Book Review

In more than fifty books of poetry, fiction, essays, and art criticism, John Yau has built an astonishing corpus—at once wildly variable, and yet also always undeniably sui generis. I approach a new book by Yau as I do a new film by my favorite auteur director: I don’t watch the preview,  I just crave more evidence of the artist’s mind at work. Yau’s latest, Bijoux in the Dark, delivers such evidence in a generous collection of new and previously published poems, including work from Egyptian Sonnets (Rain Taxi, 2012), Black Threads from Meng Chiao (TIS Books, 2015), and Midway (Collectif Generation, 2017).

“Welcome to the latest, unedited edition,” begins “Moth-Eaten Tapestry with Cigarette Burns,” a prose poem that slyly catapults the reader into one of the worlds of the poet’s making and fixes her there, “feet firmly planted in the mutilated earth, blue mud up to [her] knees.” This book’s destinations may be newly strange, but the mode of delivery is echt Yau. “This is my studio, my dream space. Do you belong here?” the speaker asks twice in “At the Tomb of Narcissus,” one of the book’s many pantoums. I want to answer, Yes, of course, but also, No—a divided response sharpened by the sense that my ambivalence has been programmed by the poem, and more insidiously, that the poem itself is an artifact of forces larger than any one mind. Yau’s trademark gesture at once welcomes and wards off the reader, while calling the whole enterprise of belonging into question. Among its many heady effects, Yau’s poetry makes me check my privilege—especially my whiteness, which as poet and critic centers me, and necessarily (given the politics of culture in the US), decenters writers of color. As critic Dorothy J. Wang argues memorably in Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (2013), the experiential is never separate from the experimental. In Bijoux in the Dark, Yau wields poetry as a radically restructuring technology, a way for him to reclaim and disavow the dream spaces traditionally accorded to poets, while also heightening the reader’s awareness of the racialization of that tradition.   

As will be familiar to fans of Yau’s Genghis Chan poems, film flickers through this book—movie plots, film shots, outtakes spliced together and played at variable speeds to uncanny effect. In the title poem, we are told that “the story was not the main reason why [viewers] returned over and over again to the theater,” but rather, “that accidents of all kinds kept sneaking in, like a three-legged dog that manages to run off with the Sunday ham and not lose the slice of pineapple and maraschino cherry that have been attached to it by the slimmest of means.” The poem follows this unlikely MacGuffin “through the film’s darkest crevices, its painted lightning bolts jagging deep in the mineshaft down which we all occasionally tumble, like Alice, once we emerge from the theater and step out onto the busy street—automobiles from another century buzzing by.” Coincidences and contingencies sparkle as if bouncing off mirrored lenses. Even the book’s ekphrastic poems have the feel of cinema (e.g. “Written in the Shadows Cast by The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835) by J. M. W. Turner”), as if refraction is the closest the poet can get to something even as visceral as daubs of oil paint on canvas. Poems themselves are projections of shadow and light. In “Black Threads from Meng Chiao,” the first in a series of spare lyrics written after the Tang dynasty poet (and originally published with photographs by Justine Kurland), “A photograph of you / burns its candle in my brain // I sit alone in my room / waiting for a poem // to appear in the shadows.”

The refractive, elusive quality of Yau’s imagery and sound sampling makes reading his poems a bit like donning a set of VR goggles, grabbing for objects as they move toward and past you. Of course the poet is in the VR seat as well, arms flailing, as his readers watch him from their parallel universes. Throughout this mise en abyme, the poet offers ironic instructions of limited practical value. In “Descriptions, Illuminations, and Assorted Sundries from a Blacke Calender,” the city is described as “a telecommunications network along which your particles pass”: “Do not approach it in the mirror you hold before you” and “Please ignore the next artificial proclamation.” In “Fortunes, Favorite Sayings, and Assorted Sundries from a Black Calendar,” the thought experiment turns positively monstrous, while the affectless voice-over continues its attempts to neutralize:

There is no way you can cross the border with confiscated photographs locked inside your head—glossy drifts behind rheumy eyes. The body is a spitting stump that defecates by side of road, an added passage, an acrostic that does not add up, ghost of listening to antique dead rewrite a dream inviting you back to life, its daily carnage delivered in upturned caps.

Please adjust this channel in the future, which shivers at your approach.

When read in the context of anti-Asian and anti-Asian American racism both within and without the literary establishment (an interpretative move that is additive, not flattening nor reductive), Yau’s poems may be seen as doing the harrowing, introjective work of imagination that even the most sophisticated visual technologies aimed at realism will never achieve. Attention to linguistic forms (passages, acrostics, revisions, capitalization) keeps the representation of such grim realities at the forefront, even as it reminds us of the reality that in the US certain bodies are more likely than others to be spat upon in both deed and word.

Yau’s identity as Asian American, and therefore, as vulnerable and endangered, in other words, reverberates throughout the book in ways that deepen the reader’s attunement to the  intertwining of style and subject. In the “O Pinyin Sonnet” sequence, Yau performs the book’s most overt exploration of racist mindsets, ventriloquizing in approximate sonnets (perhaps the most canonical form of verse) a litany of tired but no less enduring stereotypes about “the Chinese.” Two of these take on the persona of Mark Wahlberg, who, after being convicted of violently assaulting two Vietnamese men in Boston in 1988, served time for the crimes, and then asked in 2017 if he might be pardoned. “Why bring up that old tirade of slurs / when it was just some slop slipping / from my swollen, drunken tongue?” asks the speaker, a formerly unapologetic racist who now tries on various, ill-fitting masks—as innocent, rehabilitated, above the law, or worthy of a second chance. The voices of these opinionating poems, redeployed and defused by Yau, are as hollow as their wrung out forms.

Yau ends the book with “Midway,” an apophatic stunner of a poem, which seems to raze everything the poet has written up to now. The mode is untempered negation. The last stanza, especially, licenses the reviewer to call out Yau for his failures:

My poems do not travel across a landscape of cultural memory
They do not strike a dynamic balance of honesty,
Emotion, intellectual depth, and otherworld resonance

They will not startle you out of your daily anesthesia
They do not map the deepest crevices of the interior self
They cast no light on history’s margins, overlooked and neglected

Nor is it sacrilegious to comment on my poems
What they lack, their absence of resonant wit,
What they fail to fulfill, worlds they miss out on

This poem carries the weight of a credo: direct, unadorned, and as luminous as J. M. W. Turner’s brushstrokes (“dripping with the revelations the sky had flung in our faces”). Such lacks, absences, and failures—if they are failures—are, above all, generative, opening up what literary critic Ianna Hawkins Owen calls a “declarative silence,” holding space for future utterance. Yau’s newest book looks back, stays present, and faces forward with measured exhilaration.

About the Reviewer

Cassandra Cleghorn’s Four Weathercocks was published in 2016 by Marick Press. Her poems and reviews have appeared in journals including Paris Review, Yale Review, Poetry International, Colorado Review, Boston Review, Field, and Tin House. She lives in Vermont, teaches at Williams College, regularly reviews poetry for Publishers Weekly, and serves as poetry editor of Tupelo Press. For more info see