis, Youn invokes ekphrastic practices through the title’s terminology but also through the poem’s direct language of depiction:

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.

Here, it is the sentence, rather than the line, that informs the poem’s architecture and syntax. In so doing, these sentences also lay out the main issues Youn wrestles with in her collection: race, history, gender, male/female relationships, the significance of race in male/female relationships, the history of race and gender and relationships, parenting, and the vexed genealogy of looking. We also are introduced to a meta moment in the final line quoted above. That, too, portends more such instances in which the poet talks about looking. And writing.

Four more studies of two figures appear in “Asia Minor,” the book’s first section, each of which focuses on figures from ancient classical (Western) narratives: Orpheus/Eurydice, Echo/Narcissus, Midas/Marigold, Agave/Pentheus. The forms change, the relationships change, but each poem circles around a fraught relationship between a male and a female. Youn asks big questions about historicism in these poems, and in so doing, sets the stage for the rest of the book.

VICTORIA: You say so many smart things here—how the poems circle around a fraught relationship between a male and a female, and I love your phrase “discourse of looking” because of how it implies both a debate and authority. We could have a whole conversation about ekphrasis and the different ways of writing ekphrastic poems.

There is indeed a difference, I think, between Xie’s ekphrastic poems and Youn’s ekphrastic poems. Youn’s poems are a kind of lyric essay or poem essay. This relates to what you are saying about the poem’s syntax, which is also smart. These poems often function on the sentence level. Sometimes the poems in the section titled “Deracinations” and in the section titled “Western Civ” have shorter lines with numerous instances of enjambment (what James Longenbach might call the annotated line), but more often than not, the poems function like prose with their sentences and declaratives.

And you are right, this is a long book. Over the past years (I’m just guessing), it feels like poetry books are getting longer and longer. I don’t know what this means, but it’s just something that I’ve observed. This too could be a whole other conversation.

From From really showcases Youn’s active and intellectual mind, while also providing personal narratives that expand upon the orchestra of emotions within the book. As you say, this is a book about race, othering, immigration, anti-Blackness within the Korean American community, and more. These are not “light” or “easy” topics. There are possible potholes everywhere. Youn’s bravery and intellect are on full view in this book. Despite the challenging subject matter and all the possible failures, the word “nuance” kept on popping into my mind, which made me think that nuance is why the book ultimately succeeds. In the end, I admired Youn’s ability to discourse (to use your word), through poetry, very difficult subject matter in a nuanced and complex way.

I also think this book is a great example of how the subject matter can dictate the book’s form, style, diction, voice, etc. True, this is a book of poetry, but arguably, as we’ve said, this is a hybrid book of poetry and lyric essays. It feels like the poet allowed the subject matter to define how these poems should appear (as conventional-looking poems, as sectioned poems, or even as prose essays). In the end, a new kind of unconventional and surprising body of work emerges, a new way to talk about race that I don’t think has been done before. I can’t help comparing this book to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014) and how that book changed the discourse (through poetry, prose, and art) about race, racism, and whiteness. As an Asian American poet, I feel deep emotions when I think about all the incredible work being written by Asian American poets such as Youn. I feel excited about the future of poetry when I read books like this.

There’s so much we could talk about in this book, but I want to take a moment to talk about humor too. I chuckled or laughed many times while reading this very serious book, which made me think harder about the role of humor in Youn’s poems, her use of humor as a tactic. Humor can often be used for the opposite effect—denigrating another person or an entire group of people. I think Youn deploys humor as resistance, as well as a way to explore more nuanced and complex issues surrounding racism and complicity.

There are many examples throughout the book, but right away in the first poem (since you referenced it too), “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado),” Youn writes: “Revealing a racial marker in a poem is like revealing a gun in a story or like revealing a nipple in a dance.” Instead of stating what revealing a racial marker is, she uses a simile to discuss a complex issue in art. Earlier, she wrote: “To mention the Asianness of the figures creates a ‘racial marker’ in the poem.” In this poem, Youn is exploring the challenges of naming in a poem and the effects of labeling the “aboutness” of the poem.

In another example, in the phenomenal last poem, “Detail of the Rice Chest,” Youn explores the language of racism through definition and humor. She begins: “The primary meaning of the English word ‘chink’ is a split or crack, a narrow fissure or valley.” Then the sarcastic humor emerges:

Chink also has a racially derogatory meaning, referring to a Chinese person, or, by extension, to any East Asian person, since an English-speaking person using a racially derogatory term would not be expected to differentiate among East Asian peoples.

