Black Sparrow Press, $14 (paper)
by Marjorie Perloff
John Yau has always cultivated the image of Angry Young Man. The picture of him on the back cover of one of his early books, Sometimes (Sheep Meadow Press, 1979) presents the poet, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses, slouching on a bench in old army fatigues, his long black unkempt hair, moustache, cigarette dangling from his unsmiling mouth, and matchbook open ready for the strike giving him the appearance of streetwise tough guy, perhaps on his lunchbreak from a construction job. The pose, one guesses, is designed to distance Yau from his middle-class background: the poet grew up in and around Boston and received his B.A. degree from one of the most expensive liberal arts colleges in the United States--Bard. More important: there was no indication, at this stage of Yau's career, that the poet is in fact Chinese-American.
Oppositionality, in the early poetry, took the form of linguistic density, dislocation, and fragmentation, very much in the vein of Yau's mentor John Ashbery, in whose footsteps he has followed both in his poetry and in his professional role as art critic and occasional curator. But in his more recent collections, Radiant Silhouette: New and Selected Work 1974-88 (1989) and Edifico Sayonara (1992), Yau has increasingly defined his oppositionality as the resistance to what he calls, in a 1990 Talisman interview with Ed Foster, the "aesthetics of the assimilated." Indeed, the blurb for Forbidden Entries cites the MultiCultural Review as calling Yau "the most important Chinese-American poet of our time." "His ethnic background," says Ed Foster, "marks him as an outsider in America, but he is not interested in merely recording the term of that exclusion. His work examines ways in which language has long been used, quite often subtly, to oppress and exclude."
Yet Yau's is by no means a contemplative or analytic mode: in his new poems, as in his ealier work, he is at his best when his satiric scorn has a personal edge, whether it is directed at himself or at others. Indeed, the more overt representations of racial oppression in Forbidden Entries are, to my mind, the volume's least successful poems. Take, for example, the parodic "Genghis Chan: Private Eye" series, which had its origins in the earlier Radiant Silhouette. The "Genghis Chan" lyrics are written in short haiku-like couplets or triplets, with a good deal of sound play including occasional rhyme. Here is XXIV:
Here the clever puns and specific images refer to the oldest of "Chinese" stereotypes: dim sum, chow mein, treated pork, the trained cow on whom the farmer's livelihood depends, the spice trade, the dice game, and the belligerent stance of the poor immigrant Chinese who must "Grab some / Grub sum," "make fist" and slave in factories ("machine stun") as his "first steps" toward assimilation. Yau is calling attention to the lingering orientalism of US culture, the labeling that continues to haunt Chinese-Americans. But his version of that labelling is itself guilty of reductionism. When, in the longer poem "Bar Orient," he gives us the old Hollywood movie version of the Chinese night spot as a drug den of "Spoon music / slip junk," replete with "kimono sunset," "persimmon sky," "jukebox ruby," "Lotus diggers," "dragon blossom," "planetarium silk," "sayonara coupons," "Pearl mimosa," concluding with the lines "through organized smoke / tinkle ivy chopsticks / caress steel thumb / drum ukelele riff / Bamboo spaghetti / Madmen flutter by / Pagoda Jeweler's / fluted rug," the image of "China" seems as out of date as it is one-dimensional. Even the sly substitution of "Madmen flutter by" for "Madame Butterfly" can't give this poem much semantic resonance.
It can be argued, of course, that such stereotyping is intentional, Yau's way of pinpointing the nasty prejudices about China he grew up with in the sixties. My own unease with these silk-and-pagoda images, however, is that they don't quite grapple with the poet's own conflicted identity, his own relation to an Asian-American community that interacts, in complex ways, with the sophisticated, urban New York poetry/art world in which Yau came of age. The "entries," not only to the dominant culture in which he must operate but also to his own particular past, are, as Yau's title reminds us, "forbidden." The question of "belonging" is everywhere acute.
