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.

—Joanna Klink


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—


your largesse
                                       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.


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.


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,
hex-heavy crown-green
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-
shape pierced
by brushed triangular tips of oak learning sparsely upward,
            branches drooped low in circular distich
yellowing-green thrummed—
                  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,

diurnal losses—

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
of eyelid,
                 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
purple nimble
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.