The following books, all by John Yau:
(Penguin, New York, 2006)
The Passionate Spectator: Essays on Art and Poetry
(University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2006)
Ing Grish. With Illustrations by Thomas Nozkowski
(Saturnalia Books, Philadelphia, 2005)
Borrowed Love Poems
(Penguin, New York, 2002)
The United States of Jasper Johns
(Zoland, Cambridge, 1996)
(Black Sparrow, Santa Rosa, 1989)
Corpse and Mirror
(Holt, New York, 1983)
(Sheep Meadow, New York, 1979)
100 More Jokes from the Dead, an etchings-based collaboration with Archie Rand
(Meritage Press, St. Helena and San Francisco, 2001)
What Does John Yau See in Mirrors?
Frame 1: The first Yau book I read was Corpse and Mirror, back in the late ‘80s—the paperback edition with the Jasper Johns on the cover framed by black. One of my roommates had picked up a used copy for who knows what reason. I flipped open to “Variations on Corpse and Mirror” and was hooked. I was young. It had never occurred to me that one way to exercise the imagination was to thread together a few phrases, tear them apart, reconstitute them, Frankensteinish. It seemed like fun.
Frame 2: In the seventies a show for kids on PBS called Electric Company had an animated character named Letter Man. Letter Man’s special power was to change reality by rearranging the letters of words.
Frame 3: I was in New York on one of my trips in from Binghamton for some reading or another, slumming bookshops. In one shop, on 8th St., I think, from a table near the front of the store, a blast of blue and orange caught my eye—Radiant Silhouette. By now I’d read Corpse and Mirror many times over and Broken Off by the Music with similar joy at what I had believed to be sheer playfulness--the anagram taken to the level of the sentence, the poem, the book. But there now, the “Genghis Chan” poems and “Halfway to China” played off the “Radiant Silhouette” sequence and the prose poems of Childhood. Something slightly more complex than fun. Slightly. The cover—with mandala sun flaming in the field of gold, framed by blue—suddenly itself become an icon, a mirror.
Frame 4: Mirrors and things standing in for mirrors: moon, paintings, water, sky, snow, ice, corpse, parents, daughter, lover, shadows, frame, lens, photograph, window, memory, face, fish, an empty dish, poem, silhouette, cell phone caller ID, “John Yau,” a question, “the world through the camera of your own eyes,” jewels, eyes, light. Pick up any book of John Yau’s poems and see how long it takes you to find a poem without one of these in it.
Frame 5: Gradually a young reader might wake up. Realize that in “Cameo of a Chinese Woman on Mulberry Street”
Her face this moon a house
is something more than just lovely. That a poet’s early poems might provide keys to reading the more complex work to come, however different that later work might seem to be. Might come to ask what the poet seems to ask himself—what do these language games have to do with these other poems of diaspora? In either case, where is home?
Frame 6: On the train heading into New York from Connecticut to hear Yau read at Fordham, I hand Chris Gallagher (who had never read Yau) my copy of Radiant Silhouette, open to page 121. He reads “Two Kinds of Song” and “Corpse and Mirror,” asks “Where is this set?” “I don’t know,” I say, “In a land that doesn’t exist?” “I thought maybe China,” Chris says, “because of the soldiers and the statues and the king, the horses and chariot buried with him.” “I don’t know. Maybe it is China,” I say.
What the king remembers of his dream is not the dream itself.
Frame 7: In his most recent book of poems, Paradiso Diaspora, the language game is home; I myself am hell. Two words on different sides of the looking glass, just as
When a corpse meets a corpse there is a mirror between them
And it all takes place in the shadow of two towers falling, one corpse holding the hand of its daughter.
Frame 8: November 29, 2006, St. Mark’s, A Reading for Frank O’Hara’s 80th Birthday. Vincent Katz reads “Poem (At night Chinamen jump),” followed shortly by Yau, who introduces himself, “And now a reading by the Chinaman himself. What’s so bad about that word? I never understood what was wrong with it. It’s accurate.” He reads “To My Dead Father” and two other poems.
Frame 9: At the Fordham reading in October, 2007, Yau reads with Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge and Tan Lin. Janet Kaplan gives a knockout of an introduction for Yau that focuses on his language play, his innovation, his insistence upon the poem of active imagination during the moment of composition, and his resistance to easy autobiography. Yau gets up to read and says “That was a wonderful introduction. But I’m going to display my contrarian nature by starting off with my most autobiographical poem.” He reads “Ing Grish.”
