Borrowed Love Poems
John Yau
Penguin, $17 (paper)

Learn to shirk your duties // with dignity,” commands the speaker of a poem in John Yau’s latest collection,Borrowed Love Poems. If some consider it their poetic duty to whittle a versified meditation aiming for a single philosophical or psychological “truth,” to strive for a direct poetry of witness, or to keep confessional verse afloat, Yau resourcefully shirks these tasks. He chooses instead to dignify linguistic experiments that keep reminding us how slippery language is, how resistant it is to stable contextual framing, and how multiplicity and nomadic mobility characterize contemporary notions of identity. Perhaps because he believes that “everywhere attempts are being made // to lower our capacity for happiness / to the level of termites,” Yau opts for unbridled humor and surrealist abandon as “multiple spirit guides / prisoner with paint / stained tenacity.”

“Genghis Chan: Private Eye,” a long sequence that Yau has pursued in three previous poetry collections, exemplifies his experimental drive. Through the figure of Genghis Chan, ostensibly a composite of Charlie Chan and Genghis Khan, Yau engages in an elaborate send-up of racist representations of Asians, but simultaneous with this parody is investigation of the relationship between looking and identity. The private and public “eye” and “I” appear to be the focus. Borrowed Love Poems includes only two new sections of the ongoing poem, XXIX and XXX, but both are excellent, the first lucidly foregrounding the myriad possible relations between individual words:

Mirror    film    stain 
Gown   tiger    glass 
Canopy   powder    bell 
Mulberry   blister    festival 
Boat    portrait    box 
Vermillion    chestnut    cloud 
Milk     shadow    moon 
Breeze    identical    face 
Ink     ladder    jar

A movie acts as a “mirror,” but “film” is also a synonym for a “stain” or distortion on that “mirror.” Yau juxtaposes other possible images of unfolding and threatened identity. The near-chaos of objects and perceptions, rather than serving as clues for the private eye to solve a mystery, might, instead, only deepen the mystery. Nouns can be placed in apposition to other nouns or juxtaposed to convey contrast. Further, they can sometimes be read as adjectives or verbs. Does “milk” follow (“shadow”) the “moon,” or does a “shadow” of “milk” somehow resemble the “moon”? In the next line, someone might be “breezing” through identification of yet another “face,” or a “breeze” might be seen as “identical” to a “face,” or a “breeze” might be “facing” something. The sandwiching of the adjective “identical” between two nouns/verbs makes identification of a plausible cluster of syntactical units all the more difficult. Using “ink” to climb a “ladder” to understanding repeatedly “jars” the reader, who might wish to arrive at a stable sense of a speaking self but cannot.

In “830 Fireplace Road (2),” named after Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner’s address in the Hamptons, Yau offers a different and equally compelling aspect of his experimentation with syntax. He wrings marvelous changes on Pollock’s explanatory sentence, “I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own”:

No image because painting has a life of its own. 
No “The” because life has a painting of its own, 
its own image changes. Changes painting. 
Image because the painting has. 
Of making the image the because of painting, 
of changes making the image the life of 
   a painting, 
I have no fear. Destroying the fear changes 
the destroying I. I have no fear of destroying 
the image of painting, no fear of making 
no the because of painting, 
of destroying painting. No, etc. 
Painting. I have no fear of its image, its the. 
I have no fear of destroying the no of painting, 
the its of painting, the image of I. 
Because of making, the I has no I.

Staging a vibrant “conversation” without taking sides, Yau juxtaposes a variety of stances about the notion and value of “image” and the relation of “painting” as act to “the [finished] painting.” Some sentences suggest that the expressionist “life” of a “painting” negates the need for a static “image,” and the painterly gestures that “life” produces do not necessitate a hierarchy favoring either the specific or the general (“No ‘The’”), whereas other sentences assert that “the image” is the raison d’être or unifying force of “painting” and/or “the painting,” one that, as Pollock claimed, is in no danger of obliteration. Further, at different points, the “I” is a destroyer, an expressionist self apparently in the process of self-revelation, and a negated subject in the dispersing act of painting. The poem ends: “The destroying I of the image, the I of because. / I own no I. I own no painting.” Selves may be borrowed by the ever-changing individual, but ownership is an illusion; what does not exist in any essential, unchanging sense (“no I”) cannot be represented (“no painting”).