I have asked boys to differentiate among East Asian peoples. Upon being called a chink, I would say, “You’re so stupid! I’m not a chink, I’m a gook!”

The speaker has two options in the face of widespread racism—despair or humor—and she probably feels both, but at least in this book, the speaker chooses humor as a way to foil racism. Here, racist language is used on the self by the speaker as a mode of both offense and defense. In this way, humor serves as a way of regaining agency and empowerment when no one seems to be able to tell the difference between Asian people (I myself have been confused for other Asian people hundreds of times, and each time still wounds me). But again, the speaker is both victim and offender—that’s the brilliance of this book. No one gets off the hook, including the speaker.

Later in the poem, as in the book as a whole, Youn explores the language of racism more generally: “Neither Korean people nor Chinese people refer to themselves as gooks or chinks. / Neither Korean people nor Chinese people refer to themselves as Korean or Chinese.” In some ways, I also think intellect is a way to foil racism, to combat the wounds of racism. I could pretty much quote the entire book to showcase this.

I had some thoughts on the structure of this book too, but I want to give you a chance to talk about this first.

DEAN: You are quite right about subject matter dictating style, form, syntax and so on. Perhaps structure as well. Just this week, I was talking to a poet I’ve been working with who is trying to get her first book published. She told me she heard from someone in the poetry publishing world that presses are leaning away from books organized in sections. You see more books than I do, but my experience is just the opposite (as evidenced by both of these collections). To wit: From From is divided into five sections, and there is a notable evolution from section one to section five. The last three are particularly intriguing.

Part III, entitled “Western Civ,” is comprised of conventionally lineated poems, rendered in relatively short lines with generous spaces between them. The poems feel both minimal and expansive. They are also fairly narrative; this is in part because the point of view is always in the third person. So, there is a strange mix of the closeness of the lyric and the distance of the third-person perspective. Then we move to Part IV, “Magpies,” maybe my favorite. Here, Youn tells and retells magpie myths, even riffing on Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” via magpies. Every poem in this section is united by the magpie motif but looks radically different on the page. The final section, “In the Passive Voice,” is a collection of untitled prose poems that feel like some hybrid of a diary, a history text, memoir, book review, art criticism, and parenting journal.

At first, I wanted to write that these sections achieve or work toward a kind of accrual, but I don’t think that is quite right. It is more that the sections form a plan of attack from five different directions, wielding (at least) five different weapons. From From might be long, but it is never tedious. This is because Youn is often switching things up, keeping readers on their toes.

Speaking of being kept on one’s toes, I’m glad that you mentioned humor. One does not always read for humor in poetry. Humor disarms. That too is a weapon. It is hard to find a thing dangerous if you laugh at it. There are moments of humor throughout, but I smiled most in the magpie and the passive voice sections.

This passage from that final section is a nice moment:

Flipping through my writing notebook, I come across a sentence in all caps, on a page by itself:


I have no memory of why I wrote that sentence down. Is it a self-admonition? A quote? I enter it into my search engine—just random tweets directed at Madison Cawthorn, at Ted Cruz.

Were I teaching this book, it is at this moment I would ask my students: What makes this “poetry?” Point to where the poetry happens. That might be a mean ask on my part, but I wonder if Youn is posing the same question. A good line in a poem is not dissimilar from a good punchline—the words have to be just right, and the timing has to be impeccable. Both happen here. There is also an endearing deadpan self-mockery that makes the poet/speaker/human likable and relatable.

This last section is also where Frog and Toad make their appearance. As you know, Arnold Lobel’s lovable amphibians are all over my previous books. I even wrote about writing about them. So, I was stoked to see them as a cast of characters in Youn’s book, where they help illustrate the fraught tenderness of parenting.

But that’s enough from me. I’m curious what you think about the book’s structure and its relationship to form. You are always so smart on these topics.

VICTORIA: I like what you are saying here about structure. Your imagery of five different directions and five different weapons felt aggressive to me, but I do think this book most certainly isn’t shying away from complex issues. That’s the bravery that I was referring to before. I feel like I’ve been waiting (as an Asian American reader) for someone to write this kind of book (being too meek to try it myself). I think Youn has done it and done it well. I feel like this book is ultimately a book of cultural criticism. It sort of reminds me of Cathy Park Hong’s nonfiction book Minor Feelings (2020), yet it is also very different from that book.

