Some disclosures: Have not met Yeh in person, have spoken online a few times, mostly about cats. Usual caveats: I’m a middle-class cis white man and my readings are informed by how British (poetry) culture works to centralise the subject position I occupy. As such, I’m poorly placed to understand the nuances regarding gender, race, and other social factors in Yeh’s work. I’m indebted to Muireann Crowley and Peter Mackay for their editing work on this essay. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy.
* * *
“The Brighton Pavilion does not feature a pillar of columns and has never collapsed” – note to ‘Blue China’, Marabou (2005).
Jane Yeh’s oeuvre is uncommonly compact. As the publishing industry demands consistent output, and new collections routinely reach a hundred pages or more, Yeh’s three books – Marabou (2005), The Niinjas (2012), and Discipline (2019) – consist of just one hundred and seven poems combined, most of them brief. This is favourable for a critic: the poems very rarely deviate in quality, and recurrent themes and motifs are relatively pronounced. The most salient include: dramatic monologues, often with anthropomorphic narrators; heavily end-stopped, declarative sentences; the vocabulary of genre fiction, particularly detective/thriller/horror novels; ekphrasis of both ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms; dry humour, often about the narrator’s solitude or social inadequacies.
Raised in New Jersey, Yeh studied at Harvard and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and was a poetry reviewer for The Village Voice in New York, before crossing the Atlantic to study creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. Marabou was published in 2005, the same year Bernardine Evaristo’s Free Verse Report found that fewer than 1% of poetry collections in these islands were written by Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) poets. Marabou was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection (the first BAME poet to do so since Kwame Dawes in 1994) and for the Costa Poetry Prize (the first BAME poet to do so in the prize’s history). At the time, critics William Wootten (in the TLS) and Thomas Day (in the Cambridge Quarterly) praised the collection, though both noted the ‘impersonality’ of the poems in Marabou, that ‘you can’t tell much about Yeh’s personal circumstances from her poems’; both reviews worry at the degree to which the biographical Yeh may be identified among the poems’ masks. Marabou, in its American aesthetic lineage – Yeh has cited Lucie Brock-Broido, Stephanie Burt, and Amy Woolard as major influences – and in context with the overwhelming whiteness of mid-aughts British poetry, was something of an outlier.
More recent readers have noted the unique textures of Yeh’s poems, their multifarious provenances: Sarah Howe has compared them to ‘snowglobes’ and ‘dioramas’; Rachael Allen to ‘miniature fictions’; Edwina Attlee describes them as ‘stagey, but complete, like a Joseph Cornell shadow box’. In each case, the reader gains purchase on Yeh’s poetry through qualities not native to the medium; specifically in terms of self-containment and exactness, with notes of a dream-like, constructed, three-dimensional elsewhere. Yeh herself has spoken of how her aesthetic priorities lean more toward those of popular culture than, implicitly, high art; in conversation with Natalya Anderson, she explains:
‘I guess you can say what I do is a kind of escapism. […] I view my poems as a kind of entertainment. Of course, entertainment or being entertaining doesn’t preclude serious thoughts or issues. […] It’s kind of about the power of art and imagination as an escape from the awfulness of the world, temporarily, and how valuable that can be.’
Throughout the interview, Yeh deflates or deflects Anderson’s queries about her work and personal history: asked whether she was drawn to poetry for its emotional intensity, she responds, ‘Partly, but also the brevity of it’; asked if growing up in New Jersey informs her writing: ‘It doesn’t much really’; What is it about the imagined world that attracts you? ‘Partly it’s just fun’. This casual off-handedness feels consistent with Yeh’s desire to leave her work open to interpretation. While discussing with Sarah Howe the preponderance of dramatic personae in her work, Yeh argues:
‘I’m not thinking “this ghost represents the fear of the dead”, I’m just instinctively drawn to writing about different subjects. If you were a critic or something you could come up with things that are common to them, maybe.’
