Poet in the House of Frankenstein

John Yau, Borrowed Love Poems. Penguin, 2002. 133 pp. $17.00


One of the most striking things about John Yau's work over the past few years has been his decided turn towards prose. Yau has always been a master of the prose poem, from the magical-realist fables of Corpse and Mirror to the autobiographical feints of "Cenotaph" and "Toy Trucks and Fried Rice." But Yau's last three books-Hawaiian Cowboys (1995), My Symptoms (1998), and My Heart Is That Eternal Rose Tattoo (2001), all from now-defunct Black Sparrow Press-contained no verse at all. Written in voices ranging from a bullied Chinese American boy to a black-wigged New Jersey woman on a date, these morbidly comic texts develop what look suspiciously like plots and characters, raising the alarming thought that one of our most vital and exciting poets might be turning himself into a fiction writer.

It's all the more surprising, then, to open Yau's newest book and find that verse has returned with a vengeance, most often in short poems of spare couplets. In fact, the book's major impulse seems on the surface to be not prosaic but lyric; not just love poems but lullabies, letters, and self-portraits pop up on every other page. Yau's flair for the grotesque image-"pink wrigglers" and a "caravan of carrion" ooze from the lines of these Love Poems-has often obscured the central role of lyric in his work. The disarming simplicity and even vulnerability of early pieces like "Chinese Villanelle" ("What shall I do to tell you all my thoughts / When I have been with you, and thought of you") recur in this new volume's eponymous poems: "What can I do, I have dreamed of you so much / What can I do, lost as I am in the sky."

But Yau's is an unsettling, deceptive lyricism: his "I," as evident from these lines, is composed not of assertions but of questions. Nor is the object of affection any more stable. Yau's opening sequence of "Russian Letters" gives us some of the best apostrophes since "Hypocrite lecteur": Dear Cloakroom Granite, Dear Sfumato Flower, Dear Wind Alone with Your Song. If the fundamental condition of lyric is its desire to evoke an absent object, Yau takes lyric to its extreme, presenting a beloved who is stitched together out of incongruous tropes, less human than mechanical or monstrous: "Are you a soft apparatus / or a mechanical aid." Here, lyric, far from providing a reassuring base of expression, reveals most starkly the instability of subjectivity in Yau's work. "You" and "I" are not human presences but positions demanded by the lyric form. Yet this insight does not sap Yau's love poems of any of their pleasure, or even of their sincerity. The poems read as deeply felt, even if we are never sure precisely who is supposed to be feeling them.

Meanwhile, Yau's distinctive prose pieces have not disappeared; framed by verse, they lurk at the book's center. Yau's lyrics can be understood as a kind of Trojan horse, their almost sentimental surface lowering the reader's guard and allowing Yau's patchwork of disturbing voices to speak with an unlikely intimacy. The prose and verse pieces that make up the book's second section draw from the same fertile ground of popular culture-and Hollywood film in particular-that has animated much of Yau's most provocative work of the past decade. Such public and commodified material might seem to be the strongest possible contrast to the privacy of the love lyric, but Yau's brilliant juxtaposition of these two kinds of poems shows that the same anxieties of identification and authenticity are central to the love poem and the horror flick.

Yau has always prized the campier end of Hollywood's output for its peculiar recombinant ability, which creates absurdly infinite variations on a limited set of materials. His early sequence "Late Night Movies" parodies this process, beginning with a mock-horror premise ("In a small underground laboratory the brain of a / movie actor is replaced by semi-precious stones") and permuting it into something nearly religious ("In a small underground temple the wing of a crow / is replaced by semi-precious stones"). Yau's most distinctive concern, though, has not been with recombinant plots but with hybrid characters, particularly those he calls "Hollywood Asians." In "No One Ever Tried to Kiss Anna May Wong," a poem from the mid-1980s, Yau portrays the Asian American film star of the 1920s and 1930s, typecast as a villain, "annoyed at all the times / she's been told to be scratched, kicked, / slapped, bitten, stabbed, poisoned, and shot." In the 1996 book Forbidden Entries, Yau evokes the character of Mr. Moto, a Charlie Chan-style detective portrayed by Peter Lorre in films of the late 1930s. Yau's adaptation of the problem of identification from personal life to the big screen shows us that identification is always a political question, marked by race and gender. His interest in figures such as Anna May Wong and Mr. Moto suggests a possible link to the concerns of other Asian American writers and critics, many of whom have decried the negative impact of stereotypes of Asians in American popular culture.

But just as Yau's work questions the dominant categories of Asian American writing, particularly its privileging of transparent autobiographical narratives, his take on Hollywood Asians is hardly conventional. Rather than demanding the erasure of a character like Charlie Chan, Yau sees the potential such figures have for disrupting oppressively stable notions of identity, taking perverse pleasure in the fact that both Chan and Mr. Moto were played by white actors. In Yau's poems, actor and mask are constantly contaminating each other, making pure personal, and racial, identifications impossible. Movies, Yau notes in one title from Borrowed Love Poems, are a form of "reincarnation," in which "Boris Karloff Remembers Being Chinese on More Than One Occasion."

In the 1980s Yau began a sequence called "Genghis Chan: Private Eye," parts of which appear in the books leading up to, and including, Borrowed Love Poems. The character "Genghis Chan" is a comic stitching-together of orientalist pop-culture icons, but to powerful effect: the effeminate, "inscrutable" detective Charlie Chan is refigured as a film noir private eye with a warrior's heart. By Borrowed Love Poems, "Genghis Chan" has become a site where Asian stereotypes and pidgin language are recycled and invested with surreal comedy and even lyric pathos:

shoo war
torn talk

ping towel
pong toy

salted sap
yellow credit

hubba doggo
bubba patootie

wig maw
mustard tongue

Popular culture, with its commodified personae and sharply etched racial politics, insinuates itself into the individual psyche with disturbing ease in Yau's work. In "Movies as a Form of Reincarnation," Yau makes the movie actor a creature of negative capability, consisting only of "a vast repertoire of irreplaceable motions and sounds," a projection of the mass audience's desires and fears. But through a curious accretion, this patchwork comes to life, "a shadow that pulled the gestures of others back, until they became mine." The result is a monster for whom autobiography is nightmare-a condition, Yau suggests, that we all share: "Today, sitting at my desk, writing this memoir, at last I am able to ask: Was this not how Fu Manchu and Frankenstein were born? Didn't you, dear reader, dear viewer, not already dream of them?"

If the Hollywood Asian represents the object of desire, "a messiah, a lover, and an enemy all rolled into one hideous corpse," what becomes of the love poem? Haunted by Frankenstein and Fu Manchu, we arrive at the book's final section, "Borrowed Love Poems," unable to read with an innocent eye. Every love poem, like every gesture of a film character, is "borrowed," something Yau signals to us through his repetition of central phrases-"What can I do" and "Lost as I am in the sky"-with villanelle-like regularity. The beloved becomes a monstrous projection, delineated by "the claw marks of those / who proceeded us across this burning floor." But just as a film can wring real emotion from us by combining old tropes in new ways, Yau succeeds in remaining a poet in the house of Frankenstein, creating a provisional yet powerful lyric voice: "I will whisper this in your ear / as if it were a rough draft // something I scribbled on a napkin."


Timothy Yu is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Stanford University, where he is writing a dissertation on politics, race, and form in contemporary American poetry. His essay "Form and Identity in Language Poetry and Asian American Poetry," which discusses John Yau alongside other contemporary poets, appeared in Contemporary Literature in fall 2000.