Jane Yeh
Carcanet, $11.95 (paper)

“A natural / Craver of attention” and “A professional moaner,” Jane Yeh announces herself as a bold, seductively moody practitioner of the dramatic monologue in Marabou, her impressive first book. Yeh’s poetic acumen ensures that these poems—abounding with historical and imaginary characters, from Anne of Austria to a teen spy and rare ceramics—focus not on the eccentricity of their subject matter but on the dilemma of creating a voice. The self-described “disappearing girl” of “The Pre-Raphaelites” asks “Why am I, why am I caught / In the hinge of this world . . .?” while a shoemaker coyly explains himself, “if I am, on occasion, a touch / Temperamental it might be because I was kitted-out / For frivolity.” Readers will experience something akin to vertigo in Yeh’s audacious enjambments, which, in their sudden swerving, adds another jolt to her verbal intensity. What becomes clear in Marabou is that artifice, linguistic or otherwise, appears at first to shape identity but in the end reveals it to be radically mutable. This has insidious consequences, as is evident in the ambitious “Substitution,” which charts the uneasy transference of power from master to slave. Yeh balances cleverness (“the Usurper’s signature scent, Hypnosis”) with the unsettling: “Eventually I could not be distinguished from the Usurper. The way to tell us apart // Is that she is evil and smiles only at her slaves. Also the way to tell us apart // Is that she is controller of the slaves, which is what I should rightfully be.” Throughout Marabou Yeh’s speakers resist who they “should rightfully be” and slyly acknowledge that the poetic I is more limitless than limiting. But if Yeh’s masterful ventriloquism often suggests the liberty and thrill of inhabiting multiple identities, “Substitution” coolly reminds us that the differencing work of impersonation might ultimately highlight the fungibility of identities, an idea exploited by those who seek simultaneously to reinforce identity and to render difference and particularity irrelevant.