I don’t think she is being facetious here; Yeh is a perceptive and precise critic herself. If her poems are miniature dramas, they emphasise the playfulness of plays; so long as the reader’s experience or pleasure has been accounted for, the critic may make of it what they will. Yeh’s long and eclectic career as a reviewer on both sides of the Atlantic have put these principles into action. In a largely enthusiastic review of Rishi Dastidar’s Ticker-tape she argues that the title poem’s ‘repetitive excess and opacity are clearly intentional, but it’s uncertain to what end’; of Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, Yeh notes that the book’s persistent ‘cartoonish kookiness feels more calculated than playful, too often to no end.’ Yeh is far from opposed to what is wild and ambitious: she seems to value Dastidar’s idiosyncrasies, naming them ‘linguistically daring and formally inventive’, and ‘clever, restless, playful’. ‘Excess’, even ‘kookiness’, are perfectly valid aesthetic strategies, right up to the point at which they no longer serve the book’s purposes. Though Yeh never explicitly draws this boundary, it might be when the poet appears to be having more fun than the reader: a line falls between an invitation to share in a poem’s hyperreality, emotional intensity and unpredictable play, and a poem losing its way in the attempt.
In an interview with New Welsh Review, Yeh praises Oscar Wilde’s essay The Truth of the Mask, in which Wilde articulates the value of costumes in Shakespeare’s plays as a means of conveying the complex emotional situations of his characters, as in Hamlet’s black suit, Macbeth’s nightgown, or Prospero shedding his enchanter’s robes. Wilde argues that costume deeply informs not only how a character appears, but how they move, how they take up space, even how they behave: Wilde’s assertion that ‘until an actor is at home in his dress, he is not at home in his part’, applies to more than the theatrical. As this study of her three collections will explore, Jane Yeh’s poetry takes these principles to heart: no matter how outlandish the persona, there is always the sense it has been wholly inhabited. By giving herself a mask, she gives the reader the truth.
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This tension between the drive for a poem to revel in linguistic play and for the poem to provide a purposeful and apparent effect for the reader animates the second poem in Marabou, ‘Double Wedding, 1615’. The poem is an exploration of the wedding day of King Louis XIII of France and King Philip IV of Spain to each other’s sisters, Anne of Austria and Isabella of Bourbon. On a first reading the reader might assume the royal narrator is employing the first-person plural, but as the poem continues it becomes impossible to tell whether the speaker is Anne, Isabella, or both: the erasures of self they suffer in the name of statecraft are integral to the poem’s functioning. The narrator(s) relate(s) how:
‘We are wired
For great things and small movements, hooped
To glide like gigantic orchids, full-
Blown, slow-footed, and deliberate
In error. Afterwards we will bear the strange marks
Of another house, gold arms on a gold collar’
As an English Literature postgrad, I have been primed to read ‘small movements’, ‘slow-footed’ and ‘strange marks’ as self-reflexively literary, commenting on the operations of the poem as much as the subject matter. Being ‘deliberate / In error’ may speak to an artist’s anxiety about trusting their work to the good faith of ‘another house’; the strictures suffered by the narrator, her pearls ‘fitted just the length / To choke us’, may be consistent with how Yeh figures the tension between poetic form and poetic freedom. Yet this is, at best, set dressing to the poem’s central concern, its expression of the narrator’s interiority. The poem is less interested in royalty as a social or governmental phenomenon, and more in the stark contrast between its extravagant frippery and the crushing sadness of its participants:
‘This day will slip from us
Shedding marquisette, point d’esprit, zibeline, trailing
Taffeta and broché behind it;’
The following lines, running headlong to the poem’s conclusion, offer an explicit description of grief for the speaker’s lost self:
‘it will leave us bare-
Handed and desperate to remember what we were
Before it, and it will take everything we have
To recollect what we wore when we walked
The length of the nave without stopping, how we kept
Our eyes straight and unturning until it was over.’
The touch of parody earlier in the poem, in which the princesses ‘glide[d] like gigantic orchids’, is a distant memory: there is little to soften the blow of those last lines, the trauma of denied selfhood. Yeh’s poetry has rarely, if ever, returned to such a demonstrably bleak emotional space, but it feels significant that ‘Double Wedding, 1615’ sits so prominently in her first collection, that it depicts so vividly that ‘awfulness of the world’ from which one might seek, and often fail, to escape.