Another way in which Yau explores the slipperiness of identity is through a longstanding critical fascination with the shifty figures of Hollywood, especially in relation to the representation of race. Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff are the main focus in the “movie poems” that comprise the second section of Borrowed Love Poems. The twelve-paragraph prose poem “Movies as a Form of Reincarnation,” subtitled “Boris Karloff Remembers Being Chinese on More Than One Occasion,” is the soliloquy of a race-shifting “pretender” whose “peril,” not quite “yellow,” lies in his enduring subversion of the “natural,” fixed assignment of race and/or ethnicity to an individual: “This is why I am still among you, a kind of peril whose color you might think you know, but are no longer so quick and willing to say.” The spectators may see the protean actor as someone alien to their own sense of identity, but he challenges this error:

They think of me as an idiot, a fool, some disheveled thing rather than one of them. And when they tilt toward me, act as if attention is all they possess, my life story is but an interlude, a moment in which to slap the table and howl. It is time to mimic my every gesture, to repeat my every halting word. I have become the shadow they shadow, that is their daily delight.

When the text speaks of what the “moment” dictates and how “it is time” to practice mimicry, one may assume that the group of spectators are about to do so, but it is equally possible that the actor himself is set to repeat the character’s “every gesture” in an act of self-conscious self-division. In turn, spellbound in trying to “follow” this reiteration, the audience members become “shadows” of the actor’s mere “shadow”-self. As a member of the audience, the poet is fascinated by the inability to follow. “Peter Lorre Records His Favorite Walt Whitman Poem for Posterity” speaks of the performative self as “indigestible vapor rising from the dictionary / you sweep under your embroidered pillow.” Amidst a culture that continues to marginalize people of color, Yau teaches his readers to value the subversive potential of this “vapor’s” “indigestibility.”

Like the Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff poems, “Borrowed Love Poems,” a single sequence (in couplets, consisting of ten parts) that forms the concluding section of the book, illustrates the book’s paradoxical epigraph from Osip Mandelstam: “What I am saying at this moment is not being said by me.” Notions of self-division in the title of the sequence may suggest that the original force of passion in sincere, everyday utterances to real people is often diluted in the appropriative actions of collage. However, even if Yau thought of all the words himself, in a sense they are still borrowed, since many conventions have constrained how lovers can speak. Nevertheless, whatever “borrowing” does not lead to a flattening of affect. Both delicate and fierce, the poem is full of pathos, as motifs of lamented distance, anxieties about depletion, fragrant dreams, and delightful or frightening collision come and go. The oft-used anaphora, “What can I do,” speaks to a sense of hopelessness, but the impossibility of unity with the beloved is never quite sealed. Section 2 conveys the impression of missed opportunity, as well as the frequent inability of language to hit its referential target or to provide emotional sustenance:

What can I do, all the years that we talked 
And I was afraid to want more 

What can I do, now that these hours 
belong neither to you nor me 

Lost as I am in the sky 
What can I do, now that I cannot find 

the words I need 
when your hair is mine 

now that there is no time to sleep 
now that your name is not enough

“Lost as I am in the sky” might signify the living poet’s awareness of a future time when he is dead and the beloved still alive, or it might indicate how his pursuit of an aesthetic sublime precludes the fullest contact with the person addressed. Either way, the clause about his “possession” of the beloved’s “hair” makes it more difficult to pin down an already elusive passage. Does the speaker “have” the other sexually, or “own” an image of her in memory or present consciousness, or is he representing a state beyond earthly existence where all physical signs of identity among the deceased are irrelevant and hence interchangeable?

In section 8 Yau provides surrealist lyricism in the hope that its enigmatic force may “infiltrate” the “walls” of communication between the lovers and challenge how the “world” is “obedient” to fruitless strictures:

What can I do, I never believed happiness 
could be premeditated 

What can I do, having argued with the obedient 
that language will infiltrate its walls 
What can I do, now that I have sent you 
a necklace of dead dried bees 

and now that I want to 
be like the necklace 

and turn flowers into red candles 
pouring from the sun

Perhaps the necklace that can hardly be worn is a trope for a poem of pieces of “borrowed” discourse strung together. Thus, the poet desires to make a miraculous source of energy out of “dead” materials and living emotions in order to illuminate love’s potential. In no way of course can art domesticate this energy or entire histories of amorous struggle, and the violent imagery at the end of the inventive appropriator’s poem makes no concession to the desire for permanent comfort: “What can I do, / I who never invented anything // and who dreamed of you so much / I was amazed to discover // the claw marks of those / who preceded us across this burning floor.”

“Russian Letter,” the book’s opening poem, asserts with some restraint: “It is said, someone // cannot change / the clothes // in which / their soul // was born. / I, however, // would not / go so far.” Among the contemporary poets who continually change linguistic “clothing” to demonstrate that selves are multiple, fluid, and contestable, too many are suffocatingly grim and monotonous about their mission. In contrast, Yau’s variety of aesthetic strategies, his sense of fun, his image-making capacity, and his ability to achieve subtle and dramatic modulations in tone suggest that the notion of the instability of selves is not an invitation to hopelessness or despair but an opportunity for dynamic pleasure and, often, a liberation from burdensome constraints.