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 directly.
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.