Monica Youn


Hangman's Tree


To see a living thing—
a badly damaged
thing—and to fail

to understand
how life still catches
hold of it and clings

without falling through,
like water falling
through a bowl

more fissure than bowl.
Just as a bowl
must be waterproof,

a body must be
lifeproof, we assume,
as if a life were bound

by laws of gravity,
always seeking
a downward escape.

But then there is
this olive tree—
if tree is still

the word to describe
this improbable

of bark and twig
and leaf—this tree
ripped in three pieces

down to the ground.
No longer a column,
instead a triple

helix of spiraling
bark verticals
sketching the outline

where the tree
used to be. No heartwood,
very little wood

left at all, the exposed
surfaces green
with moss, dandelions

filling the foot-wide
gap at its base. And still
the tree thrives,

taking its place
in the formal allée
that edges this gravel road,

sending out leafy shoots
and unripe olives
in the prescribed shapes

and quantities.
Lizard haven, beetle
home. I was wrong

when I told you
life starts at the center
and radiates out.

There is another
mode of life, one
that draws sustenance

from the peripheries:
Each slim leaf
slots itself

into the green air;
each capillary root
sutures itself

into the soil.
Together these
small adhesions

can bear the much-
diminished weight
of the whole.

I won’t lie.
It will hurt.
It will force you

to depend on those
contingent things
you have always

professed to despise.
But it will suffice.
It will keep you alive.



Ficus urostigma

This is an allegory
for what has been discarded

but not dislodged;

what sifts down
from any new avowal

And already you’ve paused,    
(wary / testing the air).

Your hands trace tentative arcs—
anticipating a familiar

tension, some unseen strand—
but encounter nothing

(no imperative syntax)

(no webbing of ownership / blame).


Because the tree cannot hear,

this cone of sunlight
is all the bugle it knows

(an answering flicker / a flare).

What alternate insistence
could muster itself

against this upward rush,

this eager branch
exposing its throat


It was not your hands
that smoothed

new bark
over the hectic light

(its coruscations / blades and jags).

It was not your hands
that pulled

the grain of the wood
into this simplicity.


As must happen with any
ardor, the outermost

layer of the new branch
hardens into a wall.

Such indifference

does not trouble itself
with seamlessness,

but to find a lapse there—

to find a hold in it—
is not to gain permission,

is not enough.

(Even in this wet air,
it is not enough.)


One green pane
of a leaf drops down,

an ant’s detached

a seed falls

from a bird’s
unappeasable body.

A little twirl of air
guides them down the trunk

as if down a glass staircase

(not to a room)
to a landing,

a crevice
(not a cradle).


Tethered to its perch

(its purchase)

the seed will starve,

will be absorbed into the tree
that is not its parent tree—

(no respite)

it must wrest
its attention

outward and downward,
toward sufficiency.


And the roots go
ribboning down


and at ground level, a feast
that is inexhaustible,

so that its mode
now shifts

from hunger
to celebration

(the excuse of survival
fallen away).

It is almost unseemly—

this exulting—
the maypole

the seed has made of its body.


And you would claim
a stake in this:

your hands sketch
buttresses, spires

(phrases from the gestural
vocabulary of triumph).

As if your hands
could hasten

the host tree’s withering,
the growth of the hollow column.

As if, by sweeping outward,
your hands could draw

(subsistence / substance)

from the horizontals of the ground.
As if these motions

(touching nothing)

were still enough to feed you.



The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975)