Frame 10: http://poetportraits.blogspot.com/search/label/John%20Yau
Frame 11: 100 More Jokes from the Book of the Dead—a book from Meritage Press, collaborations between Yau and Archie Rand—etchings of covers to books that exist only within this book. “Noir Heraclitus in the Mirror Rain” could be an actual Yau title, and it is. Yau describes their method: The book began with long tables covered with copper plates, all more or less the same size. The challenge was to write backwards and do each in one shot, all of them without pausing to stop or look back… It was like listening to a tune that comes out of the air, note by note, and then transcribing it. Who knows who wrote the song?
Frame 12: “What I am saying right now is not being said by me” Osip Mandelstam, epigraph to Yau’s Borrowed Love Poems.
Frame 13: The funhouse mirror distorts by exaggeration, making the parts of oneself that are difficult to look at even more grotesque. It’s hard to look at oneself; in the funhouse mirror it’s hard to look but also fun to look, fun to distort even more. A poet who has difficulty looking directly at himself, for whatever reason (perhaps because he doesn’t believe that there is anything there to see, that the image in the mirror is simply “Noir Heraclitus in Mirror Rain”), might find use of the funhouse mirror. It doesn’t seem easy for Yau to talk about himself, and if it’s hard to talk about oneself it might be even harder to talk about identity, about ethnicity, about racism (unable to speak of the subjective as an objective—Wittgenstein). The funhouse mirror might be a way to use humor (but not humor, but humor, but not humor) to look at something that is hard to look at, something that the poet may not want to look at directly, especially difficult things that he may be expected to look at directly because of his ethnicity.
The funhouse mirror shows an image in flux of self at a moment, of not self, of parents, of daughter, of language, of imagined self, of inversions and anagrams and palindromes and sestinas, a cutup version of an absent original, rejoicing in incognito (Baudelaire). Over time and after the right changes, he might move on to a plainer mirror, smooth out some edges.
Frame 14: “830 Fireplace Rd.”—multiple variations on a Pollock sentence,
When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing.
When I am my painting, I’m not aware of what I am.
When painting, I am what I’m doing, not doing what I am.
Frame 15: The modus operandi of tricksters is to have multiple meanings (to mean the opposite of what they say), to lead others to believe one thing is happening when in reality another thing is happening. A trickster might talk about issues he doesn’t want to talk about directly by approaching them obliquely, playing at silhouette. The trickster’s playfulness masks a deep seriousness, an absence, or a deep sorrow.
Frame 16: When is a silhouette radiant?
Frame 17: Richelle Ivarsson sent me a link to a video of Yau at a Jasper Johns opening at Matthew Marks gallery—the cameraman tries to interview Yau about Johns, but Yau mumbles his preference not to be interviewed, looks away at the work on the wall, as though looking to someone for help in getting him out of an uncomfortable encounter. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pYCwzdVBYs
He may be uncomfortable speaking about Johns on camera, but he certainly has no trouble writing about him. Yau also cites O’Hara on Johns in The Passionate Spectator: O’Hara says Johns recognized “that technique could transform matter (paint) [words], as well as subject (American flag) [diaspora], into an experience that was meaningful rather than purely aesthetic.”
Yau likes O’Hara’s word “pain” to distinguish Johns’s from works of formal irony. That mirror, “pain,” reflects back, distinguishing Yau’s work from mere formal experimentation but also from confession, in the first case by its presence and in the second by its difference. His instinct is against confession, but his instinct is also for a “free-wheeling” openness (O’Hara’s term), and how can one be open without including personal history? Yet, as Yau says when talking of Johns: he recognizes that the individual lives in a world of uninterrupted change but that society, which is the collective expression of individuals, repeatedly denies this fact. If reality, which is to say the world we inhabit, is continually reformulating itself, then how does one both recognize and accept a process which eventually subsumes us all? How can the individual be true to change and entropy, which is the stuff of life, rather than uphold the social ideals of stasis and its concomitant illusion that any one of us can exist outside time and chaos, which is the stuff of much art?
Frame 18: you have only to look through the camera of your own eyes to see what you’re talking about
Frame 19: Looking in the mirror, it is impossible to capture the past or even the present of what is there, just as it is impossible to capture both the speed and exact location of an electron. Yau explores the linguistic aura that surrounds the particle in the mirror, knowing it’s impossible to get a fix. His is a poetry of doing what it’s possible to do. Yau quotes Ashbery quoting Hélion: “I realize today that it is the abstract which is reasonable and possible. And that it is the pursuit of reality which is madness, the ideal, the impossible.”
Like Creeley, Yau is “skeptical of the ability of words to ground him in the actual world, its unfolding here and now.”
