Monica Youn's "Blackacre" is a prose poem that works from Milton's "Sonnet 19." In her poem, Youn takes the last word of every line of Milton's sonnet and writes a paragraph on that word. Since sonnets are fourteen lines, Youn's poem contains fourteen corresponding paragraphs, and the word "Denied" is taken from Milton's seventh line. Blackacre[i] is also the title of her 2016 poetry collection.


From Monica Youn's Poem "Blackacre"

Text: Blackacre. Graywolf Press, 2016.  Reproduced by permission of the author.


7.         Denied


It seems unfair, is Milton's point. To be assigned a task,[ii] but not provided sufficient materi-

als to complete it, is to be placed in a situation of contrived scarcity,[iii] like a lab rat[iv] or like the

youngest sister in a fairy tale.



The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins--which prefaces the Parable of the Talents--

centers on this scarcity. The virgins wait for the bridegroom, to greet him with lamps alight.

Five virgins have brought extra oil flasks, but five virgins have let their lamps burn out and

must go lampless into the night to look for oil.[v] That much we are told, but questions hover

around the shadowed margins of the story. Why isnŐt the bridegroom with the bride? Why

is he so delayed? Why is the bridegroom met in the middle of the night by a phalanx of

lamp-bearing virgins,[vi] like a troupe[vii] of pom-pom girls[viii] or like a sacrificial rite?



The virginity[ix] of the virgins renders them piquant,[x] memorable--much more so, one suspects,

than if the parable had called them "maidservants" or even "bridesmaids." Adorning gothic

portals, evoking thresholds, entrances, they are a particular feature of French cathedrals.



The presumed desideratum of the story does not interest us much: the stated bridegroom at

the midnight feast,[xi] the smug, unctuous faces of the wise virgins. Instead, the imagination

pursues the foolish virgins rushing into the night, their desperation making them vulner-

able, their vulnerability[xii] making them erotic, the fill-holes of their useless lamps dark and

slick with oil. Is this how I was taught to sexualize insufficiency, the lack that set me wan-

dering night after night, my body too early emptied out?[xiii]

[i] The link provides the legal definition of the word "Blackacre." Youn, who previously had an accomplished career in law, draws from her legal training for poetic inspiration. This article from the Chicago Tribune gives Youn's own explanation for choosing "Blackacre" as the title for this poem and for her poetry collection.

[ii] The link explains the Greek story of Sisyphus. Sisyphus' endless task (perpetually pushing a boulder uphill) is the ultimate impossible task. When Youn says, "to be assigned a task but not provided sufficient materials," it is hard not to be reminded of Sisyphus.

[iii] In economics, the term "contrived scarcity" refers to when the government manipulates the market to induce product scarcities. The linked website is decidedly pro-free market, but does provide a more detailed definition under the heading "Difficulty of Seeing Government's Hand in Contrived Scarcities."

[iv] Lab rats are often made to perform repeated tasks, such as finding their way through mazes, which is likely why Youn makes the comparison here. It is important to also note, however, that the treatment of mice and rats in labs in America is unethical and appalling. The article details the many ways rats are abused and infected. Knowing this about lab rats makes Youn's line more sinister.

[v] The fact that the virgins are looking for oil is particularly relevant today, as oil demand continues to increase globally.

[vi] This is a link to the page of a book available on google books. It explains that Montanists believed the biblical "lamp-bearing virgins" to be female prophets, and their bridegroom to be Christ.

[vii] It is interesting to note that "troupe" (meaning a company or troop) especially refers to "a theatrical group of performers." That the virgins are perhaps intended to serve as choreographed entertainment works well with their depiction as either pom-pom girls or as some kind of ritual sacrifice intended to be viewed. If they are indeed meant to be performers, the poem seems to make a comment on gender inequality, as the intended husband gets to be the audience, while the women are obligated to entertain him:

[viii] The contrast between "pom-pom girls" and "sacrificial rite" is striking. The link shows the movie poster for a 1976 movie called "The Pom Pom Girls" in order to emphasize the juxtaposition between the two.

[ix] People define virginity differently, but since the word "virginity" is so often repeated in the poem, some kind of definition seemed necessary. The following is an explanation from Planned Parenthood on what it means to "lose one's virginity":

[x] The second definition on the Merriam Webster website for 'piquant' ("agreeably stimulating to the taste, esp. spicy") associates the virgins with food, making the bridegroom seem predatory and the virgins' intended fate terrifying:   

[xi] The hyperlink on the word "sacrificial rite" explains that after a sacrifice, people would consume the meat, and it would become "a feast for gods and humans alike." Similar to the practice of sacrifice in ancient Greece, the sacrificial-like moment in the poem is followed by feasting. Because of this, it is possible to associate the virgins themselves with what is being eaten.

[xii] The connection Youn draws between vulnerability and sexuality here is interesting. Perhaps, she is suggesting that because the virgins are vulnerable, they feel an awakening of their own sexuality. Or maybe she is suggesting that their helplessness makes them sexually attractive to others. Certainly, male sexual predators often take advantage of women they perceive to be defenseless. The link is to an article about men raping incapacitated women on college campuses. It is important to remember when reading this line that appearing vulnerable is dangerous for women.

[xiii] This is a link to an interview with Youn on writing "Blackacre" and how her diagnosis of premature ovarian failure helped to shape this specific poem as well as the entire collection. The phrase "emptied out" resonates particularly strongly with her medical diagnosis.