Sign up to receive an unpublished poem every day in your inbox.
today's poet
Monica Youn
Monica Youn

Study of Two Figures (Ignatz/Krazy)

Recorded for Poem-a-Day April 18, 2019.
About this Poem 

“Almost 10 years ago, I published a book of poems called IGNATZ, based on George Herriman's Krazy Kat comic strip, which was published from 1914-1944 and features a blithe black cat named Krazy in love with a mean-spirited white mouse named Ignatz. At the time I wrote the book, I was aware that George Herriman had been passing for white for most of his professional life—a fact that only became publicly known decades after his death—but my book only referred to that fact obliquely. It was only after reading Michael Tisserand's excellent biography of Herriman KRAZY that I fully realized the massive consequences of Herriman's passing and the centrality of race to Krazy Kat. This new poem revisits that territory and tries to make explicit the too-often-unquestioned habits of representation involved in treating whiteness as the default norm.”
—Monica Youn

Study of Two Figures (Ignatz/Krazy)

You have written truth, you friends of the “shadows,” yet be not harsh with “Krazy.” 
He is but a shadow himself, caught in the web of this mortal skein. 
We call him “Cat,” 
We call him “Crazy” 
Yet is he neither. 
At some time will he ride away to you, people of the twilight, his password will be
the echoes of a vesper bell, his coach, a zephyr from the West. 
Forgive him, for you will understand him no better than we who linger on this side
of the pale.
	—George Herriman, Krazy Kat, June 17, 1917


The smaller figure is rendered as a grouping of ovals: head, torso, ears.

The roundness of the ovals suggests a kind of plenty—a trove that the line wraps around protectively like a mother’s arm or like an electrified fence.

A circle is similarly bounded, but the radial symmetry of the circle suggests safety, stasis.

The oval, instead, is restless, pushing against its boundaries, seeking escape or release.

The line is necessary to contain the oval or to defend it.

The ovals of the figure evoke the pads of a prickly pear, tapering where they join together.

The prickly pear defends its precious hoard of water with its long straight spines.

The figure has no spines.

Instead of spines, the figure has sharp straight lines that make up its arms, legs, eyebrows.

The figure uses these lines to convey hostility—kicking, throwing things, expressing scorn or rage.

We understand these violent actions to be defensive, motivated by fear—a belief that the cherished contents of the ovals are somehow under threat.

But the ovals of the figure contain nothing.

Nothing, that is, except the underlying blankness of the page.

The lines of the figure separate the blankness inside the ovals from the blankness outside the ovals.

We are told to read the figure as white.

In order to read the figure as white we must read the blank background as white.

We have often been told that blankness means whiteness.

But this does not help us understand what it is that the figure fears.


The larger figure is rendered as a continuous solid.

Most of the solid is filled in with closely spaced lines.

These lines are known as “hatching” or “hatchmarks.”

We are told to read these hatching lines as blackness.

We are told to read the figure as black.

The figure has a white face.

I say “white face” although the face is blank because we are told to read these blank spaces as white.

The mouth and eyes are rendered as lines.

Were the hatching lines to cover the face, the expression of the eyes and mouth would no longer be legible.

In order for the expression to be legible, the face must remain white.

The hatching lines are pulled tightly back from the forehead like the wig of a founding father.

The exposed forehead, arching over each wide eye, suggests the possibility of enlightenment. 

Enlightenment is rendered as a form of blankness, the unhatched space.

In order to achieve enlightenment, the hatching lines must be kept at bay like saplings rooted out to clear a field.

The hatching lines are “beyond the pale.” 

That is, the hatching lines are beyond the boundary line that separates what is clear from what is not clear. 

We are told that the larger figure is also “beyond the pale.” 

We are told that the larger figure is drawn to the smaller figure.

We are told that the smaller figure is not drawn to the larger figure.

The smaller figure keeps the larger figure at bay.

If the figures were to encroach upon each other, the blank spaces would fill in with hatching lines.

