I have read the first section of this book, which includes the six "Russian
Letter" poems, enough times that the pages are falling out of the
book. Fortunately, some of them are online, so after the pages fall out on the
train and blow away, I will still be able to study them.
It might be that if I did not already trust him as a poet, I would not proceed
after dramatic lines like, in Russian Letter, "It is said, the past // sticks
to the present // like glue, // that we are flies //". But I do and I did, and
the rewards are many, because his directions are not limited by the
philosophical ramblings to which most might let those elegant yet angsty lines
drag them. Instead, he takes them to art, and he takes art and its color to its
thing, and context is again everything:
Nor am I Rembrandt,
master of the black
and green darkness,
the hawk's plumes
as it shrieks
down from the sky
Robert Creeley says on the back of the book,
'Swift perception of the relation between things is the hallmark of genius,'
said Aristotle --- or so Pound remarked. In these singular poems, that
relation becomes a complexly articulate play between all such things and the
names our common habit gives them.
Yes. I feel better ignoring John Ruskin, who says, "He is the greatest artist
who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of the greatest
ideas." Yau is fortunately not too worried about tackling the greatest ideas
I read Russian Letter(3) as addressing this directly:
Dear Painter of Clouds
What proof will there be
after the shopkeeper
sweeps our dust into the gutter
And yet these moments are not
anyone's banner, not something
to be waved in the wind
It's hard to stop quoting. As with other successful practitioners of
sparseness, chopping pieces into bits makes a mess of things. Yau's "Painter of
Clouds" could be Gary Snyder's Air Poet in "As for Poets" before reading
"Why I am Not a Painter".
There is a wide variety of styles in this book. People who have not read much
of Yau would be hard-pressed to identify any of the above poems and "Boris
Karloff in 'The Mummy Meets Dr. Fu Manchu'" as being penned by the same hand,
not to mention the series of Mac Low-like sestinas.
The variety of styles and techniques used brings the craft and method to the
foreground. Some of this poetry will likely frustrate those who seek to get
some sense of the poet as person peeking through the lines, but for readers
interested in the further possibilities of the art, that frustration will be a
source of interest and entertainment.