Study of Two Figures (Agave/Pentheus)

Monica Youn

Agave: Bacchae of Asia…
Chorus: Tell us.
Agave: I bring this sprig, newly cut, from the mountain.
The hunting was good.
Chorus: We see you and welcome you, fellow reveler.
Agave: I caught it without traps or snares. It’s a young cub,
a mountain lion, as you can see.

—Euripides, The Bacchae (Robin Robertson, trans.)


Agave fell in love with the sun.

She spread open her smooth hard limbs on the rocks and waited.

She cleared her dusty throat ahem.

The sun kept gazing west she stared at the back of his blond head.

The sky, unblinking, stared.

One day she stretched upward suddenly like a geyser.

She wanted to be a magnificent fountain for the sun with drip-
ping catchbasins where he could slake his thirst.

He must be thirsty she thought he has to drink sometime.

She pulled moisture up from the ground.

There was very little moisture in the ground she had to pull hard
so hard the veins bulged out on her forearms and neck.

She looked down at her body splayed out on the rocks below.

In the meantime her limbs had sprouted little black thorns in

The thorns all pointed inward, toward the new hollow at her

It looked like a ravenous mouth, or a set of concentric mouths.

She was trying too hard, she realized.

She had climbed too far up it was not sustainable.

The sun kept marching west like a legionnaire.

OK she said, fine, I’ll have a son.


Agave had a son.

They took a curving knife and cut him out of her.

Her hollow center welled up with sweetness.

The sweetness fermented stickily in the sun.

A caterpillar drowned in it his dying flavored the sweetness with
soluble wings.

Her son drank from the sweetness she named him Sorrow.

“But … why?” people asked.

She said she was at first going to name him Sparrow, eater of
seeds, but then she realized her seeds were poison.

People kept asking questions.

She said it was an Asian thing and then they stopped asking.

Sorrow found the Asian thing embarrassing.

“Why does Grandpa have to dress like that?” he said about her
immigrant father.

“Respect your elders,” she told him.

“I’ll show them respect when they show me respect,” he said.

“That’s not how it works,” she said vaguely, “Confucius.”

“We’re not that kind of Asian,” said Sorrow.

The scar where they had cut him from her healed into an ugly
white lump.

It looked like a white mask soon he was wearing it all the time.


Agave snuck into Sorrow’s room to watch him sleep she hadn’t
since he was a baby.

Even while sleeping he wore the mask.

Under the mask the honeyed sweetness was leaking out of him.

The mask’s eyeslits oozed amber tears they hardened into lenses.

His hair on the pillow a fan of yellow spikes.

The rasp of his breath he was sanding a surface smooth.

The next morning he poured his coffee into his goldrimmed
mouth his goldlensed eyes unblinking.

“How can you see wearing that ugly thing?” she said.

“I see things fine I just see them differently from how you see

them,” he said.

Agave dropped an extra cube of sugar in her tea she stirred and stirred.


Agave’s nephew was in town she decided to visit her sisters.

She loved her sisters together they were aunties.

They made a splendid dinner for their nephew and afterwards
went dancing.

Their nephew was drunk all the time but at least he spent time
with his aunties.

Agave poured herself some wine.

After her honey liquor the taste was savory sour.

She thought about the sun how he had gone west without her.

She thought about her son how his lost sweetness stained the

She poured herself some more wine.

“Mama juice,” she called it the aunties laughed.

She started to sing a song.

The song was very beautiful it had a river in it and the moon and

The aunties joined in the chorus it was loud like a lightning storm.

There was a white face in the trees she thought it was the moon.

She looked closer.

It was fringed in yellow like sun-bleached grasses.

Its cheeks rounded out like haunches ready to spring.

Its tongue flowed out of its desert mouth like a red river.

“Lion!” she yelled, pointing.

The aunties yelled “Lion!” they all agreed.

Monica Youn is the author of Blackacre, which won the William Carlos Williams Award of the Poetry Society of America. A 2018 Guggenheim Fellow and a member of the Racial Imaginary Institute, she teaches at Princeton.
Originally published:
January 1, 2020


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