The isolation suffered by the narrator of ‘Double Wedding, 1615’ is one of the more conventional approaches to the subject in the book. ‘Monster’, for example, is narrated by a figure who begins as a Bride of Frankenstein-esque cryptid, ‘singled out by fate / To become a creature that lives in the dark alone’. The poem gradually shifts from the monster’s lair to the movie industry that demands such horrors become grist for their mill, the narrator predicting their coming ‘back in business / Back with bells on, back spitfire, back sharp’. The poem concludes at the intersection of the monster’s seduction of their unsuspecting victim, and a movie star’s sprezzatura: ‘They’re calling, they’re calling for overtures and beginners– // Flashbulbs everywhere, my dear. Won’t you lead me in?’ Unlike most of Yeh’s personae, the ‘Monster’ seems to have a way out of their solitude, perhaps out of the poem, as their final question offers an open hand toward the reader. It’s a gesture that few of Yeh’s poems perform so explicitly, and there’s reason to suspect the narrator’s confidence is on shakier ground than it appears: the lines before these are ‘I have been glamorous, / But not for long enough’, and the shift from shadowy lurker to blockbuster seems abrupt. That the Monster’s fashion sense, their ‘marabou / Blonde’ hairdo, gives rise to the collection’s title perhaps calls attention to its superficiality. The question of where the ‘true’ self is located, and whether this self may be substantially changed by the successful adoption of an outward persona, is left unresolved in the poem’s final, glamorous, question mark.
Perhaps the most fascinatingly weird of Yeh’s narrators, however, declares their strangeness more subtly in ‘Vesuvius (In the Priests’ Quarters)’. Taking the storied cataclysm as its backdrop, the speaker is calm and measured throughout, admiring with tactile intensity the sleepwear of their priestly order:
‘I always loved how they spread themselves,
Armless and headless,
[…] that perfect stillness of things
Dropped from a great height.’
Their sandals, meanwhile, are ‘soft / Brown mouths, open and dumb as those / Of oxen’. The heavy meter here is lulling, gentle, but its observations clinically cold: the chilling comparison of leather footwear to animals often killed to make that leather is totally at odds with the line’s soft aural texture. This disconnect between tone and content reaches a peak at the poem’s conclusion:
‘We were kneeling
When it hit. Through the window
I saw its hand and when the others ran
I stood, walked the row
Putting on each pair of sandals, pulling
One crackling cloth over my head after another.’
The ‘others’ are no less doomed, but the narrator’s calm indulgence in sensory pleasure in the face of sudden death is difficult to process: their abandonment of ceremony feels inspiring, brave, and slightly creepy: has the priest been waiting for this moment, in which personal boundaries no longer preclude them from trying on their colleagues’ clothes? The priest’s last thoughts are not of their imminent afterlife, and perhaps the priest’s unwavering faith in the sensory world gives rise to their vivid description of the ash cloud as a ‘hand’. Though the plain gowns are a far cry from the whalebone corsets of ‘Double Wedding, 1615’, they both act as anchors for the poems’ narrators in the face of existential crisis.
Like many poems in Marabou, ‘Double Wedding, 1615’ and ‘Vesuvius (In the Priests’ Quarters)’ sit at a crucial moment in which one era passes into another; these transitions are often imagined in the idiom of luxury and royalty. ‘France, 1919’ sees communist Chinese students both repulsed and fascinated by the long-deposed glories of Versailles; ‘Portrait at Windsor’ is in the voice of a four-hundred-year-old painting as it is destroyed by fire; in ‘Parliament of Fowls’ the eponymous flock ‘speeds over continents’, taking in the palaces of Westminster and Chartres, relishing their prophecy that ‘Your century is over’. The word ‘Marabou’ is itself something of a relic; eighteenth-century in origin, it refers to the use of feathers in the trimming of dresses and hats, and had its most recent heyday in movie star fashion of the 1960s. Its sole appearance in the book is almost incidental, in the glitzy vernacular of ‘Monster’:
‘I am coming back, back
With a trash artist’s vengeance, hieratic in eyeliner, marabou
Blonde, black like an automatic
The passage through the collection of both word and sartorial tradition from royalty to femme fatale, the fluidity between the worlds of ‘high’ art and ‘low’ culture, embodies Yeh’s aesthetics in miniature: aristocratic excess cannot survive isolated from the world at large, and ‘trash art’ is no less worthy a resource for poetry than the portraits of Velásquez. These principles come increasingly to the fore in Yeh’s subsequent collections.
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The Ninjas (2012) features numerous interlinked poems. The last line from ‘The Windham Sisters II’ (a continuation of ‘The Windham Sisters (After Sargent)’ earlier in the book) is the first line of ‘The Lilies’, which itself is spookily doubled in ‘The Night-Lily’. The birds from ‘The Birds’ have ‘heads the size of dolls’ heads’ and eat gingerbread from witches’ houses; the witches in ‘The Witches’, ‘don’t want to kill all the birds, just the ones the size of dolls’ beds’; ‘Sequel to ‘The Witches’’ is narrated by an operative sent by the birds to infiltrate the witches’ coven. The book is full of these breadcrumb trails, which seem to carry little significance beyond the fact that they exist. Maybe this is an indication that the book’s various narrators operate in a single extended universe; maybe it’s only appropriate that, in a book full of mythical creatures and secret societies, The Ninjas moonlights as a codebook for amateur sleuths (there is, after all, more than one way to make a book of poems entertaining).
