I Used to be Epic Spittle

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It’s the project of the impossible, then, that makes Yau’s new collection so provocative and provoking, so worth reading, even for a reader’s or poet’s temperament that might be different from Yau’s.

John Yau’s Further Adventures in Monochrome offers a hip, worldly, and intelligent celebration of language and art. Words and images are brought together to form wry, insightful poems about ethnicity and cultural identity. At the same time, the book can be said to merely rehearse, once again, the lessons deconstruction and language poetry taught decades ago—that language and therefore poetry is not to be trusted because language cannot accurately represent experience or anything “outside” the various discourses that produce it.

If you’re thus skeptical about the intimate, autobiographical or narratively stable poem, then you’ll enjoy reading Yau’s latest collection, including a poem such as “Confessions of a Recycled Shopping Bag”:

I used to be a plastic bottle
I used to be scads of masticated waddle
I used to be epic spittle, AKA septic piddle
I used to be a pleasant colleague
I used to be a radiant ingredient
I used to be a purple polyethylene pony
I used to be a phony upload project
I used to be a stony blue inhalant
I used to be a family size turquoise bottle
I used to be a domesticated pink bubble
I used to be a pleasant red colleague
I used to be a beaming cobalt emollient
I used to be a convenient chartreuse antidepressant

“Confessions of a Recycled Shopping Bag” isn’t artful; it seems hastily put together. Or maybe it’s too artful. In other words, the poem presents a string of words without meaning or substance. The poem offers nothing for readers to remember, think about, feel, or walk away with. But maybe that’s the point of the poem and the rest of the book: to continue the report on our 9/11 malaise and the supposedly suffering 99 percent who are still at wits end and powerless in the face of global capitalism and its effects on middle class Americans.

As the speaker in “Day’s Instruments” suggests, language is exhausted, as are language users who have almost been destroyed by it:

We took the words we were given, severed earthworms,
jumping and twisting in our hands, clouds of red dust
extruding from their skin, yes, we took these words,
gulped them down, knowing they were not ours,
and used them. This way and that way,
we used the words we were given,
words we were told no longer held meaning,
their surfaces porous, their sides cracked open,
and we poured what we could from them,
over our heads set on fire, our feet
sticking up from the mud.

The “we” here (presumably Chinese-American artists and others who try to make a place for art and beauty in their lives) are stuck, but not completely, not entirely, for at same time, and as the book unfolds, Yau seems to insist that art can and will save the day.

Appearing as the last section of the book, for example, the brilliant fifteen-part poem “Further Adventures in Monochrome” offers a counter-practice to literalism or literal-minded ways of looking at and inhabiting the world that have caused our different forms of personal and cultural exhaustion. The poem, a kind of collage written in chunks of lyric, prose, and meditation pays tribute to, almost seems to channel, Yves Klein, the painter, sculptor, and performance artist associated with 1960s New Realism. Like Klein himself, who thought about things like air and the immaterial, the non-referential, Yau does the same. With and through Klein, he insists that we think about assumptions we make about art and what it should do:

I dwell in possibility, Emily Dickinson
I dwell in impossibility, Yves Klein

You should understand that I did not want you to read
a painting. I wanted you to bathe in it before words
domesticated the experience, and you turned to such stand-
bys as “illumination” and “transcendent” to describe what
happened to you. Painting should not be sentenced to

Painting is COLOR, I yelled at my first champion and
biggest supporter. COLOR banishes words from its
domain. When you read a painting, you turn it into
language, but there is so much that cannot be turned into
language that each of us experiences every day.

Red shadows leak out of rusting cars and collapsed bridges.
Green smoke rises from behind horizons and rooftops.
The spectrum of your mother’s voice the last time she
spoke to you.

As circular and impractical as it appears, understanding art—painting, poetry—
necessitates leaping into the invisible and silent spaces of the imagination that art hopes to reveal but never fully can. We must try to move beyond “the dimensions by which we are bound to the earth.” Even though we can’t, we must try to attain “the impossible.” It’s the project of the impossible, then, that makes Yau’s new collection so provocative and provoking, so worth reading, even for a reader’s or poet’s temperament that might be different from Yau’s.

Jim Zukowski’s poems have appeared in Nimrod, Northwest Review, Provincetown Arts, and other journals. He has recently completed work on his first manuscript, The Vanisher. More from this author →