These spaces would read as black spaces

You would not be able to read the lines of arms or legs or features against this black background.

That is why they never touch each other because you wouldn’t be able to read it.

Copyright © 2019 by Monica Youn. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 18, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2019 by Monica Youn. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 18, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Poetry & the Creative Mind

Classic Books of American Poetry

This collection of books showcases the masterpieces of American poetry that have influenced—or promise to influence—generations of poets. Take a look.

Welcome to Emerge

Poetry as Insurgent Art [I am signaling you through the flames]

I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words....

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The Republic of Poetry

For Chile

In the republic of poetry,
a train full of poets
rolls south in the rain
as plum trees rock
and horses kick the air,
and village bands
parade down the aisle
with trumpets, with bowler hats,
followed by the president
of the republic,
shaking every hand.

In the republic of poetry,
monks print verses about the night
on boxes of monastery chocolate,
kitchens in restaurants
use odes for recipes
from eel to artichoke,
and poets eat for free.

In the republic of poetry,
poets read to the baboons
at the zoo, and all the primates,
poets and baboons alike, scream for joy.

In the republic of poetry,
poets rent a helicopter
to bombard the national palace
with poems on bookmarks,
and everyone in the courtyard
rushes to grab a poem
fluttering from the sky,
blinded by weeping.

In the republic of poetry,
the guard at the airport
will not allow you to leave the country
until you declaim a poem for her
and she says Ah! Beautiful.

Martín Espada

won't you celebrate with me

won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Lucille Clifton

Mother Country

To love a country as if you’ve lost one: 1968,
my mother leaves Cuba for America, a scene
I imagine as if standing in her place—one foot
inside a plane destined for a country she knew
only as a name, a color on a map, or glossy photos
from drugstore magazines, her other foot anchored
to the platform of her patria, her hand clutched
around one suitcase, taking only what she needs
most: hand-colored photographs of her family,
her wedding veil, the doorknob of her house,
a jar of dirt from her backyard, goodbye letters
she won’t open for years. The sorrowful drone
of engines, one last, deep breath of familiar air
she’ll take with her, one last glimpse at all
she’d ever known: the palm trees wave goodbye
as she steps onto the plane, the mountains shrink
from her eyes as she lifts off into another life.

To love a country as if you’ve lost one: I hear her
—once upon a time—reading picture books
over my shoulder at bedtime, both of us learning
English, sounding out words as strange as the talking
animals and fair-haired princesses in their pages.
I taste her first attempts at macaroni-n-cheese
(but with chorizo and peppers), and her shame
over Thanksgiving turkeys always dry, but countered
by her perfect pork pernil and garlic yuca. I smell
the rain of those mornings huddled as one under
one umbrella waiting for the bus to her ten-hour days
at the cash register. At night, the zzz-zzz of her sewing
her own blouses, quinceañera dresses for her nieces
still in Cuba, guessing at their sizes, and the gowns
she’d sell to neighbors to save for a rusty white sedan—
no hubcaps, no air-conditioning, sweating all the way
through our first vacation to Florida theme parks.

To love a country as if you’ve lost one: as if
it were you on a plane departing from America
forever, clouds closing like curtains on your country,
the last scene in which you’re a madman scribbling
the names of your favorite flowers, trees, and birds
you’d never see again, your address and phone number
you’d never use again, the color of your father’s eyes,
your mother’s hair, terrified you could forget these.
To love a country as if I was my mother last spring
hobbling, insisting I help her climb all the way up
to the U.S. Capitol, as if she were here before you today
instead of me, explaining her tears, cheeks pink
as the cherry blossoms coloring the air that day when
she stopped, turned to me, and said: You know, mijo,
it isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where
you choose to die—that’s your country.
Richard Blanco
Donate Today

Lesson Plans for Introducing Poetry

Bring poems into the classroom with these lesson plans, which are especially suited to introducing students to poetry and helping them become engaged and thoughtful readers.