Though many pop cultural tropes and motifs are present in Yeh’s work, few archetypes appear so frequently as the detective, and nowhere so densely as in The Ninjas. Some detectives are explicitly identified as such, as in the multiple appearances of Sherlock Holmes, but it’s notable how many of the speakers in The Ninjas decipher social codes or are in the act of pursuing the truth about themselves. The android from ‘On Being an Android’, for example, seems to have been investigating their relationship to humanity for some time, which yields the following:
‘Being human means the whole world is made for you like a cake.
Being an android means you get some cake, but you can’t eat it.
I don’t know how to flirt, so the bears at my local are teaching me.’
It’s tempting to read the android’s perceptive analysis as emblematic of structural exclusion, that ‘android’ and ‘human’ may stand in for any number of marginalised and centralised social categories. The line immediately afterward, however, is a reminder that, equally, this is a poem about a robot looking for dating lessons. ‘Teen Spies’, from Yeh’s first collection, features another hypervigilant, romantically short-changed figure:
‘We kill time waiting for our lives to start
With log notes: Saw a demented corgi piss
On someone’s shoe. Shadowed DF back
To his flat. Observed a parrot sat
On someone’s head. I am past
seventeen and have never been kissed.’
The teen spy and the android both experience the world at arm’s length, absorbing all observable data, without the expertise to differentiate signal and noise. The android echoes the teen’s emotional state in their blend of decisive self-assessment and deep emotional uncertainty, asserting that ‘Everyone admires my artificial skin, but nobody wants to touch it’. Across her collections, Yeh affords much time and empathy for those whose need for connection outstrips their ability to locate or comprehend it; in sketching these ostensibly comic figures with idiosyncrasies and surprising expressions of fears, desires or dreams they come far closer to the reader than their technicolour exteriors might suggest.
Yeh’s sense of humour is at the core of The Ninjas, and much of it centres on the possibilities offered by the conventions and structures of detective fiction. Three poems in the book, each spaced seven pages apart, are numbered lists: their titles, in order, are ‘Scenes from My Life as Sherlock Holmes’, ‘Sherlock Holmes on the Trail of the Abominable Snowman’, and ‘Scenes from My Life as the Abominable Snowman’, a neat piece of role-reversal that goes unremarked within the poems themselves, which appear to be playful exercises in non-sequiturs. If there is a discernible connection between:
‘11. Overheard: squawks from the surveillance pavilion
12. Adjective meaning ‘pursuivant to fishiness’
13. I take the case with a gothic reluctance’
it is probably at the reader’s discretion. The poems themselves feel like technicolour Rorschach blots, and feature some beautiful play with music and tone – the last of the three features the lines, ‘19. Overview of Nebraska, with added narrative matter / 20. Ruh roh’ – and provide a valuable release from the creeping sadness behind many of the book’s monologues. The meta-narrative across the three poem titles, the shift in perspective from hunter to hunted, aligns with the book’s preoccupations with the arbitrariness of social roles and the protean nature of selfhood. Read alongside each other, however, a feeling of paranoia creeps in, the possibility that everything is unbearably freighted with possibly contradictory meaning – ‘18. I vanquish the wrong evil mastermind’ – the cumulative disquiet means the poems cannot be taken entirely lightly.
In the spirit of Yeh’s cultural ecumenicalism, a crucial figure among these poems may be Commander Data, the android officer from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who Yeh has identified as her favourite character in an interview on the Faber Poetry Podcast. Data is obsessed with Sherlock Holmes mysteries, even roleplaying as the detective on the ship’s immersive virtual reality simulator, the holodeck. Like Data, many of the narrators in The Ninjas struggle with their proximity to, but exclusion from, being considered human: ‘The Ghosts’ insist that ‘We don’t mean to spook you, we just want to be noticed’; ‘The Birds’ ‘want to live on the ground like people, but they can’t be arsed to make weapons’. In its array of absurd characters with relatable problems – who hasn’t wanted to ask the bears in the local how to flirt? – The Ninjas follows Data’s lead, a clownish means of prompting real existential unease.