  1. The hotel room window is large, about seven feet tall by five feet wide, extending down to the
    floor. It opens inward, in two casements with four windowpanes per side. The window opening
    in the wall is nearly a foot deep, painted white, stucco over cinderblock.
  2. A grille of wrought iron bars protrudes outward from the frame as if to allow for a window box.
    The bars feature the occasional decorative touch — finial-like ornaments where they intersect,
    and a scrolled iron flourish at the sill. The lower bars may once have been a Juliet balcony with a
    waist-high railing, but at some point, a second set of bars was clamped on top. The bars of the
    top half don’t line up exactly with the lower half.
  3. The wooden sashes of the casements have been painted a dirty cream and are backed by
    faded curtains in a pink foulard pattern.
  4. The window looks out on an old arena — perhaps a bullfighting arena — about a hundred feet
    away. The arena is constructed of yellowish mud bricks with a foundation of rougher, darker
    beige stone and bricked-in Romanesque archways. A faded red wooden door is visible to the
    right, with a Moorish-inflected archway, framing a blue round of sky.
  5. Little flakes of birdsong, blunted chisel-strokes.
  6. Between the arena and the window, there is a motionless expanse of gray-beige dust. The
    strong sunlight hits it flatly, as if to subdue it further.
  7. An old man in a gray shirt and pants slouches in a chair against the arena foundations. A small
    black-and-white dog lies near his feet.
  8. A high-pitched voice — a woman’s or a child’s — scolds someone in Spanish.
  9. The dog gets up, looks back expectantly at the old man, who fans himself with a newspaper.
  10. A man’s voice, speaking Spanish.
  11. The red door opens, and a man walks out, carrying something bulky over his shoulder, perhaps
    a folding chair, perhaps an umbrella. He props it against the wall next to the old man. A brief
  12. An engine chugs softly like a toy train.
  13. A rounded, pale blue car crosses from right to left, slowly, not raising the dust. It has a blue L
    sticker above the front bumper.
  14. The second man returns to the red doorway and pulls the door shut.
  15. The dog moves left, sniffing the ground.
  16. A shadow to the right, thin as a spear. It is your lover who walks diagonally away from the
    window, dragging her sandals through the dust. She stops about twenty feet away, looking back.
    She swivels to face the window, her eyes tautly focused as if in defiance.
  17. A tinny fanfare from a distant trumpet.
  18. Your lover turns, and, with conspicuous slowness, continues walking away, head and arms
    hanging down.
  19. The little blue car crosses close behind her, the red word andalucia now visible on its signboard.
  20. Your lover passes out of sight to the far left.
  21. A murmur of far-off voices, metallic as if amplified.
  22. A small boy in a red shirt runs in suddenly from the left, stops in front of the old man. He bends
    down, picks up something, throws it — toward the old man? toward the dog?
  23. The old man begins berating the boy in Spanish.
  24. The dog emits a single, muffled bark and runs away.
  25. The gravelly rasp of an approaching car, which the boy turns to face.
  26. A lozenge-shaped pale green car crosses from left to right and stops abruptly. Only its rear
    bumper remains visible to the left, bouncing with the suddenness of its braking.
  27. The boy runs off.
  28. Two car doors slam shut.
  29. A black man in a tan suit and a white man in a gray jacket emerge from the green car.
  30. Three muted chimes from a faraway church bell.
  31. The two men look toward the hotel window, confer briefly, make a decision. The man in the tan
    suit walks toward the hotel, smiling affably. The man in the gray jacket walks off to the left,
    toward the car.
  32. The swish and slam of a car door opening and shutting in quick succession.
  33. A woman in a red tank top, flounced miniskirt, and red platform sandals suddenly jogs across
    the square from left to right.
  34. The man in the tan suit, momentarily startled, turns to look at her, then continues toward the
  35. The green car pulls away.
  36. The church bell rings five times, pausing between each knell.
  37. The creak and thud of a wooden door slowly opening, then shutting. The click of its latch
  38. The small dog returns to the old man, still sniffing the ground.
  39. A shadow appears on the window pane, stays motionless.
  40. Your lover comes into view back by the arena. She’s staring toward the window. She walks, still
    hesitant, toward the hotel.
  41. Offscreen, the car door opens and shuts again.
  42. The man in the gray jacket reappears and begins walking determinedly toward the hotel.
  43. He pauses to look in the window, raises his right hand in a gesture of acknowledgement, then
    walks hastily away toward the arena.
  44. He sees your lover and briskly intercepts her, speaking quietly, his words drowned out by an
    amplified Spanish voice from the arena. He puts his hand on her shoulder and turns her back
    toward the arena. They walk away together, as he continues talking.
  45. An engine turns over, then upshifts to a high-pitched whine.
  46. A muted bang, like a tin can falling to the floor.
  47. Your lover is by the arena, and the white man leaves her standing there.
  48. The trumpet, gaining confidence, starts up a long, meandering arabesque in a minor key.
  49. Another drawn-out creak from the wooden door.
  50. The green car pulls into view and drives off to the right.
  51. The click of the wooden door latch.
  52. Your lover is now talking to the old man, with the black-and-white dog sniffing her ankles.
  53. The sound of a car door opening, then closing.
  54. The old man throws something down in the dust, and the dog begins eating it.
  55. The green car now visible driving away on the road past the arena.
  56. Pausing every few steps, your lover walks away from the arena, then stops short, leaning on one
    foot, staring toward the window.
  57. A distant police siren, wire-thin, in a swift crescendo.
  58. A woman calls out in Spanish.
  59. The sky now visible above the arena wall.
  60. The camera has moved outside, passing through the bars of the window frame.


Monica Youn is the author of Blackacre (forthcoming Graywolf
Press 2016), Ignatz (Four Way Books 2010), which was a finalist
for the National Book Award, and Barter (Graywolf Press 2003).  
She currently teaches poetry at Princeton University.



Published June 2016.