It is the anxiety of exclusion that makes the successful poems--and there are many in Forbidden Entries--so poignant. In Yau's lyric, an awareness of difference, as individual as it is racial or ethnic, manifests itself as the inability to form lasting relationships, whether sexual or social. "Blue Lizard Lounge," for example, opens with the lines:
Do you still think about the little foil park
where we first pounced on each other's foibles
One of us clapped at the wrong time for the wrong reason
I think it was near the converted subway station
where the moon stopped and flared
like an apple tree in irreversible mutation.
Here the intimate address to an unspecified "you," the dream imagery of "little foil park," "converted subway station," and deformed moon, and the elusive narrative ("One of us clapped at the wrong time for the wrong reason") convey
a poignant sense of loss. The sound play on "foil"/"foibles," for example,
points to the sad truth that the relationship in question was always fragile--made
out of tin foil even as (a few couplets further on) "The man who invented
pest control for honeymooners / lay on an aluminum shelf in Armadillo, Texas
/ someone else's name tag dangling above his nose / like a crumpled Christmas
angel." The poet tries repeatedly to tell himself that "there are other tragedies
to consider," that his suffering is not unique, but that knowledge doesn't
erase the graphic memories:
Haven't I stopped chasing leopard skin paw prints
So why do you still clomp across the floor
Is it the stuffy office warren you spin in
refundable bottles collecting at your swollen feet
Here and throughout "Blue Lizard Lodge," regret and self-pity are tempered
by sardonic wit and a sense of the ridiculousness of a situation that is hardly
The best poems in Forbidden Entries--especially the seven new pieces
in the "Angel Atrapado" series (continuing, like "Genghis Chan," from previous
volumes)--are bitter, frequently angry surreal love stories in the vein of
"Blue Lizard Lodge," but written in long free verse paragraphs characterized
by anaphora and parallelism. These are not confessional poems: one never knows
who's who or what it is that has actually happened. "I" and "you" now generally
give way to references like "The one who says," "The one who stammers," "The
one who answers," and so on, pointing to a splitting of selves as acute and
schizophrenic as it is carefully distanced and controlled by the overriding
The one who stammers:
I lie down beside her dress and cry. . . .
The one who announces:
You will not lift my dress over my head,
you will not wear my shirt and shoes.
You will not point that camera at me. . . .
The one who answers back:
When will you take off these buttons
and swallow them like pills?
When will you fill the room
with shoelaces of seaweed and salt?
(XXII, "The Elements")
These poems exhibit both formal mastery and impressive emotional range: their
very ground is always shifting. On the surface, Yau's very particular form
of angst does not seem especially culture-specific, but the nagging fear of
being found out--"You will not point that camera at me"--that runs through
the "Angel Atrapado" series is surely related to the poet's sense of himself
as outsider. Anxiety, moreover, goes hand in hand with guilt, the key incident
that haunts Yau's consciousness being the drunken automobile accident that
he and his friends suffered at Bard, an accident made much of in the earlier
poems and pivotal to the "Dream Hospital" sequence here.
Forbidden Entries includes a number of pieces that could be classified
as "language poems," including the opening prose poem "Variations on a Sentence
by Laura (Riding) Jackson," which plays elegant variations on the single sentence,
"There is something to be told about us for the telling of which we all wait,"
and "Mon Alias, Mona Lisa," which submits the eight letters of the title to
seventy-two clever permutations, as in "Mia Salon / Omni Alas / Noa Islam/
Ala Simon." But Yau is no more a "language poet" than he is a representative
multiculturalist: he is too eager to probe his own pain, his own version of
the abject. In the words of Yeats, Yau's is a world of "great hatred,
little room"; indeed, like Yeats's Ribh, he "stud[ies] hatred with great diligence."
Mistrustful of love and friendship, hostile to and suspicious of strangers
and friends alike, Yau has invented a surrealist discourse of controlled scorn
and anger. He won't let anyone get away with anything--not even himself:
I may have learned to cling with the others
but I wanted to see myself as a kind of leisure suit
Who was to know you were admitting white collar slime
through your outer membranes
Nasty stuff, these Forbidden Entries, and frequently very powerful.