Sunday, May 14, 2006



(Black Sparrow, Santa Rosa, CA., 1996)

[Review first appeared in TEN, The Literary Magazine of The Asian American Writers Workshop. Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall 1998. Editor Nina Chaudry]

On contemporary American poetry, Donald Hall once said that too many poems "are afflicted by modesty of ambition. They do not extend themselves, they make no great reach." John Yau's poetry collection, FORBIDDEN ENTRIES (Black Sparrow, 1996), is a rare exception to Hall's trenchant observation. Though Yau often uses arbitrary rules of composition to begin a poem, the results are more affecting than many confessional poems because of how he experiments with syntax and diction outside the realm of narrative.

Yau's poetry is influenced by his interaction with postwar art as a critic, curator, teacher and collaborator with visual artists. Just as the visual arts of his time has addressed such tensions as realism (poetic narrative) versus abstraction (pure language) and the shifting lines between the image of art versus the concept of art, the poetic debate of Yau's generation has focused on a poetry rooted in the fixed "I" or ego (realism) versus language as the pure material of poetry (abstraction). Yau, however, believes in subjectivity. When his subjectivity is combined with his belief that identity is not fixed but constantly in flux, the result is a poem much like a drip painting by Jackson Pollock whose surface presents a harmonious balance despite being made from flung and ruptured trails of paint. What results is an evocative poem with strong personas despite unexpected shifts and turns from and within the poetic voices of the narrators. Yet the rupture of the poetic voice (e.g. the interchangeability of pronouns) does not prevent the reader from empathizing with that voice -- evidence of Yau's master craftsmanship as he convinces the reader to identify with someone unidentifiable because the poem's lines are that compelling.

My favorite poem, "Conversation At Midnight," projects the ebb-and-flow of a conversation between lovers and yet it was written primarily because Yau wished to concoct a poem that would utilize 30 words he had not yet used in his poetry. The result transcends his intellectual goal, proof that the poem evolved to become its own entity (just as, he has said about the works of such artists as Jasper Johns and Pat Steir, "the painting takes over"). The self-fulfillment of the poem can be illustrated by this excerpt:

The window was always glued down. You knew that.
I am sorry about the lump I left in your throat.
It was the latest joke someone sent me from another state.
. . . Perhaps you would like to shift your flippers a bit,
make yourself more pungent than a fist clinging
to the grains of its last silver collar.
. . . How would I know what kind of rust coats the inside of my dome?
You were always the expert on the proper insect retrieval systems,
the necessary buzz tones to pendulum through the hair.
. . .Don't talk to me like I am some style of perishable food
and you are the only minimum page burner around here.
I have all rinds of dirt. You want to tree some up or what.
Sonar finally brought them through the last truculent gates.
Why do they bang like that if they are not yours to keep.
If you want to lease me, go ahead and cry. You little parking lot.

In Yau's hands, "parking lot" has become an endearment, much like the private pet names lovers often have for each other.

Other poems by Yau may be like abstract paintings where the images offer spaces that the viewer personalizes with an emotional response, such as these words from the poem "Peter Lorre Dreams He Is the Third Reincarnation of a Geisha": I want my neck to be licked by a cloud, my eyes to snow. The incense of winter's lengthening shadows leaves its spoon of ashes by my pillow. The tea grows cold. The temple bell is silent, a pile of shoes and limbs growing beside the door. Mount the onyx crutches on the brocade wall, O hill of foolish straw, O devastated dreamer.

Yau's writing methodologies and their significances are intriguing as well as intriguingly holistic. For instance, he is influenced by surrealism, and it is synchronistic that Yau -- who, as an essayist, also writes on socio-political issues -- is conscious and appreciative that, among modernist movements, surrealists were the ones who openly accepted people of color. Also, Yau's wish to get away from the "I" reflects his dissatisfaction with how both modern and postmodern poets have addressed issues of identity (he once posed the question, "Why is the author dead at a point when demographics have changed such that all these people who were once marginalized and silenced (e.g. minorities) can now talk"?). Yet the poetics would not be as interesting if Yau's poetry did not touch the reader. Yau does not write poetry as a conceptualist -- like a visual artist might relegate a philosophical treatise to a blank canvas or an empty frame backed up against the wall (at least, not after such have been done the first time). Yau's poems still sing, still soar like the music of Miles Davis whom he admires, as this excerpt shows from "Angel Atrapado XXII":

I want to penetrate
the planes of smoke between you and your mouth,
I want to steal the earthen jar,
where you store your bones,
the ones you use to beat
sunlight into metal,
moonlight into stone.

FORBIDDEN ENTRIES is a pleasure for its poetry of pure emotion and range, from sweetness to despair to wryness and even to coolness (the latter as seen in this fragment from "Genghis Chan: Private Eye XXVIII":

Droll moll
Cool doll

Shark stamp
Park bunch.

But Yau's collection is also important in that his poems musters personality even as Yau attempts to delete his "I." Yau once said (in his book, The United States of Jasper Johns which I also recommend; it is one of my favorite meditations on visual art), "Language is not consensual; we have not completely agreed upon what words mean or how they are to be used." But even as Yau challenges the notion of a common narrative, Yau has not lost sight of what I believe the point of a poem (a work of Art) may be: the enabling of a relationship between the work and its audience/reader.

Finally, because Yau's poems affect the reader without limiting the space of interaction to a specific narrative, Yau's poems may further engage the reader in questioning the wider implications posited by his work. Included among the issues raised by Yau are the (political) implications of his diction subverting the dictionary; how to live with uncertainty posed by an ever-shifting identity; the difficulties of communication; the questioning of what is "familiar"; the distancing of the cultural "Other"; the trickiness of memory; and the relationship of Art to one's life. FORBIDDEN ENTRIES is an important book because it has "great reach" for both the mind and the heart.


Eileen Tabios just released a new poetry collection: THE SECRET LIVES OF PUNCTUATIONS, VOL. I (xPress(ed), 2006). Available at SPD, and booksellers with excellent taste.


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