Despite this inclination toward the narrative possibilities of painting in primary colours, the language of nightmare is never far beneath the surface of The Ninjas. ‘The Body in the Library’ begins as a light-hearted meander through Agatha Christie-esque murder-mystery tropes – ‘There is a foreigner with dark hair and a secret / Who says Eet ees not me! when he is questioned’ – but ends with a deft critique of the pleasures of the genre, starting by rendering the detective himself as ‘a metaphor’:
‘like the end of a story
Or its aftermath: the part that doesn’t get written,
Four years later, when the case has been closed
And the bodies have been forgotten – how the dead
We have failed to keep remembering are alone.’
The poem seems to mediate between the book’s genuine delight in genre conventions and how they shape perceptions of violent deaths in reality. The poem sheds its playful bravado in its closing lines, as it confronts the implications of participating in a literary sub-culture centred around murder – often of women, as the poem notes: ‘She has a date with the killer. She just doesn’t know it’ – and comprised of narratives in which the dead are often set-dressing for the duel between detective and murderer. Throughout The Ninjas, Yeh assigns solitude or loneliness to sympathetic characters whose ability to know and represent themselves has been forced into doubt. Affording it to the forgotten dead of murder mystery novels is a powerful self-critique, a recognition that, for all their play with generic convention, there may a grim cultural animus behind how they render reality into fiction. Perhaps the detective, in their aptitude for removing masks, is the perfect antagonist in an oeuvre so full of them.
* * *
The anxiety on which ‘The Body in the Library’ comes to rest feels like a prototype of what would appear in Yeh’s most recent collection, Discipline. On the surface, the book carries what might be thought of as Yeh’s trademarks: the Great Detective makes an appearance in ‘Scenes from Sherlock Holmes and the Pearl of Death’; there is a poem in the voice of a ‘Pacific Pocket Mouse’; the co-stars of ‘The Detectives’ bear a striking resemblance to those of the monster-hunter soap opera Supernatural. Throughout the book, however, is a sense that a full aesthetic revolution has been completed since Marabou, as though the rules that governed or generated those earlier poems have carried over, their emotional situations more detailed and subtly shaded, the stakes often far graver.
A recurring feature of persona poems in The Ninjas, for example, was the ‘if… then’ constructions that delineated the bizarre rules of their consciousnesses and societies:
‘If a robot crosses your path, it means your grandmother just died’ (‘The Robots’)
‘If I think hard enough about anything, my hair starts to curl’ (‘On Being an Android’)
‘If they spy a goat they try to confuse it by flying backwards in slow-motion’ (‘The Birds’)
The lines’ dream-logic and proper grammar lend them the air of being procedurally generated, like attempts to imitate causal understanding in artificial intelligences. Where The Ninjas is populated by quasi-human subjects attempting to achieve humanity, however, Discipline features fully human subjects whose humanity is denigrated or erased. Here is the opening stanza to ‘A Short History of Migration’:
‘We boarded a seashell to ride across the waves.
The mythology of our passage involved dirt, sharks, a zeppelin, and wires.
We ate the same meal seventeen days in a row (pancakes).
We learned to say yes, please in four different languages.’
The poem invokes the clichés of immigration and assimilation narratives – later, the speakers assert that ‘We hindered our children with violins, bad haircuts, and diplomas’, and that ‘We kept our money close, and our feelings closer’ – but permits no identifiable real-world analogue to emerge. Arguably, it might delicately exhibit the perceived narratives regarding, rather than the actual experiences of, migrant people: what arrives on the page may be designed to satisfy the demands of the culturally centred for performances of exoticism, while permitting the author to continue their imaginative work unhindered. In either case, a slight shift has occurred in Yeh’s work: the speakers in ‘A Short History of Migration’ are not learning the rules of a secret cabal of ninjas or witches, but something identifiable as a modern capitalist society, in which ‘We learned about sturgeon, washing machines, ennui, and fake tan’. In Discipline, the idealised milieux of nobility and the stylised communities of popular fiction make way for something much closer to the texture of reality.