I think this book is structurally interesting, and you already talked about the final few sections. The table of contents is in roman numerals with five sections (“Asia Minor,” “Deracinations,” “Western CIV,” “The Magpies,” and “In the Passive Voice”). It’s hard to see how all of these sections link together until you are finished with the book. This book is in “correspondence,” as we like to say, with so many different themes and all at once. To risk being repetitive, in the section “Asia Minor,” the poems explore Greek mythology, along with Korean mythology in a series of poems titled “Study of Two Figures.” As you say, these poems are through a feminist lens.

In “Deracinations,” the longer poem is divided into “Eight Sonigrams,” a form that Youn devised that is similar to the anagram. She writes in the notes section: “A sonogram is a poem in which the letters and sounds of the original word are omnipresent, but the poem is not limited to those letters and sounds. The intent is to inhabit the sonic landscape of a particular word—in this case, the unobtrusive, nearly ubiquitous sounds of deracination.” This section was mostly written in third person, but the first person does appear. There was so much in this section that I could personally relate to or understand as an Asian American. This section explored the speaker’s growing up Korean in a white suburb, exploring stories about the Korean American diaspora. There were narratives about taping eyelids to make the Asian monolid eyelid look more like a double lid, about growing up in the 1980s with stories about Connie Chung and the television show Dynasty.

In “Western Civ,” there are several more “Study of Two Figures” poems, but this time, the poems focus on Ignatz and Krazy Kat and Dr. Seuss, as you mention above. The poem about Curious George interestingly uses George, who is taken away from home, as a way to study dislocation and diaspora.

In the section called “The Magpies,” there are a series of parables. The magpie is a traditional symbol of Korea, while in most European traditions, the magpie is a thief and harbinger of bad luck. The magpie section is very research-based, with each poem relying on different texts—the historicism you refer to above. These poems expand perception while debunking myths and beliefs. These poems reveal how we are mostly wrong about many things, making me think about perception, race, and being right (or mostly wrong).

Finally, “In the Passive Voice” features a longer essay-like piece and a longer poem called “Detail of the Rice Chest,” which it appears we both like. The latter poem is attempting to explore multiple viewpoints. The first person appears more prominently toward the end of the book, and it feels earned. The speaker explores anti-Black racism among the Korean American community in this section, as well as the speaker’s and her community’s complicity.

I list all of these sections to showcase the diversity of material here in terms of subject matter and the cultural, historical, literary, mythological references. I can’t remember reading a book, in recent times at least, that is as capacious in subject matter and in allusions as this one (Roger Reeves’s Best Barbarian (2022), which we reviewed, also comes to mind). If Youn’s prior books perhaps navigated material more vertically, the overarching structure of this book is more horizontal, with deep vertical explorations too.

When I first read this book, I thought about whether there were enough threads to connect the varying sections. But then I read it again, and I think the threads are actually there. There’s something about the roman numeral that cordons off the sections in a deceptive way, because it makes the book feel like a history textbook. But if I were to try and draw connections among the sections, I would say that think they are tied together by subject matter, as well as the tone of the writing or perhaps diction. Youn has a style that is so distinctively hers in terms of tone and diction. I actually think I could pick a Monica Youn poem out of a large pile of poems, and I think perhaps that’s a compliment—especially today, when sometimes I feel as though a lot of poems sound like a lot of other poems.

DEAN: One thing these books share is how brilliantly they marry external and internal landscapes: everything from children’s books to revolutionary photographs to philosophy to parables and so many things in between. There is a wonderful synthesis in these books. Zero navel-gazing. Xie’s and Youn’s poetics are big the way the world is big. I love how they both turn to poetry to make sense of societal shortcomings. In his essay “A Defence of Poetry,” Percy Shelley writes that poets “are not only the authors of language and of music […] they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society.” “Poets,” he goes on to say, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

I hear Youn and Xie heeding his call. They are holding our feet to poetry’s fire. They are telling us that things are burning.


Victoria Chang is the author of OBIT, which received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN Voelcker Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.

Dean Rader has written, edited, or co-edited 11 books, including Works & Days, winner of the 2010 T. S. Eliot Prize, and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. 

LARB Contributors

Dean Rader has authored or co-authored eleven books, including Works & Days, winner of the 2010 T. S. Eliot Prize, Landscape Portrait Figure Form, a Barnes & Noble Review Best Book, and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly, is forthcoming in 2023 from Copper Canyon. His writing has been supported by fellowships from Princeton University, Harvard University, Headlands Center for the Arts, Art Omi, and the MacDowell Foundation. Rader is a professor at the University of San Francisco and a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry. 
Victoria Chang is the author of OBIT, which received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN Voelcker Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Her latest book is The Trees Witness Everything (2022). She is the incoming Bourne Chair in Poetry at Georgia Tech.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!