Sunday, May 19, 2019


The Aquarium
poems by Jeffrey Yang

The book's conceit, an appealing one, is to write a series of poems on the fish and other ocean creatures one would come across in an aquarium, in alphabetical order. It's a sort of involute indexing of whims and amusements that would soon get ragged with repetition in heavier hands, but Yang's touch is light and varies his approach, creature to creature, and what his musings land on, of course, are continued inquiry into how we know the world.

We mirror, we model, we mimic, we claim credit for all the nobility that happens in domains that are, in fact, alien to our cities, countries and cultural ambiguities that Yang has the pleasure of gentle yanking our chain. As usual, the real issue isn't so much the wonders of sea life as exhibited--and the phrase ''exhibited underscores the problematic nature with which human languages address the external world as if it depended on our giving it narration--as it is something else altogether.
There is great appeal in the work of poets who can artfully contain a series of ideas in a brief piece of verse, the goal is to turn philosophical precepts into the glittering surface of a poem’s allure and still address an issue quite beyond the more comfortable subjects of beauty or an aesthetically constrained idea of Truth, capital “T”. Jeffrey Yang’s first collection, An Aquarium (Graywolf Press) is a series of poems that at first seem like they concern themselves exclusively with ocean life; indeed they do, but the author is shrewd in seeing what other areas, outside the aquarium tank, these creatures touch upon. Yang offers up a view on how we think about things. Here, in the poem" Parrotfish", the creature is nearly lost as the poems start like the first sentence of an encyclopedia entry and quickly turns into a bit of cocktail chatter seeming between artists, secret agents, and critics, all of whom sacrifice the subject in favor of extending their rhetorical devices.

The life phases of a parrotfish
are expressed in colors.By day,
the parrotfish replenishes coral reef
sands, and by night spins
its mucous cocooned-
room. Is this art's archetype
abstracted from politics?
Picasso thought abstraction a cul-de-
sac. The CIA loved Abstract
Expressionism. Hockney: "I
don't think that there is really such a thing
as abstraction." Langer:"All genuine art
is abstract."
What do you think parrot-

I think the aim is to undermine the insidious intent of rhetorical questions that frame ready-made political assumptions. The question in "Is this art's archetype abstracted from politics" forces agreement from the reader through it's a disingenuous appeal to a person's vanity, from which an argument may be made for agendas that have little to with art, parrot fish, or life in general. This is the use of language that treats the things in nature as if they were symbols, real or potential, for great oppositions at war in an unseen metaphysical realm.

Yang seems aware that there is a very human tendency to regard the world outside our senses as though it were a linear narrative being played out, with virtues reducible to good v evil, beauty v vulgarity, honesty v criminal intent being the principle extremes in play. The narrative form, the storyline, is a convenient way of making the raw experience comprehensible, but taking a cue from Heidegger's work in phenomenology, Yang would have us be aware that the parrot fish and its environmental niche are not abstractions of anything but rather expressions of their own life. "Back to the data", as the man said and, in the choice phrase of the confounding Ezra Pound ," the natural object is already the adequate symbol".

He follows the erring assumptions to an unusual but logical conclusion: the symbol of beauty and abstraction must surely be brilliant intellectually, and so must, by default, have an opinion of the matter. He places us in witness to an absurdity: intelligent men, seduced by their nuanced sophistry, asking a fish for an informed opinion. Yang seems to me to be making fun of the way we call things either "beautiful" or "abstract"; for all the sophisticated and nuanced reasons critics, theologians and agents of intrigue approach the subject, the competing philosophies all fall short, far short of articulating something truly tangible. The irony is that the embodiment of all this speculation, the lexicon-heavy guesswork to a thing's essence, is not aware that it is beautiful, abstract, or is somehow an embodiment of a set of ideas that are meant to change the world. The parrot fish isn't even aware that it's a parrot fish, which is entirely the point--it is too busy being part of the rest of the underworld. Unlike human beings, who are continually trying to separate themselves from nature so that they may subjugate it a little more

Thrive as we might, we are lost in our self-consciousness and cherish the sort of autonomy one might perceive in the creatures swimming their currents, inhabiting their niches, living survival and death in the same fluttering of a gill. But beyond this, Yang streamlines his erudition--these aren't lectures, these are lyrics that are broadened or collapsed as the idea determines. An admirable effort by a writer with a composer's ability to embrace the ambiguity of form with a coherence of flow.

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