This shift is also observable in the poems’ choice of biographical-historical subjects; the refined subjects of fine art in Marabou are replaced by contemporary artists, most visibly the avant-garde artists and drag performers Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias. Nomi collaborated with David Bowie and was an early casualty of the AIDS pandemic in 1983, Arias is still an active creator and performer, and maintains a popular Instagram profile; a far cry from Sargent and Van Dyck. As Sarah Howe notes in interview with Yeh, the poet’s ekphrastic habits have shifted from the Old Masters to contemporary art installations, from the static image in the gallery to the three-dimensional space. Though Yeh suggested this was an accident of what was in her ambit at the time of writing, it holds water as a metaphor for how her practice has changed between Marabou and Discipline. The opening poem in the latest book is ‘A Short History of Style’, subtitled ‘Joey Arias at Jackie 60, New York 1997’. The central dynamic here seems to be between the roving, critical eye of the narrator and the all-but-silent subject; there is something of David Lynch’s lush cinematography in the speaker’s meticulous observation (perhaps surveillance), and its shades of nightmare, barely concealed threat:
‘The disposition of her arms
Is a case of
Nothing ventured, nothing
Gained. Her violet ear
Makes sense if
Something wicked is
Being said. The angle
Of her nose is a challenge,
A crime against nature. Her
Throat a fine line.’
Yeh capitalises the first word in each line in every poem, but here the somewhat unfashionable formatting amplifies the speaker’s archness, their aloofness that leaves a disquieting distance between the observed woman as aesthetic object and as human agent, between the poem’s ‘fine line’ and the mark across the throat. The poem concludes:
In her voice like a rusty key
Turned. A hundred
Nights blurred together
Like an ink blot
Smeared – her long fall
Of hair saying No no no.
This passage is a small masterclass in how a carefully placed line-break can summon an image then alter it radically in one smooth motion: the ink blot, then the ink blot smeared; a physical fall that becomes part of the model’s body. It is also a masterclass in how artful language can aestheticize an expression of pain. A ‘catch’ in the voice may be a skilful performance or sadness struggling to be heard, and the fact that the subject’s only utterance is through her hair is its own kind of nightmare, prioritising the viewer’s assumptions over the subject’s interiority. The title ‘A Short History of Style’, and its position at the very front of the collection, should flag up to the reader the uneasy relationship the poem, and book, depict between surface and substance, the unreliability or even malice that might animate the imposition of meaning onto what we are about to observe.
There are similar dynamics at work a few pages later in the title poem, which likewise features a female figure, this time with moving images literally superimposed onto her body:
‘The shape of a deer
Projected on a woman’s dress […]
The reverse: a blank surface
Painted over – another girl,
Besides this, and ‘A Short History of Violence’, in which an unnamed male figure flees from an unspecified, but implicitly fatal, threat, there are few poems in Discipline that aim for such a powerful sense of dread – specifically in the form of the physical or figurative erasure of self – and most of them in the book’s opening pages. It is as though, having established the presence and proximity of these existential threats, the book is content to leave them hovering in the wings, the reader primed to identify them in the recurring notes of unease and uncertainty in the poems that follow.
* * *
This habit of planting unease in unlikely places is perhaps best exemplified by ‘Pacific Pocket Mouse’, named after the smallest mouse in North America. (It may well be a literary relative of the ‘robo-dwarf hamster’, or Roborovski hamster, the smallest breed in the world, which appears in ‘The Robots’ in The Ninjas.) ‘Pacific Pocket Mouse’ is the closest Discipline gets to the cartoony monologues of her previous collection, but these surface similarities only highlight the poems’ fundamental differences. Here, the poem begins in familiar fashion, a cutesy narrator with a sympathetic problem:
‘It isn’t easy being so small that your head is the size of a marble
Rolling across the floor please don’t step on me my tiny paws
Are digging a tunnel the size of your thumb (it’s called a burrow
There is nothing uncharacteristically strange about these opening lines, aside from the excellent comic/bathetic timing in the last line-break. At best, one might argue that this is the heaviest Yeh has ever leant on this aesthetic, though one might ask, in her own words, to what end? The next lines open some unexpected possibilities:
‘even though I’m small I have rights
Like the right to keep any nuts I find like the way I like
To go out at night and stuff my face with seeds’
It’s a blink-and-miss-it phrase before the narrator resumes their mousiness, but the poem has introduced not only the concept of rodent civil liberties but the implication that they are under threat. Also implicit here, of course, is that the mouse’s interest in their rights is primarily based on their freedom to consume as much as possible. That the mouse’s motivation is far from morally inspirational feels like part of the point: the protection of one’s freedoms should not be dependent on the performance of model citizenship. Most of the monologues in previous volumes have occurred in a self-contained dream-world, quotidian details like pubs and Roombas employed primarily for comic purposes; here, a world of rights and legislation is recognised and pointed towards. A couple of lines later there is an even clearer connection to real-world politics, as the mouse disputes how:
‘Even though we’re so small they call us a mischief
A harvest or horde we’re just trying to stay alive […]
Even though my voice is very small like the sound of a miniature beeper
Going off I am talking to you now mouse to mouse’
The mouse asserting their rights seeds an idea (a faceful of seeds, no less), and the pay-off might be here, in which the mouse protests the language with which living beings are framed; PM Cameron referred to refugees in Calais as a ‘swarm’ in 2015, and discourse has only deteriorated since. Maybe it’s foolish to locate a critique of authoritarian immigration policy in such a ostensibly playful poem, but as a fan of detective procedurals might suggest, the best place to look for a coded message is where a regular pattern changes, and ‘Pacific Pocket Mouse’ is a distinct shift in perspective, tone and vocabulary from the rest of the book. Its closing lines link it back into the general currency of the collection, prompted by that heartbreaking presumption of equal footing, ‘I am talking to you now mouse to mouse’:
Remember my silky fur how I don’t have a fire helmet to protect
My tiny skull how I’m still here even though you think you’re alone’
These last words are addressed directly to the reader, and made me suddenly aware of myself sitting in a comfortable spot in a world full of maligned and unprotected people. Though the line may be read completely straight – this is, after all, the smallest mouse in North America and too small to be seen – the mouse leaves a haunting impression, in the sense of asking to be remembered before they have gone, and the vague threat of constant surveillance. I may be reading some three-dimensional chess games into a poem about a talking mouse, but I think that the poem’s genius is in its plausible deniability; like ‘A Short History of Migration’, its themes are perfectly legible without giving anything away about its specific real-world referent. Perhaps the poem’s unmistakeable joy in role-playing is significance enough.
It’s certainly true that the book takes pleasure in stylised vernaculars. In ‘A Short History of Patience’ the speaker is characterised by bluesy Americana:
‘Baby, I could go out on a limb
And say the evening’s smoky eye draws near […]
I’m lonesome as a cricket in a jam jar, chirping
Till the air runs out’
‘Turn It On’, a poem inspired by a Sleater-Kinney song of the same name, tweaks that voice to the band’s mid-nineties punk rock sensibilities:
Spills from her open
Mouth, don’t you
Worry honey, left
Hand on the strings.
Is a holler
Made of fury and beer.’
In both these cases, the tone creates the poem. ‘A Short History of Patience’ opens with ‘The soft chiffon of the river as it turns / Out of view’, and ends with ‘Ryegrass spreading through the yard like an open secret. / The blue line of the horizon like an eyelid, closed.’ The roguish asides help deliver the feeling of tumbledown peacefulness, underlined with a feeling of slowly being vanished from the world. ‘Turn It On’ feels even more straightforward, beautifully capturing the heat, light and self-assurance of a punk singer in a basement show. In light of these poems, then, ‘A Monstrous Regiment of Women’ is something of an outlier. It opens:
‘My uniform was gabardine brown, with extra straps attached.
I wheedled the shit out of the target. I Mumbai’d his sorry ass
All over the pavement. Don’t believe the lies they tell.
My ornamental shrubs were planted for maximum effect
I took a bullet right in the pitta pocket.’
The poem’s vernacular is obviously hard-boiled, but doesn’t seem to abide by any standard usage, and the meaning of ‘I Mumbai’d his sorry ass’ appears mostly opaque, to this reader, at least. Referring to ‘the target’ seems to suggest a military (or paramilitary, or petty criminal) operation, but ‘wheedled’? Did the narrator cajole the target into submission? It’s also unclear whether ‘ornamental shrubs’ is a metaphor, or real ornamental shrubs, deployed to sinister effect. Unlike ‘A Short History of Patience’ and ‘Turn It On’, the poem’s use of non-standard English seems to be largely for its own enjoyment, and it would be tempting to file the poem alongside Yeh’s numerous ludic spaces, like the fake book and movie reviews later in the collection, if not for the poem’s closing lines:
‘Sisters, I think our kindness will surprise them
When the time for judgement comes.’
After thirteen lines of playful, euphemistic swagger, this close is marked by its total lucidity. Perhaps ‘A Monstrous Regiment of Women’, with its Knoxian notes of feminine apocalypse, fits alongside poems from Marabou which stand at the close of one era and the beginning of another, particularly given that there are far more inferences of physical violence than almost any other poem in Yeh’s oeuvre. The line immediately prior to these, however, is ‘I manacled a sandwich and totted up the score’: even if one assigns a note of final reckoning in that ‘totted up’, the poem hardly offers enough context for its last lines to be read entirely straight. As with ‘Pacific Pocket Mouse’, these are poems that cannot easily or comfortably be assigned a clear political expression, but that does not preclude the possibility that one exists. As with ‘A Short History of Migration’, these are poems which, like the art installations which pepper the book, create a space in which meaning can be explored and constructed, rather than providing the reader with one ready-made.