Frame 20: A Jasper Johns mirror: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/J/johns/target_4.jpg.html
Frame 21: In his “Introduction” poem to Paradiso Diaspora Yau stakes his territory: he’s visiting the land of those early poems, the 1974-79, some from Sometimes, poems like “Cameo” and “Their Shadows,” but making it clear that that old author isn’t him, cannot be him; nor is the author of these poems. He wants to take us there, but constantly realizes he can’t get there; he pulls the magic carpet from beneath our feet and his—
Doesn’t this sound like it might turn into a love poem or a prayer
Well, you are wrong, because a man of the people,
which I am not nor will I ever be,
doesn’t single out one above all others
as this is a hierarchical construction
The author is “someone who didn’t exist / before this poem / began writing itself down;” by the end of the poem, by the end of each line, both poet and reader are someone else. The face in the mirror is always the face of a corpse.
Frame 22: What am I now? And what am I now? And now? The unfolding poem, language, work: places to “be in ambiguities”—to subsist on the Diasporan’s question: “what if?” All stories become stories about beginnings.
Parents — self — Child
Corpse — mirror — Corpse
Paradiso — — Diaspora
Frame 24: Andalusia [1-8] = And I lose ya. He says it to the mirror, to the poem, to the lover, to the daughter, to the parents, and we say it along, we can’t help but look—even the birds / have stopped to look at their reflections.
Frame 25: He asks himself—what is the point of all of these language games? Pushing the same buttons repeatedly is sentimentality. What can that statement mean in the face of war, genocide, 9/11?, asks Genghis Khan—Private Eye / Private I.
“This lexical fracturing has something to do with the poet’s minority status in American culture. Not that he’s ever exactly gone in for identity politics; quite the opposite, his cross-grained stance could probably better be referred to by the yet-to-be-defined program that might be called “difference politics.”
“The point is neither to assert the self, which would be redundant, nor to escape it, which is impossible, but to question it, to find out what it is made of—and at minimum, to be “able to tell others / that I am not who they think I am.”
If Yau’s is an identity politics of someone who seems not to believe in persistent identity (W. B. Keckler), it is also complicated by the fact that he has been perceived as not-Chinese because he doesn’t speak it and not-American because he looks Chinese. One’s identity as a poet might provide some workingspace in the triangulated distance between what one is, what one isn’t, and how one is perceived.
Frame 26: In the last lines of “Ing Grish,”
I do not know either English or Chinese and, because of that,
I did not put a headstone at the head of my parent’s graves
as I felt no language mirrored the ones they spoke
For Yau, the struggle to find identity, to self-identify (and denial of identity is the same as struggle to self-identify) is a struggle to find language; thus the restlessness of Yau’s poems, the anagrammatic structure looking to hit on right combinations, the wanderings of an exile.
Frame 27: If the world is made by the combination of things in it and a sense of self is made by combinations of personal facts, knowledge, experience, then is the poem an attempt to compose reality or a reflection of it? It is both. The poem is the diasporan home: language dispersed and resisting dispersal. The old world and the new world, the now world, the head of Orpheus floating downriver.
Frame 28: It’s cliché by now to say so, but 9/11 changed most of us—not because it ended an age of irony as some have ridiculously claimed, and not because it forced us to see more clearly, but because it gave us an urgent desire to see more clearly.
From Yau’s last poem in Paradiso Diaspora, “In the Kingdom of Poetry:”
Don’t write poems
Don’t write about
what is happening in the world…
Whatever happened there
isn’t a poem…
bury your mirrors.
A litany of things a Poetry King might prohibit in a time of increased security measures, things not to do in poems, most if not all of which Yau himself has done, and more often in recent books. Yet under the irony there’s a sense that Yau really does have a distaste for many of these things. Is he uncomfortable with what he’s done? Is this simply irony? Trickster saying one thing, meaning another? Or does he simultaneously both mean it and not? It is redundant to assert the self, impossible to escape it. Of course he means it, and he can’t possibly mean it. If you followed his instructions in this poem, what would be left to write about? The desires engendered by catastrophe can ultimately lead to impossible strictures, the death of freedom, death of imagination (“The only war that matters is the war against the imagination/All other wars are subsumed within it”—Diane DiPrima, “Rant”). Better to embrace one’s “contrarian nature”—do it the way you’re not supposed to, under the radar, incognito, questing, now.
Brian Clements is the author of Disappointed Psalms, poems forthcoming in Summer 2008 from Meritage Press, and of And How to End It, prose poems forthcoming in 2008 from Quale Press. He coordinates the MFA in Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State and edits Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics.