Forbidden Entries by John Yau


Black Sparrow Press, 1996. $14.00 (p.).

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

Boston Review, 22, 3-4 (Summer 1997): 39-41.

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 U.S.–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 Talismaninterview with Ed Foster, the “aesthetics of the assimilated.” Indeed, the blurb for Forbidden Entries cites the MultiCultural Reviewas 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 earlier 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:

Grab some
Grub sum

Sub gum
machine stun

Treat pork
pig feet

On floor
all fours

Train cow
chow lane

Dice played
trade spice

Makes fist
first steps.

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 U. S. culture, the labelling 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 image 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 Asian-Americans 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 unique.
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 narrative voice:

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 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 typical multiculturalist: he is too eager to probe his own pain, his own version of the abject. In the words of the late 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.