One such installation closes the collection, ‘Rabbit Empire’. Written as a commission for a project curated by the poet Rachel Long, the poem, alongside work by Ross Sutherland, Jack Underwood and Caroline Bird, was spliced into David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) at an experimental screening in London. The poem, as one might expect, makes specific reference to scenes in the film, specifically the nightmarish sit-com populated by rabbit-headed humanoids which seems to exist somewhere adjacent to the film’s reality. Commissioning Yeh for a project on Lynch feels like a perfect fit: Yeh shares Lynch’s facility for leavening existential dread (and lingering threats of violence) with absurdist humour. What particularly connects ‘Rabbit Empire’, perhaps many of Yeh’s poems, to Lynch is how their accumulation of unusual images and situations can make the occasional straightforward statement deeply unsettling. These are from the second to fourth stanzas of ‘Rabbit Empire’:
‘The door to the past only opens one way,
Into a hotel room – you can’t turn it off like TV.
It’s swish to nibble on a cream cracker
While she goes about in heels like a bachelorette on speed.
At the picnic, the grass is so green we could cry.
The language of the dead sounds like static
Or a weird encyclopaedia; when the phone rings,
It’s for her. Our eyes light up in the dark.’
Beside the amphetamines, which were often prescribed to American housewives in the fifties, there’s nothing particularly outlandish in the objects which comprise these lines, drawn entirely from a domestic vocabulary. But the persistent combination of these quotidian objects with off-kilter consequences builds that unheimlich texture found in so much of Lynch’s and Yeh’s work, the feeling of déjà vu, of a dream encountered in waking life. By the end of this passage, the nonchalance with which the narrator(s?) suggests that static, perhaps from an untuned TV or telephone, resembles the dead’s preferred means of communication, is profoundly sinister. When their ‘eyes light up in the dark’, it’s hard to see things ending well for her. The poem concludes:
‘She wakes up in Kansas, trailing memories like babies.
Roses fall through the air like a sweet shop exploding.’
The nod to The Wizard of Oz is an apt place to conclude a collection that plays so heavily around the borders between rationality and irrationality, that is made primarily of dream-logic but has so much to say about being alive in this time and place. The cover image of Discipline is a photograph of the installation Cakeland by Scott Hove, an LA-based artist whose sculptures are made of cake. In an interview, Hove describes how his pieces, which incorporate fangs, horns and switchblades, ‘add psychological depth to the viewing experience and force the viewer to choose how to integrate the dark elements into the lightness of the cake’. It is tempting to adapt Marianne Moore’s maxim; Jane Yeh’s poetry is imaginary cakes with real switchblades in them.
* * *
It’s testament to the quality of Yeh’s work that writing so much still feels like scratching the surface. An essay of equal length might be written about her prosody, or how her poems use disjunction to create a deep psychological profile in an extraordinarily condensed space, or how her poems discuss social marginality without explicit narratives of marginalised people, to name a few. What stands out most to me about Yeh’s work is its generosity, or rather its un-self-centredness. It takes a serious openness of heart to be so willing to appear to ludicrous, to so consistently prioritise the playful and the culturally communal, to keep, as she demands of the poets she critiques herself, the time, energy and experience of the reader to the fore of one’s aesthetics. What Wilde understood about costumes and masks rings true here. These trappings are pleasing to the eye, and help to sell the audience on the dream; when we pay more attention to how they move, what behaviour they permit or disallow, than how they appear on the surface, even a lonesome android can move us closer to their truth.
Sophie Long interviews Jane Yeh in New Welsh Review 95 (Spring 2012)
Jane Yeh reviews Rishi Dastidar, Rebecca Watts & Roy McFarlane, Poetry London 87 (Summer 2017)
Jane Yeh reviews Patricia Lockwood & Morgan Parker, Poetry Review 107:3 (Autumn 2017)
Jane Yeh reviews Tishani Doshi & Andrew McMillan, Poetry Review 108:4 (Winter 2018)
Jane Yeh, Marabou (2005), The Ninjas (2012) & Discpline (2019) are all available from Carcanet, or your local independent bookshop.