Monday, December 22, 2008

Aquarium

Go read my old friend Jeffrey's poems in his first collection, Aquarium. The New York Times Book Review, by Karl Kirchwey, was a rave:

Here is a first book written from a very high floor of the Tower of Babel, and the view is exhilarating. Not since D. H. Lawrence’s “Birds, Beasts and Flowers!” or the bestiary written by Kenneth Rexroth for his daughters has a poet wrung so much human meaning from the natural world. But whereas Lawrence is discursively tender, and Rexroth wry and epigrammatically clever, Jeffrey Yang speaks in tongues as if touched with a Pentecostal flame. He leads the reader through a net of allusions in poems barnacled with hard words. A typical Yang poem begins with the title “Oarfish”; traces it to the abode of humans called Midgard in Norse myth; invokes the ourobouros, the serpent devouring its own tail in a symbol of infinity; quotes the 19th-century American artist Elihu Vedder, the Baroque religious scholar Sor Juana and Lawrence’s poem “Fish”; glances at the Homeric word “oarismos” (roughly, “pillow talk”); and ends with guanine, a chemical that codes genetic information and also a substance found in fish scales. Nonetheless, as Ezra Pound would say, it all coheres — not just in art but in life. Yang is an editor at New Directions, which has published Rexroth, who edited a collection of D. H. Lawrence’s poems (and, like Yang, translated Chinese poetry). In fact, a fragment of Pound’s own Canto 36 is quoted by Yang, who is “testing the overtones” of language and history by means of a collage of brilliant fragments just as his master did, exploring the “divine quiddity” of the world.

Compounding his ingenuities, Yang has also arranged the poems in this book as an abecedary, proceeding from A (“Aba­lone”) through to Z (“Zooxanthellae”). What might feel like a gimmick instead leaves the reader dazzled at Yang’s polymathic knowledge: dazzled, but not threatened, since the advent of Google means that allusiveness in poetry is no longer the challenge it used to be. In any case, as one ancient master tells us, “What people / know is inferior to what they do not know.” Yang writes with a keen ear for the sound of language; indeed, his poems’ openings sometimes seem like verbal spasms, before they smooth into grammar: “Abalone Rumsen aul√≥n / Aristotle auriform Costanoans / cultivated, Brueghel painted, / awabi Osahi dove for / on September 12, 425 A.D.” Subject, verb and object resolve only gradually out of such a music. These poems are concerned with translation and with metaphor, both of which involve a “carrying across” from the natural into the human world; from the past into the present; from one language or civilization into another. Often they use the mousetrap form of the epigram, sudden and pleasing: “The barnacle has the longest penis / of any animal in proportion / to its body size. Happiness / and proportion: / never be ashamed of evolution.” Modesty figures among the lessons to be learned from nature, too; and honesty; and patience. And the poetic vehicle for these lessons is capable of great delicacy. A poem describing a kind of tetra, the familiar aquarium fish, reads in its entirety: “You can see straight thru / an X-ray fish to its heart. / We are just as transparent / so be true, gentle, honest, just. . . .”

Accordingly, politicians are at one end of the moral spectrum for Yang, and our genetic near-neighbors the dolphin and the manatee are at the other. For in addition to its other strengths — so considerable that they may distract the reader from its most important accomplishment — this is a moral book, in the best sense of the word. “Philosophy’s shadow: poetry. Poetry’s / shadow: philosophy,” Yang writes. And chief among nature’s lessons, it seems, is that of symbiosis or “mutualism,” exemplified by the type of algae that gives its name to the book’s final poem. Zooxanthellae live in tropical seas, dependent upon coral but also benefiting it. In this poem, the lines of which change progressively into prose as if under the torque of outrage, the peacefulness of such a coexistence is juxtaposed with the coldbloodedness of those American scientists and soldiers who first uprooted certain Pacific islanders, then destroyed their atolls in increasingly devastating nuclear tests and finally returned to their desolation to sample the extent of nuclear poisoning. “Mutualism” thus becomes a foil for the absolute corruption of natural instinct, which is more characteristically human. In fact the lesson is more complicated than this: the algae described are dino­flagellates; their presence in high concentrations in the flesh of fish causes sickness in the humans who eat it. The partners in symbiosis are not neutral, as Yang notes in an earlier poem: “Some causes / are invisible to the naked eye. / Strive for equilibrium / rather than neutrality.”

This poet is obsessive, as was the 17th-century English writer and physician Sir Thomas Browne, who tried to reconcile science and religion, and who believed he read numbers and lessons in nature that were of significance to humans. Browne has the last word in this book, in a concluding epigraph that reads in part: “Thus there is something in us that can be without us and will be after us.” He could have been describing an isotope of uranium — or just good poetry, which is what Jeffrey Yang has delivered in this book.

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