The two words in the title of John Yau's latest collection, Paradiso Diaspora, are anagrams. The title creates multiple meanings: The book is as much about Yau's own diaspora into the ironic paradise of America as it is about the dispersal of paradise like water spewed from a sprinkler.
Born in New York, Yau's father was Chinese and English. When Yau's father returned to China before the Communist Revolution, he married Yau's mother, Jane Chang, who came from a well-to-do Shanghai family and spoke Mandarin. The Yaus emigrated from China to Massachusetts. Isolated from China by the Communists, and in turn isolated from mainstream Americans (as immigrants often are) and from Chinese Americans (by dialect), Jane Yau was unable to adjust to life in America. She raised her son John, born in 1950, in a household that spoke Chinese but never taught him the language.
Isolated as an American at home, isolated as Chinese in school, Yau became a poet and art critic. After studying with John Ashbery in New York, Yau published his first book in 1979, Sometimes. He has since published art criticism about such contemporary artists as Jasper Johns, Ed Moses, and Andy Warhol, as well as poetry and short fiction. He has published more than 30 books.
Yau is well known among people who think about such things as the difference between poetry and prose. He has perfected a fluid blend of prose and poetry in books such as 1998's My Symptoms or the more conventional short stories collected in 1995's Hawaiian Cowboys. His last two books, Ing Grish and Paradiso Diaspora, contain formal poems (such as sestinas and sonnets) as well as free verse and prose. Read aloud, Yau's work can be difficult to distinguish from prose. I make the distinction simply by checking to see if the work has line breaks. Line breaks = poetry. But this is the kind of discussion that, among poets, can quickly devolve into the sort of drunken violence associated with World Cup riots, so let it rest.
In Paradiso Diaspora there are monologues, confessions from the point of view of dolls, and a letter to Yau from a month-old daughter. The last poem, "In the Kingdom of Poetry," serves as the rules of engagement. The work is based on a poem by Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. It begins, "Don't write poems/about yourself."
The pattern left by wood termites is lovely because there is an order related to the necessity of bugs chewing wood. The practical contraptions of Paradiso Diaspora find a similar organic form. Where the poem begins to function as a confession, the internal structure disables this, finding an order related to the chewing of language rather than filling in the confession. In "Conversation After Midnight," an address to the poet by his one-month-old daughter, the poem begins to find a didactic sense: "I am the poem/you need to write to and for/the one that isn't the one/but one of the ones you might/step out from flickering skyline of transparent shadows." But the moral is undercut by the heckling personae of the one-month-old daughter: "And hey mister whoever you are/you better quit/calling me/Pipalotti Poopsalot/Starvin' Marvin/Crusty Punkin and Kid/I gotta name/Why doncha use it."
Yau has replaced himself with the stuff that represents him in the way that artificial cherry flavor tastes more like cherry than the tiny speckled fruit pulled from trees. Technology (poetry and the alphabet) has replaced the person Yau with something more human than his flesh and breath. "Your Cyborg" is a sequence that could only be thought by a person: "Your cyborg with the histamine of a chanteuse and an arthropod/with whopping shale plutocrats and their insincere penises." These are chaotic, jammed-together phrases. They are the result of a mind captured in thought. "Someone in the greeting card business," Yau writes, "has already covered these topics." Whatever you call his work, this is not a book of greeting cards. It is a book of exciting gaps and beautiful contradictions.
John Yau reads at Rendezvous Jewel Box Theater (2322 Second Ave, 441-5823) on Thurs July 13, 7:30 pm, free.