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 Yauâ€™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 Yauâ€™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 â€œaesthetics of the assimilated.â€ Indeed, the blurb for Forbidden Entries cites the MultiCultural Reviewas calling Yau â€œthe most important Chinese-American poet of our time.â€ â€œHis ethnic background,â€ says Ed Foster, â€œmarks 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.â€
Yet Yauâ€™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 volumeâ€™s least successful poems. Take, for example, the parodic â€œGenghis Chan: Private Eyeâ€ series, which had its origins in the earlier Radiant Silhouette. The â€œGenghis Chanâ€ 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 â€œChineseâ€ stereotypes: dim sum, chow mein, treated pork, the trained cow on whom the farmerâ€™s livelihood depends, the spice trade, the dice game, and the belligerent stance of the poor immigrant Chinese who must â€œGrab some / Grub sum,â€ â€œmake fistâ€ and slave in factories (â€œmachine stunâ€) as his â€œfirst stepsâ€ 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 â€œBar Orient,â€ he gives us the old Hollywood movie image of the Chinese night spot as a drug den of â€œSpoon music / slip junk,â€ replete with â€œkimono sunset,â€ â€œpersimmon sky,â€ â€œjukebox ruby,â€ â€œLotus diggers,â€ â€œdragon blossom,â€ â€œplanetarium silk,â€ â€œsayonara coupons,â€ â€œPearl mimosa,â€ concluding with the lines â€œthrough organized smoke / tinkle ivy chopsticks / caress steel thumb / drum ukelele riff / Bamboo spaghetti / Madmen flutter by / Pagoda Jewelerâ€™s / fluted rug,â€ the image of â€œChinaâ€ seems as out of date as it is one-dimensional. Even the sly substitution of â€œMadmen flutter byâ€ for â€œMadame Butterflyâ€ canâ€™t give this poem much semantic resonance.
It can be argued, of course, that such stereotyping is intentional, Yauâ€™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 donâ€™t quite grapple with the poetâ€™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 â€œentries,â€ not only to the dominant culture in which he must operate but also to his own particular past, are, as Yauâ€™s title reminds us, â€œforbidden.â€ The question of â€œbelongingâ€ is everywhere acute.
It is the anxiety of exclusion that makes the successful poems–and there are many in Forbidden Entries— so poignant. In Yauâ€™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. â€œBlue Lizard Lounge,â€ for example, opens with the lines:
Do you still think about the little foil park
where we first pounced on each otherâ€™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 â€œyou,â€ the dream imagery of â€œlittle foil park,â€ â€œconverted subway station,â€ and deformed moon, and the elusive narrative (â€œOne of us clapped at the wrong time for the wrong reasonâ€) convey a poignant sense of loss. The sound play on â€œfoilâ€ / â€œfoibles,â€ 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) â€œThe man who invented pest control for honeymooners / lay on an aluminum shelf in Armadillo,Texas / someone elseâ€™s name tag dangling above his nose / like a crumpled Christmas angel.â€ The poet tries repeatedly to tell himself that â€œthere are other tragedies to consider,â€ that his suffering is not unique, but that knowledge doesnâ€™t erase the graphic memories:
Havenâ€™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 â€œBlue Lizard Lodge,â€ 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 â€œAngel Atrapadoâ€ series (continuing, like â€œGenghis Chan,â€ from previous volumes– are bitter, frequently angry surreal love stories in the vein of â€œBlue Lizard Lodge,â€ but written in long free verse paragraphs characterized by anaphora and parallelism. These are not confessional poems: one never knows whoâ€™s who or what it is that has actually happened. â€œIâ€ and â€œyouâ€ now generally give way to references like â€œThe one who says,â€ â€œThe one who stammers,â€ â€œThe one who answers,â€ 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, â€œThe Elementsâ€)
These poems exhibit both formal mastery and impressive emotional range: their very ground is always shifting. On the surface, Yauâ€™s very particular form of angst does not seem especially culture-specific, but the nagging fear of being found out–â€œYou will not point that camera at meâ€–that runs through the â€œAngel Atrapadoâ€ series is surely related to the poetâ€™s sense of himself as outsider. Anxiety, moreover, goes hand in hand with guilt, the key incident that haunts Yauâ€™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 â€œDream Hospitalâ€ sequence here.
Forbidden Entries includes a number of pieces that could be classified as â€œlanguage poems,â€ including the opening prose poem â€œVariations on a Sentence by Laura (Riding) Jackson,â€ which plays elegant variations on the single sentence, â€œThere is something to be told about us for the telling of which we all wait,â€ and â€œMon Alias, Mona Lisa,â€ which submits the eight letters of the title to seventy-two clever permutations, as in â€œMia Salon / Omni Alas / Noa Islam/ Ala Simon. But Yau is no more a â€œlanguage poetâ€ 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, Yauâ€™s is a world of â€œgreat hatred, little roomâ€; indeed, like Yeatsâ€™s Ribh, he â€œstud[ies] hatred with great diligence.â€ 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 wonâ€™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.