In Youna Kwak’s poems you can see traces of the writers she loves: the hallucinatory intensity of Sylvia Plath; the exquisite, roiling density of Gerard Manley Hopkins (his notebooks and journals); the floating fervor of Marguerite Duras; the tumult and blazing ornament of Lucie Brock-Broido. Her subjects range from animal life and “foreigners” to the ferocious power of color; she takes on war and love and the strangleholds of desire. With a gorgeous ear, a lexicon of sheer physical force, and a brazen way of moving through poetic terrain so that her speakers are tested to the utmost, she is an ecstatic poet. She is also a religious poet whose sensuality and urgency refuse to be tempered by irony. And this is what moves me most in her work: its bravery; its willingness to face the brutal measure of our selves, in this country, right now; to search for some orientation that might make a little sense or even flash with beauty; to explore the harm we cause but cannot bear to feel, for it would make daily life impossible. “Where is my eye to tell / What I have done, what have I done?” Like the packs of young, orphaned male elephants—recurrent figures in Youna’s work—who have been attacking village communities in India and Africa, whose own familial attachments have been disrupted by centuries of slaughter, these poems burn through tribal impulses, mourning rituals, violence. Isn’t this a vision of what we have become? And how is it we survive? What does it mean to remain intact while waging terror and causing grief—to live in comfort, to persist unscathed, to be, as Kwak has written elsewhere, the “last one standing, the last elephant in the herd, the beauty, the candidate, the winning soldier, the chosen?” This is where some of us, in our privilege, live—Youna sets it on fire. She is charting strange and essential new lands within the unabashed lyric.
AFTER THE FLOOD
If you are reading this now you will know I am chosen, again chosen, as always have and will be
First my maker chose me well, then his panegyric pupil chose me then the nuncio of beauty
Chose me, then I chose and chose myself, fair for trade and flit searching
Chose me, finding one ripe cherry left to bulge the cheek and sting
The mouth that chose me, dancing in the grove of bedfleas
Stuffed with chosen fruit.
If you were chosen would you reck me under wing? If azure bluebird
Asking entrance to your garden would you stay or would corral me?
One hand chose to eave your face from outward looking, one hand
Plucks the heartwren from the heap
̵or exigence intended when
You purse your lip around my lip
And suckled sound that follows, is that not a choosing kiss?
Ill flatter you beyond the pale,
I’ll flatter you, be crowned, and choose me. In the statesman’s quarters
Lay me down and choose me,
Curtains damasked hide you, choose me, I am
Becoming to your lasting sense.
Hold me chosen in your arms,
Every chosen, kept chosen, artless chosen, vines trampled,
Deer unlocking antler from the spruce. Let it all depend on cliff swallows
Ecstatically educed. Then electrify the choosing after—
was honed to logical dispersals, one handful nut, one handful sorrel
to the deer peering, beech-nuzzled, too
your hand wintergreened in giving,
young tips of yellow birch
splayed dimpling in beseech, too when beech burned
you extracted sticky marrow for a deer to swallow.
Now pace without
to pluck the drooping pears whose heavy bellies
wanting to be plucked, now the finch is fallow, I am
four greyed limbs uncordial, incongenial, I am palms
aslant, empty of feed. How am I to do—
we were as
blanket and thread and could not part
but to unravel—
what deer do
with epidemic hunger. How deer eat to exhaust meat’s augur.
APPALACHIA YOUR SOLDIER RETURNING
Where am I without my eyes? Where is the life I cannot see? What accords
Between eyes and tree, the hard yellow buds, flesh of my palm
Where too much has entered,
My flesh too much entered, what can accord
Between flesh and eyes, where is the starshape
Gust of the sun, where is my eye to tell
What I have done, what have I done,
Where is the flesh that completes
My limb, gnomic, my evergreen gnomic, where are you
Gone, are you gone into flesh where there is none?
Why shall I not weep, why
Not weep if I cannot see,
Tell me the name of the life after
This, tell me that this is
The life after all, tell me
This is the life that is, tell me how life
Can be without limb, without eyes, tell me
My wail is too deep
To be heard in the bowels of the ocean, too deep
To be buried in the garden’s plucked quiet, too deep,
Not finished with me, did not
Finish me, will
No miracle come, will my eyes not
Return, will my eyes
Not return, my furniture built
With ash and stone, unbreakable pine,
Charred house, the life
After, lost son to the world that has lost me, lost
Son, I am yours, you have lost me,
In accordance with trees, ever green, their
Arrogated scent that did not break me, would not
Break for me, waft and willow, lodgepine, whistle, now
I am free.
No house will console me, no
White pine house,
No new sprung nubs, no scent of spring arriving, no golden drip
Of honey sting upon the lip, no beaded color burst of loving, no wildness, no to
Appalachia, your son returning. Open your doors,
Open the earth, open your doors. Build me a house of eyes.
ORISON FOR THE FOREST
is what love looks like,
my physical heart
and all your means revealed to me, you are
the long green finger
pointing through the keyhole,
a hundred beetles gathered in a tree,
high tuft of cockscomb, snow on pine,
over patch-thick trunks showing burnt sienna
on skin. Go to bed
I will come there soon,
the gamble oaks are moving
into higher ground. How much
are you of or belonging to the day?
How much do you belong to
the elk and elephant seals who await
raincloud dropping open, empty or
vanished by fire—
the brilliant-hued blue-sky eye-
by brushed triangular tips of oak learning sparsely upward,
branches drooped low in circular distich
your bones still heavy with the skin that left them.
Your escapade simple, rare and naked
before science discovered its method,
before you were reckless or real,
in a beyond of color,
the smell of damp dirt leaching furze and minerals, rill
melt sending its chill rinsing, over
a young tree
still broken and fallen—and how much
can a white chrysanthemum bound to the ankle with wire
be the term for the leap
or your point of view equal in authenticity
to the yellow flowers that stain the hem
or directions to the place without human history,
the disappearing act of virgins and sylphs
where calidity plunges to icy sharpness,
the virga trail telling the story repeatedly
or, what words would you speak to the animal in the wild
who cannot heal you of your indecision,
once invisible now vitrified
voles and miles of fungal treads.
I imagine you untouched.
Bright burst of carrion in tumult,
metness of time in smallest units, metness
of time for highest language, for the longest blizzard, for how long
I won’t go
until no further, no sooner can
sky changing cast,
fading under flat hazy cloud-shapes like so many deer leaping,
sky as the thinnest flake of burnt skin
sky as thin acrid smoke spilling embroidery upon the nightscape
sky as thick drugget envelope like a dogskin
which fails to open or contain
the distinctive smell that arises just after rain,
serein almost extinct like
the bowl once filled with lemons, their
sulphurous dark bite on the tongue.
Renounce the spoilt view, shorn and porous
renounce trees, renounce
penthos, sombra, toches,
salamanders black and vicious
sharp line of yellow oak cast out into the sky
river otter, pigeon rattle, brown pelican
making rough collection of every hue
warm streak of yellow
moon. Love it because it is
frothing, its paradox
love, its implication of slender figure, how much
it must be present, urgently, on its knees and prostrate praying.
The next day
I returned to see the forest and it was gone.
Youna Kwak was born in Seoul, Korea and lives or has lived in Providence, Paris, Maryland, Missoula, and Brooklyn.
Joanna Klink’s, most recent book is Circadian. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Montana.